Mind and the Philosophy of Evolution
Whitehead, the Philosophic Method and Human Evolution
Jose Ayala has recently written the very best summary of the science of evolution that I have seen, for Encyclopedia Britannica 2007. It is invaluable as far as the science of evolution goes; it is a document worth having in hand. There are a number of other documents that will be valuable for this exploration as well, such as early editions of Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haekel, Henri Bergson, etc, and it will be useful to have hard copies of some of these works which are not available on the internet, for a small investment. For those who have access to Encyclopedia Britannica, you will also find this definition of philosophy, which may also be useful: Philosophy is the critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and analysis of the basic concepts employed in their expression. This is at least one good definition of what philosophy means. And another from Encyclopedia Britannica: The philosophy of nature, in particular, is the exploration of the features of natural reality, and their implications for metaphysics or a theory of reality or world view.
What are the features of natural reality that we base our general theories upon? And How do we arrive at an understanding of those features? These are subtexts of a philosophy of evolution. What do we observe in the natural world that leads us to formulate our theories and principles?
Then we come to an essential axiom of philosophy from A. N. Whitehead: The assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialists study. It moulds our type of civilization. It is important to note, I think, that in both the intuitive spiritual direction of mental development and the scientific and analytical direction of mental development, especially in the last 150 years, the idea of evolution has been very prominent and continues to be more and more prominent. It has, in fact, moulded our civilization in extraordinary ways.
The ideas of evolution were fundamental to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and his Yoga. In the publication called The Supramental Manifestation and Other Writings, there are hundreds of pages dwelling on the topic of evolution, and not just the spiritual view of evolution, but also detailed discussions of the scientific view of evolution. There are extensive commentaries on the theory of natural selection there and elsewhere in his writings.
Shortly before Sri Aurobindo was a student in London and at Cambridge, Spencer published his Synthetic Philosophy, and it became a popularly read thesis. It was published around 1859 and it was a precursor of the Origin of Species. At the time that Sri Aurobindo was there, T.H. Huxley was the President of the Royal Society. And he was publishing articles in magazines and newspapers very actively during the period of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. We will find in the writings of Spencer and Huxley many clues to Sri Aurobindos ideas, many sources of his interest. And then Bergson published Creative Evolution around 1907, and his earlier treatise on Mind and Matter around 1893, about the time that Sri Aurobindo became a professor of French in Baroda. Bergson received the Nobel Prize for his work on the philosophy of evolution in 1928. The work of Ernst Haekel was also published in the 1890s and the early 20th Century, and he is the one philosopher of evolution whose work is actually cited by Sri Aurobindo and by the Mother. These philosophers were their contemporaries both historically and intellectually.
The fact that Sri Aurobindo, the master of the Supramental Knowledge and Yoga, made the exploration of this subject a very prominent feature of his writings, and at the same time that it has been the most pervasive topic of study in biology, physics and psychology in the last century - means that for our civilization, if Whitehead is correct, this emergent understanding can be seen as the basis of our civilizations meaning, its values, and what it can become. When I posed the proposition of creating a philosophy of evolution, I meant that we have the possibility of exploring an aspect of nature, ourselves, and reality in such a way that it forms the foundation of our civilization and is understood as such.
Philosophy, according to Whitehead, is first of all the assemblage of ideas of importance. And an extraordinary aspect of human consciousness is that, throughout its history it has identified and focused on such ideas of importance, which constitute its values. By focusing on these ideas of importance it decides and selects where to put its energies. It defines and refines its project. At various stages of the psychological development of the human being we can see evidence of this pattern. The ideas of religion and ethics and law and science and the organization of human communities are evidence of this assemblage of values and the organization of society and peoples understanding around these values. The organization of civilization moves from structure to structure of commonly understood values.
When Vladimir was speaking earlier about consciousness being behind certain forms of expression, I’m sure some of us recognized the theme of phenomenology. Husserl’s work was focused on discovering the intentionality behind the expressions of things as a way of getting out of the conventional rational limitations of mind back to the original nature of things themselves. And he called this realm of possible consciousness an inter-subjective reality. This is not the inter-subjective reality of Habermas and sociology, but it is a prior inter-subjective reality. It assumes an inter-subjective ground of being from which the nature of everything emanates. Then Whitehead, in his philosophy, said that there is also an expressive side of philosophy, which is the other side of its assemblage of ideas and values. There is the assemblage of important ideas, values and truths, then there is the possibility of their creative expression. For Whitehead philosophy is the assembling and expressing in form of those things which are of most importance to us. He, among a few other modern philosophers, therefore says that poetry and philosophy are closely related. But while philosophy struggles to express the unity and interconnectedness of the ideas and realities that are most valuable, poetry at its height does exactly that, with a high degree of clarity.
As we pursue the assemblage of ideas of evolution, both scientific and intuitive, - because both the scientific and intuitive streams of evolutionary ideas have been very strong in the last hundred years, we may focus on the possibility that, as Sri Aurobindo says, these two streams must converge. The intuitive stream gives us a kind of ecstatic grasp of the unity and interconnectedness of things, but it doesn’t really tell us how the consciousness and knowledge of the creative realm transmits its forms to the phenotypes of species, how its forms are communicated and embodied in living structures from age to age. The scientific stream which tracks the incremental divergence of structures, functions and qualities doesn’t tell us anything about their relationship to the realm of values, meaning, and creative emergence or novelty. They constitute the two mysteriously corresponding realms identified by Whitehead as reality and process, and by Sri Aurobindo as Spirit and Matter.
The scientific stream, with which we are very familiar, is able to deduce from the ages of incrementally unfolding life its forms and their continuity. There is a continuum of body plans and there are actually very few, a finite number, that have been evolving for billions of years. Now that the so-called new synthesis in biology between genetics and natural selection theories has been accomplished, we can also see the genetic connectedness of all species, but that doesn’t tell us how the transitions were made from species to species. It only gives us sound evidence of the unity and interconnectedness of all species, which is now beyond question. But how nature’s processes happen to remain within the constraints of established design space and manage to find optimal solutions to the problems of survival is not known; it simply is so, and it is explained by such concepts as homeostasis, variation and natural selection.
If we follow Si Aurobindos thinking in the direction of solving the mind-body problem by the theory of the three worlds - the physical, vital, and mental, and we come to understand that these are three levels of consciousness, and they each have their characteristic forms and expressions, for example the carbon atom, the reproductive and digestive systems, and the organization of patterns of behavior, and that they are not separate but they are independent with respect to their principles and levels of energy - thus, the mind-body problem is solved by the theory of the threefold complex.
Mind emerges beyond its higher levels of rational functioning as a self-awareness of the process of the whole, and at its height it has an intuitive grasp of the duality of Purusa and Prakriti, spirit and nature, where these two apparent poles of reality and process are united. But science, so far, has not discovered this ultimate unity of form and matter, or energy and mind. Roger Penrose, the physicist, has suggested that science may evolve beyond its present methods and understand more about these ultimate things. But Sri Aurobindo goes even further and explains that Purusa is not actually Mind, but Self, and it involves itself in mind, life and body, from which it can become detached and liberated. Then it knows itself as pure existence. It can also rise beyond this spiritual liberation to the realization of its unity with Prakriti in its three forms of expression mind, life, and matter, and become the enlightened and liberated Master of the three worlds of form. He then explains that this higher, Supramental being is a plane of consciousness which presses down on the plane of Mind to bring forth its expressions in nature, the Mental world presses down on the Life plane to bring forth its forms of expression, and the Life world presses down on the plane of Matter to bring forth its energies and structures, thus effecting the upward dynamics of evolutionary emergence.
This is a vision that is unique to Sri Aurobindo, as far as I can tell. We find, however, that philosophers of nature such as Konrad Lorenz and Karl Popper, and a few others in the past forty years, have accepted the idea of the threefold complex, each operating according to its own principles. And Sri Aurobindo predicted in the 1920s that science would eventually recognize this threefold nature of the world. Lorenz’s Behind the Mirror was published in the 1970s and he also received the Nobel Prize in biology. It is a work of biological philosophy that we will explore in some detail. Fritz Capras philosophy of life is based on the principles of self-replication or autopoiesis, the dissipation of energy to maintain forms in an unchanging state, and cognition, which is the processing of information even at the most basic level of material life, as also recognized by Lorenz. Both Lorenz and Capra added consciousness to the triad. We can observe these ideas in Neo-Darwinian thought, generally.
For example, as Lorenz writes in 1973:
The scientist sees man as a creature who owes his qualities and functions, including his highly developed powers of cognition, to evolution, that age-long process of genesis in the course of which all organisms have come to terms with external reality, and as we say, adapt to it. This process is one of knowledge. For any adaptation to a particular circumstance of external reality presupposes that a measure of information about that circumstance has already between absorbed.
Today the field of biological evolution is very closely related to the field of information technology. And the behavior of genes is interpreted in terms of information theory. This perception of Sri Aurobindo of the threefold lower Prakriti is therefore being widely accepted today, in fact. If we begin to assemble the early Darwinian ideas and the early intuitive, spiritual ideas of evolution, and follow their development from the early to the mid-Twentieth Century, and then observe their development in the latter 20th century up to the present, and allow that field of development of ideas to organize itself in our consciousness, we may realize this to be the most important way of understanding reality yet to have emerged in human consciousness. And if it begins to inspire us, and we begin to resonate with that grasp of the nature of reality, we may approach Sri Aurobindo’s idea that human beings can become participants in the evolutionary process, and begin to interpret our own energies and actions as such an active participation in the most fundamental reality so that life begins to be very consciously the process of evolution itself, and not just an understanding that there is such a process. At some point we should expect there to emerge another way of perceiving and energizing our reality which is evolutionary.
My proposition is that a philosophy of evolution can emerge in which a philosophic understanding and intention discovers the way to an active participation in the creative evolution of consciousness and becomes the basis of a more meaningful and enlightened civilization. As Whitehead suggested, and as Sri Aurobindo demonstrated, this can be a very important and meaningful process. If we begin to approach a philosophic comprehension of the total mind-field regarding evolution, we lay the foundation for a movement in civilization that can be the basis for another consciousness. It is an exploration that has been suggested to us. The theme of Sri Aurobindos teaching is the possibility of a Gnostic consciousness which is not spiritual, it is not material, it is integral. We have a science of evolution and a religion of evolution but not yet a philosophy of evolution. It has to be created.
Daniel Dennett, who is the foremost philosopher of evolution today, wrote:A proper application of Darwinian thinking suggests that if we survive our currently self-induced environmental crisis, our capacity to comprehend will continue to grow by increments that are now incomprehensible to us. This, he says, Darwinian thinking suggests - capacities which are now incomprehensible to us. To take another empirical-philosophical point of view, Whitehead said in 1938: This planet or this nebula in which our sun is placed may be advancing toward a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim future, mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer contracted three dimensional universe from which the nobler wider existence has emerged. That nobler wider existence is a moral and spiritual concept. It’s a philosophic notion. For both the materialist and the spiritualist the idea of evolution is now a scientific and philosophic concept that has the potential and promise of leading and progressing in our consciousness, in our lives and civilization, towards a truer, freer, more perfect embodiment of consciousness.
Bergson and the Limits of Rational Mind
In thinking about the philosophy of evolution, it is important for us to recognize that in the Twentieth Century soon after Darwin’s theory was well digested, there started to be formulated theories of human evolution. Human evolution is primarily the evolution of the mind, mental evolution. Then the fields of anthropology and psychology really exploded. We now need to take up this thinking about the evolution of consciousness, because the human being hasn’t changed much in forty thousand years according to most physicalist biological theories. The human being is changing very gradually like everything else, and the reality of life is constant gradual change. But the last major changes in the structure of the human being seem to have taken place over a hundred thousand years ago, when the skeletal shape and musculature developed the capacity for speech. And these advances may well be reaching the limits of their viability.
Darwincalls this process of coordinated development co-evolution or the co-adaptation of parts: when one part changes the other changes automatically and not necessarily as an adaptation, but because of genetic linkages. And so, the upright walking of the human being and the new shape of the head, neck, and jaw that occurred in early humans corresponded to the enlarging of the brain cavity and to the development of the vocal apparatus. All of these changes of the structure of the human being seem to be related and suited the common development what we know now as the human being. Language development happened at about that time as well. We are speaking about the last two hundred thousand years basically, and that movement culminated about forty thousand years ago with homo sapiens sapiens. At that point the apparatus of speech, the large brain, the flexible upright spine had taken place. Two hundred thousand years is a pretty good time in evolutionary terms - a lot of things can change.
If you think about the lion and the cow, lion-ness and cow-ness and giraffe-ness, these guys came along with us relatively recently, during the later mammalian evolution. They are all pretty distinct as well. All of us guys that evolved in the last fifty million years, lets say, have a lot of similarities and yet each is quite distinct. It takes a good amount of time for a complex species to evolve. Once it does, it is pretty unique and it has carved out a niche for itself that lasts a pretty long time. Lion-ness and cow-ness also happen to work pretty well together. One eats the grass and the other eats the grass eater. Their numbers, sizes, metabolism and habitats are nicely balanced so they are able to live together in a kind of happy balance for hundreds of thousands of years.
When this kind of evolutionary thinking had been well digested around the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the human beings who were thinking about these things realized that our history and culture and way of thinking really distinguish us quite radically from the other mammal species, though in many ways we are the same. I have invited you in this course to spend some contemplative, quality time, relating to some lower level species in whom we can observe many of our traits.
In many ways we are closely connected to that phyletic order of things to which we belong vertebrate animals, but one of the key movements in evolutionary theory which took place in the first decade of the Twentieth Century was the reflection upon the abstractness and disassociation that our knowledge creates between us and those others with whom we are closely connected. All of this knowledge that we have of species and classes and patterns of adaptation and variation and connectedness, these concepts are in themselves adequate for a certain kind of knowing, and at the same time there is another way of knowing nature that we can sometimes experience, in which we actually know the entity itself in a much more complex way. We’ve used the example of the dog and the horse whose emotions we become sensitive to and whose intelligence we begin to appreciate. We are amazed sometimes by the uniqueness and wonder that are embodied in another species, not to mention in other members of our own species whose uniqueness is unbounded, whose differences and therefore uniqueness is infinite. But here we come up against a limitation in our thinking, which tends to understand wholes. This kind of reflection leads to a certain kind of epistemological understanding. We come to realize that we think in terms of stable eternal unchanging entities: the lion, the cow, human psychology, this pattern and that pattern. We make just enough observations to be able to generalize, and then we know something.
That kind of knowledge enables us to accomplish certain things, no doubt. It enables us to breed better strains of cows and rice. It enables us to recognize and treat certain kinds of diseases and abnormalities. It enables us to understand a phenomenon like language, in this way, or a phenomenon like sight in this way, scientifically. We know that the faculty of sight has evolved independently in forty different phyletic lines. Sight is omnipresent in the animal world, from the paramecium to the human being sight is omnipresent. In human beings, language is omnipresent. All human beings, whatever their cultural origins and time period in history, have developed this most extraordinary thing called language, which we can understand and describe incrementally in the way Vladimir has been describing it to us in his course. This linguistic science is very thorough and true.
But, compare that understanding with the phenomenon of language itself, this phenomenon that occurs universally in the human species that enables communication to be understood, to work. But not only is it its utility, it’s what it is that is so remarkable. There is nothing else like language. It is a power of consciousness. There is of course also nothing else like a giraffe or a lion. The evolution of these entities has undoubtedly followed a certain line of process, so natural selection works incredibly well, and it also goes on in language development. But language is so extraordinarily different from anything we know of that’s happening in the structures of the body, the cells of the body, in the neurons, its like a different world. Our mind sails along on this track of generalization, and so we create a science of language just like we create a science of mammals and plants and other classes and orders of things, and we use them effectively for our purposes - these sciences that we create. And we forget the extraordinary uniqueness of language itself. Something strange happens. We lose contact with the existential quality of the thing itself. It becomes reduced to formulas, and the mental formulations take on the quality of reality. Then we believe that we are actually speaking about language, or about the evolution of a species.
This awareness struck philosophers first, around 1910. And I have just recently discovered that probably the most germinal philosophical discovery of this sort took place in the mind of Henri Bergson. From his ideas grew a wide range of explorations of consciousness. Many fields developed along the lines that he began to explore. Not that he can be given credit for all those things, but there was a mind there that penetrated this barrier of rational adequacy that had evolved over the past two thousand, or 50,000 years, or so, quite happily. He realized what was happening; he realized it and stated it and attempted to move beyond the limitations of the rational scientific way of speaking and thinking.
I gave you a handout taken from the last section of the last chapter of his book called Creative Evolution (1907/1911). I strongly encourage you to read that excerpt, even though the language is philosophical and based upon an understanding of four to five hundred years of philosophical thought, which is a continuous steam of thinking from Descartes to Hume, to Kant, Shelling, Nietzche, Huserl, and the whole western philosophical development is in the background of what he says. But he just picks out certain key ideas in this development of thought in order to illustrate their limitations.
He notices, with remarkable originality, that the fundamental problem of the rational mind, in coming to terms with the world in which it is grounded, is a certain perception of time. He traces this idea all the way back to the beginnings of philosophy and in that time, in the beginnings of traditional philosophy, there are many similarities between eastern and western philosophical thinking, actually. He shows in a very systematic way how our tendency, the rational minds tendency, is to think like film thinks. We observe a sequence of events and we capture a certain frame, a certain image which represents to us that process that we observe, and we hold on to that and consider that unit the thing, the reality.
You can see this especially in Aristotle, where the whole philosophy of time and space, and evolution and psychology, everything is treated in terms of two principles, form and matter. The form is the thing we know, and matter is the thing that is changing all the time and making the forms. The Greeks determined that the form is the essence. So when we know about, lets say Greek civilization, - the period of Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and so on - we know that Plato represents a certain amazing compendium of philosophical thinking that has influenced our civilization every day, and year, during every epoch. We know that Alexander began this movement of empire and we are still living with it and its effects, moving through several civilizations. This knowledge is wonderful.
Now, what do we really know about Alexander’s conquests and the spirit with which he led and organized, and the impact that spirit and power had on succeeding generations in terms of agriculture, language, philosophy, or anything else? What do we really know about any of that? We don’t really know very much about it. We have a capacity for generalizing. It serves us well for certain purposes. But it doesn’t give us real, intimate knowledge of the temporal movement. It gives us a cinematic graphical frame, which represents the temporal movement. We are engaged now in time. This time-space continuum that brings us back here every week and has us listening right now and speaking, this energy happening right now that is formulating a certain view of history, and a certain philosophy of understanding, an epistemology, this understanding is taking place in a specific space-time continuum, and you are going to capture a few ideas and phrases and take them with you.
When you read Bergson you will see the same ideas and phrases that will reinforce a certain understanding grounded in a certain kind of time consciousness, a kind of temporal consciousness that we have. Our consciousness is limited by a certain way of understanding time. We find it very easy and convenient to measure time in an artificial way, in minutes, hours and days and we think things are happening in those times and frames, but actually these things continue to happen all the time. I continue thinking about these things and it’s one continuous thinking process that I have tuned into with the help of Bergson and Nietzsche, and Spinoza, and Aristotle. Bergson said, and he is known mainly for this, that the way reality actually unfolds, the reality of the world, is that each of these things we think about in terms of ideas and forms takes place in a kind of time that endures. It is an enduring, which actually happens. This that we are doing now has a duration; the kind of understanding we will eventually reach has a duration. The kind of energy that was present when the species first began that we are most familiar with, over fifty million years ago, evolved during a specific span of time. It has had a specific duration. It has endured.
The picture that Darwin has shown us is of a descent of species that has taken place over a time period of three billion years, and every moment of that time is related to every other moment. The genetic development of species in their vast interconnectedness could only happen as a result of exactly the amount of time that it took for those things to happen. (Sri Aurobindo in Savitri speaks about time as the will of the Divine.) Bergson asks us to think about the possibility of knowing things directly in terms of their own duration: To know things by putting ourselves in the stream of actual time. As an experiment, we can put ourselves in relation to a person or animal, - not for the sake of repeating and reproducing the common understanding that we have of each other already, the knowledge that we have, - and put ourselves in a relation to a dog, a cat or a bird or a forest, with the idea that we might enter into the stream of time that is the duration of that entity. Bergson says many amazing things about the possibility of such knowing. He calls it intuition, and says that there must be a physical intuition, and a vital intuition, and a mental intuition, and a supraconscious intuition. If we could enter into the latter we could replace our rational mode of knowing with a knowing of being. Then we would forget about our grand reified images of how things are and we would know exactly how things are in themselves. He shows how Kant and Spinoza were close to this discovery but missed the track just a bit. He explains very clearly how Plato and Aristotle came to their philosophy of forms, which makes good sense and leads to a metaphysical way of understanding things, but they set us out on a long road that we now must leave behind.
He says, ‘On the flux itself of duration science neither would nor could lay hold.’ Scientific thinking cannot lay hold of the actual flux of duration. It requires another knowing, one that is natural to us. We are grounded in the physical, the vital, and the mental, so we can enter into that way of knowing naturally. We will begin to see many similarities and connections between the ideas of Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser and Martin Heidegger with regard to this notion of intuition and time-consciousness. It is extraordinary how many streams of human advancement grew out of these fundamental perceptions. So, Bergson says,
‘This second kind of knowledge would have set the cinematico-graphical method aside. It would have called upon the mind to renounce its most cherished habits. It is within becoming that it would have transported us by an effort of sympathy. We should no longer be asking where a moving body will be, what shape a system will take, through what state a change will pass at a given moment, the moments of time which are only arrests of our attention. Time itself doesn;t stop, we don’t stop changing, change doesn’t stop happening, just because we hit upon an idea at a certain point. The moments of time would no longer exist.’ The moments of time would no longer exist, - time doesn’t have moments, we have moments.
So, Gebser, in the forties writes his book, The Ever Present Origin (1950), the whole vision of which he attributed to Sri Aurobindo, subsequently, when he had read his work and come to India and the Ashram. He has written a psychological interpretation of the evolution of human consciousness, a psychological interpretation based upon time perception. He too came to understand that the integral consciousness, the new mutation, will be characterized primarily by a change in the way that we perceive time. He shows how the whole Twentieth Century in its art, science, philosophy, and psychology is based upon a shifting perception of time. Bergson says, then, ‘It is the flow of time, it is the very flux of the real that we should be trying to follow. The first kind of knowledge, the rational, has the advantage of enabling us to foresee the future and of making us in some measure masters of events. In return, it retains of the moving reality only eventual immobilities, that is to say views taken of it by our mind. The other knowledge, if it is possible, is practically useless. It will not extend our empire over nature. It will even go against certain natural aspirations of the intellect. But if it succeeds, it is reality itself that it will hold in a firm and final embrace. Not only may we thus complete the intellect and its knowledge of matter by accustoming it to install itself within the moving, but by developing also another faculty, complimentary to the intellect, we may open a perspective on the other half of the real. For as soon as we are confronted with true duration we see that it means creation. If that which is being unmade endures, it can only be because it is inseparably bound to what is making itself. Thus will appear the necessity of the continual growth of the universe. I should say, of a life of the real. And thus will be seen in a new light, the life which we find on the surface of our planet, a life directed the same way as that of the universe, an inverse of materiality. To intellect in short there will be added intuition.’
(And then, Rupert Sheldrake writes a book in 1995 called The Presence of the Past, a book about biological evolution. It’s for sale in all the bookstores here and in Pondicherry, since this new publishing house in India has taken all the popular New Age books and published local editions. Sheldrake has given a very interesting synthesis of philosophy and biology in this book, very similar to what I’m trying to do here.)
Now, there are a couple of things for us to notice. As a result of this shift which began around the first decade of the Twentieth Century there grew up the whole field of anthropology and the study of mind as an evolutionary phenomenon. In Gebser, for example, we get the idea that there was a period of human evolution characterized by a kind of mind he calls the archaic, and then a kind of mind he calls the magical, and then the mythical, the rational, and ultimately the emergence of a new kind of mind he calls the integral. If we read The Life Divine, we see Sri Aurobindo speaking about exactly the same stages of the evolution of mind, especially in the chapter called ‘Man and the Evolution’. Then we have another stream of thinking called phenomenology, which is based upon the idea for which Heidegger deserves the credit primarily, in his book titled Being and Time, of the necessity of giving up the way of thinking that is logical and rational and learning to think being as such. This is a shift from epistemology to ontology, from the philosophy of how we know to the philosophy of what is.
We will see that in the Twentieth Century there is one major movement of philosophy that represents this shift from epistemology, which characterized the philosophy of the seventeenth, and eighteenth, and nineteenth century, to ontology: what is, not what do we think, know, understand, why do we think the way we do, what conditions our way of thinking but, what is, what is reality. We can know; it is not true that we have to impose an interpretation on everything and call that knowledge. We can actually know things directly, wholly, holistically, so the whole movement of psychology in the Twentieth Century and the discovery of the unconscious and its relationship to the conscious and the superconscious is about coming to terms with our groundedness in all the levels of reality and getting out of this idea of being on the surface of everything and knowing how to manipulate it. All of these developments in human thinking and being stem from certain fundamental perceptions, a certain grasp. Heidegger had a certain grasp of reality that enabled him to shake the foundations of western philosophy to the root. Sri Aurobindo had a certain grasp of reality that enabled him to push the evolution of consciousness in another direction. Freud had a grasp of reality that enabled him to overturn the scales of values and judgments and understanding what the human being is. Just to emphasize the extraordinary quality of Bergson’s thinking, we shall review a few selections toward the end of his book.
His thinking leading up to these observations is quite detailed and interesting to follow and then he comes to this: ‘If our analysis is correct, it is consciousness, or rather supra-consciousness, that is at the origin of life. Consciousness, or supra-consciousness, is the name for the rocket whose extinguished fragments fall back as matter; consciousness, again, is the name for that which subsists of the rocket itself, passing through the fragments and lighting them up into organisms. But this consciousness, which is a need of creation, is made manifest to itself only where creation is possible. The whole history of life until man has been that of the effort of consciousness to raise matter, and of the more or less complete overwhelming of consciousness by the matter which has fallen back on it. The enterprise was paradoxical, if, indeed, we may speak here otherwise than by metaphor of enterprise and of effort. It was to create with matter, which is necessity itself, an instrument of freedom, to make a machine which should triumph over mechanism, and to use the determinism of nature to pass through the meshes of the net which this very determinism had spread. Everywhere but in man, consciousness has had to come to a stand; in man alone it has kept on its way. Man, then, continues the vital movement indefinitely, although he does not draw along with him all that life carries in itself. On other lines of evolution there have traveled other tendencies which life implied, and of which, since everything interpenetrates, man has, doubtless, kept something, but of which he has kept only very little. It is as if a vague and formless being, whom we may call, as we will, man or superman, had sought to realize himself, and had succeeded only by abandoning a part of himself on the way. The losses are represented by the rest of the animal world, and even by the vegetable world, at least in what these have that is positive and above the accidents of evolution.’
This is early Twentieth Century, post Nietzschean, scientific metaphysical theological inspiration catching a glimpse of the totality. Sri Aurobindo takes all of these ideas to their higher range but they are the same ideas.
Bergson: ‘These fleeting intuitions, which light up their object only at distant intervals, philosophy ought to seize, first to sustain them, then to expand them and so unite them together. The more it advances in this work, the more will it perceive that intuition is mind itself, and in a certain sense, life itself: the intellect has been cut out of it by a process resembling that which has generated matter. Thus is revealed the unity of the spiritual life. We recognize it only when we place ourselves in intuition in order to go from intuition to the intellect, for from the intellect we shall never pass to intuition. Philosophy introduces us thus into the spiritual life. And it shows us at the same time the relation of the life of the spirit to that of the body. Life as a whole, from the initial impulsion that thrust it into the world, will appear as a wave which rises, and which is opposed by the descending movement of matter.’
Sri Aurobindo goes beyond this intuitive inspiration of Bergson, in fact, and shows us that intuition is merely the lower rung of a more powerful Supramental plane of consciousness. In order to appreciate this for what it is we have to step out of our customary framework of metaphors in the Sri Aurobindo School of thinking; we have to step out because we find that in all of these philosophers of evolution there is an idea of ascent and descent, all of them have it, from Darwin up to the present time. The way they formulate their systems is unique to each of them, this idea of matter descending and consciousness rising is merely the metaphor that Bergson grasped in order to convey his vision that spirit and matter are co-evolving. And his vision was remarkable.
‘On the other hand, this rising wave is consciousness, and, like all consciousness, it includes potentialities without number, which interpenetrate and to which consequently neither the category of unity nor that of multiplicity is appropriate, made as they both are for inert matter. Our concept of unity and of multiplicity is based upon a certain kind of physical consciousness. The matter that it bears along with it, and in the interstices in which it inserts itself, alone can divide it, this matter alone can divide consciousness into distinct individualities.’
This concept of individualization is what characterizes this stage of human evolution, whether you think of it in terms of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, or Jung’s, or Gebser’s, etc. It is there in the idea that species become more and more individualized; the more complex they become, the more conscious and individualized they become in relation to other species. ‘Finally, consciousness is essentially free, it is freedom itself. It cannot pass through matter without settling on it, without adapting itself to it. Later on we find the idea that it is actually already in it from the first. But then the idea of consciousness emerging in matter can also easily be seen as a relationship between necessity and freedom, resulting in form and change and the particular coincidence of form and change: matter and spirit equals form and change.’
Finally, said Bergson, consciousness is essentially free; it is freedom itself; but it cannot pass through matter without settling on it, without adapting itself to it. All the living hold together and all yield to the same tremendous push.
Now, we must have this question, when we look back over evolution and we realize that we cannot understand anything really, but what we do understand is that it has moved continuously for three billion years and is still moving, even though it appears that it isn’t moving most of the time. Yet, and because we can look back at the genetic record and the geological and fossil record, we know that it is moving. We have to ask ourselves, What is moving? It never stays put. 99.9% of species that have ever existed are extinct today. Many more that exist today are becoming extinct daily, and our own extinction is eminent, but evolution just keeps on moving. So we have to ask the question, What is it that is moving? Then, our friend Bergson takes the big leap.
‘All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.’
There it is: 1907.
Perhaps we can’t understand exactly what he means when he says that we can’t move from the rational to the intuitive consciousness. But that’s not important. Its only when we engage with a philosopher intimately that we can grasp what he means. This is the wonder of sight, and of philosophy, and of language. Creativity comes to a level of maximization of potential: a work of art, a musical composition, a work of philosophy, a poem has a meaning and is a product of a consciousness that is essentially itself. We can speculate, but we can also move into Sri Aurobindo’s understanding. In Sri Aurobindo’s psychology the intuitive mind is not something that happens inside our head at all; it is a plane of reality like life and matter, and that plane of reality, that intuitive plane is a sub-plane of the Overmind, and reality is condensing itself into more and more individualized units from that plane of pure principle where everything is known by everything else. Obviously you cannot move from rational mind to that without a big evolutionary change. I think the hint that Bergson, Gebser, Heidegger caught, and what Sri Aurobindo really knew, is that a change of consciousness is what’s required, and it can’t happen without silencing completely the mind. That other consciousness is not mental.
Human evolution means: Moving beyond the human. Philosophy’s main project is the study of what it means to be a human being: the meaning of being human, especially mental, rational, conscious being. Philosophy has understood this well. Then Heidegger popped out a tract in the 50s called The End of Philosophy because he knew that this new consciousness, this direct consciousness of being itself, is also an energy of being, it is another way of being that doesn’t need rationality. Rationality is needed to understand its necessity. But then, it has to abdicate. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother both use this term quite liberally, abdication of the mind. It can only abdicate when it is really poised and knows ‘That’ for which it abdicates. In the chapter called ‘Man and the Evolution’, written in 1940, Sri Aurobindo says there is a double evolution going on. There is the evolution in the three worlds, mind, life, and body, and there is the spiritual evolution going on. For the evolution of the mind, life, and body, it is essential to take the evolution of the mind to its absolute limit. While at the same time the spiritual evolution has always been going on within the threefold complex, and it can step out at any point and realize the Absolute, the spiritual truth. But, for it to manifest itself in the threefold evolution it can’t do that. It can only temporarily step out to get some leverage. Then it is back in; it is an in and out, up and down sort of process, the double evolutionary path.
He carries this way of thinking into the road. Bergson is catching a glimpse of the path, and Sri Aurobindo is going full blast on the road, especially in 1940. He added fourteen new chapters to The Life Divine in 1939-40 and revised a lot of the rest of it. In 1944 he was still writing in the margins. The fact that his book was published in the middle of the forties in India and New York and by the fifties was pretty well known around the world is another amazing phenomenon in the life of Sri Aurobindo. If you notice, in the last fourteen chapters, many of them have the word evolution in the titles. This is the theme that he is pumping with every ounce of energy he was able to bring down from that higher consciousness. So were Whitehead, Bergson, and Gebser; there were many along the way around the forties, fifties, and sixties, and Konrad Lorenz in 1970 tuned into the universal thought process of evolution. Evolution is now thinking. Sri Aurobindo said that evolution itself would evolve. Evolution, as the Huxleys said in 1890-1900, and Dobzhansky said in the 1960s, is now mental, it is not biological anymore. The biological evolution is just pulled along; where it is really happening is in the mind, in the culture, in the systems. Sri Aurobindo says the same thing. Once the spiritual evolution takes place, he says, then all the rest can be elevated to another type. And yes, there is a necessity, he says, to step out completely from the rational pattern and enter into the silence and emptiness, but with a firm hold on the flame. It is not the old stepping out into the ultimate emptiness. So that was his yogic movement based upon this understanding, taken to its limits.
Konrad Lorenz and the Roots of Cognition
What I am proposing to do here, after making the shift from Darwinism to philosophy with Bergson, is to focus specifically on the work of one mind. This focus follows the discussion that came at the end of last week’s sharing and attempts to answer the question raised about the presence of consciousness and the foundation of consciousness in lower forms of life. Konrad Lorenz did a very good job of putting the higher ranges of human understanding back in touch with the lower forms of life and finding the origins of consciousness in matter. That has been very much the project of our age. From Nietzsche, to Bergson, to Sri Aurobindo and the quantum physicists and biologists, the project is really very much a project of putting consciousness back into matter, and reconnecting consciousness with its origins.
The philosophical project, as I have mentioned more than once, has for a long while now been defining the rational frame. Human understanding is abstract, representational, and able to know everything as such. But, all of that which we know is actually a frame of what is, a pictographic frame, or a verbal frame, or a systematic frame, and so what has been learned through the last hundred years about consciousness is that it is not the frame, but what it knows is reduced to the frame. So, when Heidegger declared the end of philosophy he was addressing this idea that now everything has been reduced to the reserves of energy, the reserves of consciousness, the virtualization of existence is complete and it is a very destructive culmination. Technology is the culmination of this mental development and everything is reduced to the formulas of technology. And so, we know everything quantitatively, we know what it is, where it is, how much there is, and what can be done with it, what the potentials are, where they came from, where everything fits with everything else. We know everything now in terms of this abstract formulaic knowledge. And it amounts to a crisis. The project of philosophy in the Twentieth Century from Bergson to the present, following Nietzsche’s inspiration, has been to define this frame and its limits, the limitations of this human understanding, and the necessity of turning it all upside down and reconnecting with the experiential, living and present reality. Lorenz goes very far in this direction and begins to discover the roots of consciousness in the simplest structures. He declares that all of evolution is a process of learning; that cognition is the basic process of evolution. And he demonstrates this quite well. He also brings us up to the frame, so we can ask this question again.
We will learn from Konrad Lorenz that what Vladimir was explaining to us earlier this afternoon is really the way we learn to use language meaningfully. It’s called exploratory behavior. When you’re in front of something you don’t understand really, you explore it. You chew on it, you kick it around, you paw at it and try to eat it, and you figure out something about it. And it’s play. One of the most sophisticated philosophical minds in the world today, who recently died unfortunately, at not too old of an age, - I think he was seventy-five or so, Jacques Derrida - said that the real human function is play. Our highest recourse, our way to be most fully, is to play, and learning is play, literature is play, philosophy is play, art is play, theater is play, and life is play. We got it from our lower animal cousins.
Lorenz shows us that one of the important transitions that took place in animal evolution was when stereotypical behaviors which were originally for a purpose related to survival, began to be used for the purpose of play. A whole series of behaviors that you can observe in an animal under normal survival conditions, you can observe all together at one time in a play situation. The animal will go through all of its inherited and perfected behaviors that it uses in the wild within a few minutes of play, not for the purpose of what any of those behaviors were meant for originally, but just for the purpose of learning, experiencing, showing off and having fun.
Moving now to Konrad Lorenz’s work, we’ll read through some of these things.
The whole theory of constructivist education comes from this understanding. Lorenz called his field ethology, and the Greek root of the word is ethos. It means a habit or a way of being, a recognizable form of a people, or a person, or a society. Its ethos is its characteristic behavior. What Lorenz did was study the characteristic behaviors of thousands of species and he compared them, and analyzed them. Ethology is what he called his science. The first concept here is the root concept that Bergson also spoke about in the handout I gave you from his Creative Evolution; it is the fundamental concept of empiricism. ‘The world of objects, the material world of our experience, only takes shape through our eliminating the subjective and the contingent. What causes us to believe in the reality of things is in the last analysis the constancy with which certain external impressions recur in our experience, always simultaneously and always in the same pattern irrespective of variations in general conditions.’
Contingent or subjective influences, - if we think about the whole process of categorizing, phyla, classes, orders, and genera and so on, what is necessary for us to do is to reduce them to their common characteristics and to eliminate all of the contingencies of their existence. A contingency is something that happens but doesn’t affect anything essential. So, whether or not the animal appears at the lake side this evening, has nothing to do with the fact that the animal appears at the lake side regularly. After observing a series of phenomena, we eliminate all of the, what Aristotle called accidents, and we retain that which is constant. Lorenz describes this activity of abstracting constant properties with the verb objectivating, and its achievement by the noun, objectivation. This is obviously something that is done by the mind. It is an abstract linguistic activity of the mind. This is problematic in the end because once we have done that we no longer have the thing itself. Our experience of the thing itself is a direct contact, and our nervous system receives the vibrations of the thing itself and returns vibrations to the thing itself and enters into a ground of experience from which impressions are gathered which are abstracted as knowledge, as concepts. This is a process that Lorenz explores and describes in great detail.
The scientist sees man as a creature who owes his qualities and functions, including his highly developed powers of cognition, to evolution. Any adaptation to a particular circumstance of external reality presupposes that a measure of information about that circumstance has already been absorbed. He starts with the example of a gastropod, a snail, and he analyzes how this snail wrinkles itself up and stretches itself out, in which directions, in order to move in which direction, and he comes to the conclusion that the snail receives input, heat, moisture, changes in the environment which shift the surface tension and enable the snail to move in a certain direction. And in that moment, he concludes that the snail has processed information about the environment. The idea that consciousness, our consciousness, evolves from the earliest one-celled organisms is based upon the idea that the earliest one-celled organisms through their level of consciousness enabled the next level of consciousness to emerge, and so on through three billion years. Each big change he calls afulguracio, a lightening flash; the major changes he calls lightening flashes, and he will show how the human being emerges as a result of synthesizing many different streams of development that were undertaken by different species. But, all of these experiments of evolution achieved relationships in the whole field, and everything that exists learned from all of those relationships. And then at some point there was a synthesis, each aspect of which can be traced back to some line of consciousness that had evolved in some other species already.
Similarly, anatomical development, morphogeny, the forms of things, produces in the organic system actual images of the outside world. ‘Even the slipper animalcule, the paramecium, which when it meets an obstacle first recoils slightly then swims on again in a random direction, knows something quite literally objective about its environment. Everything we know about the material world derives from our phylo-genetically evolved mechanisms for acquiring information, mechanisms infinitely more complex than those which elicit the avoidance response of the paramecium. The method of the genome, (which we have read plenty about, the bio-chemical level of species) which evolves, perpetually making experiments, matching their results against reality and retaining what is fittest, differs from that adopted by man in his scientific quest for knowledge in only one respect, and that not a vital one. Namely, that the genome learns only from its successes, whereas man learns also from his failures. The acquisition and storage of relevant information is as basic a function of all living organisms as is the absorption and storing of energy. Life is an imminently active enterprise aimed at acquiring both a fund of energy and a stock of knowledge. The possession of one being instrumental to the acquisition of the other.’
And so the behavior of animals is primarily for the sake of storing energy. In order to do it the animal is learning from its environment and when it learns it succeeds. What it learns it passes on genetically because it reproduces its kind. And if the next generation has a better understanding, a more perfect sensitivity, a longer neck or beak, then it learns something that its progenitor didn’t know and it survives a little bit better and it reproduces itself more successfully than its progenitor. At this completely unconscious level, in terms of what we call consciousness, cognition is going on at the phylo-genetic level, at the morphogenetic level, at the physical vital level, - cognition is going on. Lorenz says, ‘It strikes me as a matter of course that we should investigate both the objective physiological processes which provide men with information about the external world, (meaning human beings), and the subjective events of our own experience and knowledge. Our conviction of the unity of man as a physical entity, the human being, and an experiencing subject, soul, entitles us to draw our knowledge both from physiology and from phenomenology. An investigation of this kind must needs pursue a double aim. On the one hand, it seeks to formulate a theory of human knowledge based on biological and phylo-genetic information, and on the other to produce a picture of the human being, which matches this theory of knowledge. This means making the human mind an object of scientific investigation.’
So that is what we are doing, and that is what Sri Aurobindo said would be one of the two ways for human beings to discover that consciousness and force are the essential principles of existence: 1) either by a scientific study of the human mind equal to the scientific study of living things, or 2) by an intuitive approach. Either way, he said, we could bring the human being to an understanding that consciousness and energy are the same. The scientific mind is pursuing that understanding scientifically, by observing nature; the intuitive mind is pursuing it from the top down, reconnecting with the universal consciousness-force at the top. Either way, said Sri Aurobindo, we can arrive there. This is the scientific approach. The physiological roots of conceptual thought. I think this is extremely important to be aware of and it is not something that we see with our eyes; it requires a considerable amount of study and analysis. ‘What our sensory and nervous mechanisms, optical or auditory, convey to us is invariably the product of highly complex if totally unconscious computations which seek to abstract from the chaos of accidental sensory data those data which are constantly inherent in that trans-subjective reality which we realists assume lies behind sense data. The essential function of this unconscious reasoning lies in establishing a correlation or a constellation of certain stimulus data, which remain constant in time.’
The sensory system itself selects from experience, learns from experience what happens when it gets this close to that temperature and after a while it doesn’t go that way anymore. After a certain number of constant experiences it learns not to go that way. When that odor hits the receptors, the afferent nervous system sends the response to keep going in that direction because it has learned that that is where the ripe bananas are. The physical has incorporated through changing species and millennia, patterns of behavior that it has learned, that they have learned, and these behaviors are part of the complex, the physical, vital, mental complex. The mind is working in the physical, and in the vital, for survival through billions of years. This has always been known by the human mind. It was a very early understanding, but to substantiate it with certainty has been an obsession for at least twenty-five hundred years of the human species. The intuition was there, Aristotle had it and surely those before him had it better than him because he was already falling into the logical certainty trap. Now that we can observe species with electron microscopes and subject them to all kinds of experiments, we can find out how fast they learn and under what circumstances they learn. We can teach paramecia, and rats, and chimpanzees to do things.
‘As has been demonstrated, the visual cells on the frogs retina are united into separate groups and send their afferent neurites, (afferent means nerve tissue that receives and responds to stimuli), to one ganglion cell; the latter responds selectively to messages from the group as a whole. Each aspect of the group sends a slightly different impulse and the ganglion sort it out and arrive at the nature of the origin of that impression. One gives a signal when a dark shape passes across the retina from left to right, another when its cells register an increase or a decrease in illumination. There are even ganglia which respond only when a convex area of shadow moves in a particular direction. In the strict physiological sense, the actual stimulus is simply the light that falls on a rod or cone cell. That a convex area of shadow is moving across the retina from left to right, (probably an insect not too far away for the jump), is a message transmitted by a highly complex neuro-sensory mechanism which responds to a pattern of individual stimuli. The frog jumps and catches the fly and knows exactly the distance.’
For these kinds of recognizable patterns of behavior Lorenz coined the term key stimulus. It’s not just any kind of stimulus and response, behavioristic concept, but it’s a concept of patterns of stimulus and response behavior that are regular features of the behavior of an organism or a species. A great deal of our knowledge rests on the principle of pattern matching. But, our perception of patterns involves a process, which is the equivalent of abstraction, ‘for if messages from the visual cells in the frogs retina combine to provide information of the kind mentioned above, and if this process functions independently of the absolute size of the stimuli, we are dealing sorely with relationships and configurations, with abstractions. What is abstracted in this way are properties constantly inherent in the object. This kind of perception we call constancy phenomena. This constancy phenomenon such as color, color constancy and form constancy, have different causal origins yet all serve the purpose of enabling us to identify the objects around us as being the same.’
In philosophy in the Twentieth Century one set of concepts that has been explored repeatedly, because it is the fundamental characteristic of knowing, of the way the human mind functions, is identity and difference. We know things spontaneously in terms of their sameness and difference. And our tendency, just like the tendency of the frog, is to eliminate the difference and focus on that which is the identity, and to give it a name, and to give it a category, and to give it the status of a law if it’s a recurrent behavior. We arrive at the concept of law and generality in the same way as the frog arrives morphogenetically at its survival behavior. And we are not conscious of those extremely complex underlying transfers of energy that are happening in ourselves that enable us to suddenly perceive the identity between five thousand words written by Martin Heidegger and five thousand words written by Sri Aurobindo, and five thousand words written by Henri Bergson. But, it jumps out at us - the identities of their concepts and the differences of their expressions are processed by us in a kind of subtle audio visual pattern that is the product of a billion years of evolution. We don’t know how it happens, we just suddenly know that we become aware of it, and it corresponds to what’s there because we can check it out with each other and sure enough we all process it pretty much the same way, some a little faster and some a little more slowly perhaps, depending on training. This is an example of the leaps which happen at an unconscious level to make what we know possible. There are innumerable anecdotes like this.
‘It has happened that a calculating machine originally designed to work out compound interest surprised its inventers by showing a capacity to handle integral and differential calculus as well. Something similar is involved with constancy mechanisms of perception, which were developed under the selection pressure of the need to infallibly identify particular objects in the environment. Surprisingly these same physiological mechanisms are also able to isolate the characteristics not just of one single object but of a whole class of objects, ignoring variable contingent features found only in individual cases, and identifying the basic constant gestalt of class.’
‘That is exactly what we do when we perform complex mathematical operations or write philosophical tracts. This supreme function of constancy mechanism, (constancy mechanism means that somehow your cells, and your nervous system, are able to tell you what’s red every time it’s seen), is quite independent of rational abstraction. It is equally proper to higher animals as it is to small children, all these functions of abstraction and objectivation performed by gestalt perception. It means that you recognize a complex field of stimuli for what it is, without all the unnecessary details.’
For example, in psychology when you observe the behaviors of a certain pathology in a patient over a long period of time, you eventually come to an understanding of that behavior which is that behavior, under all of its different impulses and deprivations, efficiencies and deficiencies, and idiosyncrasies, and suddenly you get it. And you get the root of it, and you get the idea of how to treat it, and you somehow know the whole without any of its extra, unnecessary, distractions which have preoccupied you throughout many sessions of analysis.
He is speaking about when the thing itself reveals itself to you, as a result of frequent observation, and he’s tracing this phenomenon back to very simple organic behaviors where nobody can impose any preconceptions, because the animal only deals with the object. And what eventually becomes clear is that the human being can generalize without the presence of an object. This he says is the sole difference between the way the human being functions abstractly, and the way the animal functions abstractly. The animal always needs an object present to make an association; the human being doesn’t need to have an object present. And therefore it is possible to transmit knowledge to others which they can then apply in a situation when it arises, without already having seen that situation. Animals cannot do this, according to what we can observe. They can behave with knowledge based upon the experience of an object, when that object is in the field of experience and their characteristic behavior is stimulated, which is learned through experience. Whereas human culture has taken this fundamental physiological function of the mind and leaped into this plane of pure mental abstraction where, based upon experience, we can keep an object in our consciousness for a very long period time, even a lifetime, and continually develop that object which is now a mental object, that becomes a cultural artifact. And that cultural artifact conveys to others who haven’t had our experience quite a lot of information. The attempt here is to draw parallels between these behaviors, and to illustrate the evolutionary aspect of culture.
‘Perception, (by which he means sight and hearing primarily, and touch), even, appears to posses its own mechanism for storing information. I have described in detail how the process by which a gestalt or form crystallizes, emerging against a background of contingent elements, may extend over very long periods, sometimes many years. Pathologists and doctors find time and again that a recurrent pattern of individual events, such as a succession of movements or a syndrome of pathological symptoms, is only recognized as an invariable gestalt after sometimes thousands of observations. (There can undoubtedly be mistakes made at that time also.)’
What happens in such a case is remarkable enough. We obviously posses a mechanism that is capable of absorbing almost incredible numbers of individual observation records, of retaining them over long periods, and on top of all that evaluating them statistically. Now evaluating them statistically is the rational abstract function, but observing them and storing them is not. At least this is a distinction that can be made not only in the human being but at many levels. In ancient Indian psychology the term for this sub-conscious function is the chitta.
A system that can achieve this must be highly complex. Yet, it is not surprising that in spite of their many similarities to rational actions, all of these sensory and nervous processes take place in areas of our nervous system which are completely inaccessible to our consciousness and our self-observation. ‘Ratio-morphus functions, (we are talking about subconscious selection processes), are independent of abstract thought and as old as the hills, (like those which happen with the frogs sight). From the practical point of view the perceptual functions of objectivation, (that means storing an impression), and conceptualization, (which means analyzing information), are the precursors of the corresponding functions of abstract thought. (This would be primitive conceptualization. Constancy phenomena in perception are the precursors of the corresponding functions of abstract thought.) As is the case whenever preexisting systems are integrated to form a higher unity, the former are by no means rendered superfluous by the sudden emergence of the latter but constitute its preconditioned and its component parts.’
The intuitive consciousness, therefore, can’t be performed or realized by the rational mind; the rational mind is something else. The intuitive mind emerges from it. But it’s a different function all together, and when that new function emerges it implies new structures. It’s not the rational mind anymore. It has its own characteristic structures. But, if those older structures didn’t exist, hadn’t been evolved, then the new structures could not emerge. This is the bottom up perspective, the evolutionary perspective. This is not the involutionary perspective. In The Life Divine, which is going to be the focus of our last four weeks, Sri Aurobindo dwells upon this idea constantly: that the new consciousness cannot descend unless the higher mind is developed. But when it does descend it is a completely different type of functioning. The ordinary rational functioning is still there but it is altered and transformed and put in a different light, because it’s no longer the dominant power. But it doesn’t go away, it can still be used. So the Mother can say, I left my mind behind a long time ago, but every week I’m sitting here with Satprem describing in perfectly logical terms my experiences. It sounds like a contradiction. But not necessarily...
Now we come to the human mind: abstract thought, language, and culture. What evidence is there that the human mind evolves? We began to explore the question last week: What characterizes this human mind? What makes it different from other species’ minds? Has it itself evolved in the last five, or ten, or fifty thousand years? Is there evidence of that? Lorenz says, ‘It is only the development of abstract thought together with the complementary development of verbal language that enables tradition to become free of objects, for by means of independent symbols, facts and relationships can be established without the concrete presence of the objects themselves.’ Tradition, he explains, is a recognizable form of behavior in other species. Chimpanzees can communicate a tradition of tool use to their offspring, if they are in the presence of what the tool needs to be used for, and the material of the tool, and if all the circumstances come together in the right way, then the offspring can learn that under those conditions that thing can be done. But, if a behavior of that kind is isolated the next generation will not know it; it has to be a direct transmission. It is a kind of early form of tradition, which is the passing on of or the inheritance of acquired traits. The inheritance of acquired traits is what can’t happen according to Darwinian evolutionary theory, but the thing that makes the difference between highly developed minds and other organisms is that we do pass on acquired traits through exposure, through example. This is a mental function. Our behaviors do not depend upon genetic transmission. If the transmission of a behavior to subsequent generations does not require genetic transmission, if it is not part of the physical vital complex, it is a behavior that is transmitted essentially as a quality of understanding, an art, a science. These can be passed on through generations traditionally, by culture. Animals do not do that. We share abstraction with animals, but there are some characteristics we don’t share - language is one, in the way that we use it.
Lorenz identifies approximately eight different higher consciousness functions that exist in very low phylo-genetic levels of evolution. The constancy function, and insight controlled behavior, which is directed to the survival purposive solution of problems, by means of the mechanisms that convey instantaneous information. On the spot, animals can have an insight into the situation in front of them and solve a problem. The most essential of these mechanisms are for spatial orientation, of which among the higher vertebrates the most important are those of sight. Mammals first survey the situation for some time in order to apprise themselves of the structural details of their surroundings and then proceed to solve the problems posed by it at one stroke. This is very common animal behavior - insight controlled behavior, and voluntary movement in space for a purpose. Animals can move voluntarily not just by stimulus but by choice, not by external stimulus alone. There is a purposeful response. Perceptions of space and adaptability of motor activity are closely related. The reason why animals perceive space is so they can move in it purposefully. Exploratory behavior, whereby voluntary movement develops a new important function consisting in the feedback of information on the spatial parameters, by way of re-afference. So the animal explores, plays, pokes around, gets information back and decides what it’s going to do about it. Exploratory behavior is common at all levels practically of life. As a tool of imitation, voluntary movement is a prerequisite of verbal speech and therewith for the higher evolution of abstract thought. And he uses Chomsky’s examples of how language, which is similar among all subspecies of human beings, follows the same structures and processes; and he uses the example of Helen Keller who learned without any knowledge of language all about language.
The idea is that these processes of abstract thought which go on at the cellular level for the purpose of assessing, evaluating, choosing, surviving, this voluntary movement and abstract thinking which are going on at the cellular level, as Chomsky says, constitute the preexisting structures of language. So when language starts to be used, it is spatial. (With Rudolph Carnap, we may also observe that it is logical.) It is used basically in all cultures in the same way with respect to space, - verbs, nouns, and prepositions, and what we do before and after, and where we go. Most of our basic language patterns are logical spatial linguistic patterns and not just linguistic patterns. They are not separated from our fundamental, logical functioning processes, at least in their early primitive usage.
Imitationis strictly speaking not an independent cognitive process. In man the active imitation appears to be initiated by kinesthetic processes. Both humans and birds have an urge to imitate sounds and they follow this urge for its own sake without concern for its purpose. Many human beings do that too. It’s more fun than using it for a purpose; its called chatting. Now we get to transmission of tradition. The transmission of individually acquired knowledge from one generation to the next is known as tradition. Birds and lower mammals sometimes pass on knowledge of a particular object in this way, while apes can hand down certain techniques. In all these cases the transmission of knowledge is dependant on the presence of the object. Only with the evolution of abstract thought and human language does tradition, through the creation of free symbols, become independent of the object. This independence is the prerequisite of the accumulation of supra-individual knowledge and its transmission over long periods, an achievement of which only man is capable.
Now the question of cultural invariance and how cultures transmit knowledge - human cultures - is our question. Is the human mind evolving? Or are all of these human cultures more or less always the same? Do we just keep doing the same things in more or less the same ways from age to age and culture to culture? One of the images that Lorenz uses is the image of the phyletic tree where, if you look at all the animals at the top of the tree you don’t necessarily conclude that they have a common origin. If you look at all the different cultures that have existed in history, their artifacts, their languages, their religions, behaviors, and economic structures, they are all very unique in their expressions of all of these things, even though they share similar patterns. You don’t get the idea that one developed from the other. You get the idea that they all developed independently, and that’s pretty much the case. The great early civilizations that we know of, developed quite independently. So, what happens culturally from age to age, not from culture to culture, but from age to age in the vertical development of a culture? Do they all evolve in similar ways? This can be studied and has been studied. This is what Gebser has done and in the next four weeks we will look at both Gebser and Sri Aurobindo for this developmental perspective.
But the function of culture is this transmission of acquired knowledge, which enables cultures to evolve. And yes they all have evolved, and this is how they did it. Knowledge cannot be stored in any other form than in structures, whether this be the chain molecules of the ganglion cells of the brain or the letters of a textbook. Structure is adaptation in its finished form. But, if further adaptation is to take place and fresh knowledge is to be acquired, a structure must be dismantled and rebuilt at least in part. All accumulation of human knowledge as a necessary constituent of cultural being depends on the creation of firm structures. These structures need to posses a relatively high degree of invariance in order to become inheritable and to be passed down cumulatively over sustained periods of time.
All of the great cultures have these structures which have been firm for long periods of time and have enabled everybody to acquire certain values, or at least they have expressed the values that everyone values, significantly. Maybe not everyone values them but they have held together the fabric of society for long periods of time and they have undergone wars and they have undergone changes in climate and they’ve undergone migrations, but the cultures themselves have retained a level of consistency, of cultural invariance. The sum total of the information possessed by a culture residing in its habits and customs – that’s ethology - its methods of agriculture and technology that’s science - in the vocabulary and grammar of its language, and above all in its conscious learned knowledge - and elsewhere he calls this ethical norms, ethical values - has to be stored in more or less rigid structures. ‘But one must not forget that structure is adaptedness, not adaptation, knowledge already possessed, not cognition.’ Here is an interesting definition of cognition. The act of apprehending something already possessed, is not acquiring, not cognition. Adaptedness is not cognition, not acquiring knowledge. And as genetic constancy and variability - constancy on the one hand and variability on the other - identity and difference have to strike a balance in the genome of an animal or plant so it can survive, so also do the invariance and adaptability of knowledge in a particular culture have to be in balance. So, the culture has to have a certain amount of viability and flexibility, if it’s going to continue, but, it also has to have a degree of invariance that gives it consistency just like in a species.
Now ritualization is the most interesting aspect of the whole thing. ‘There is a large complex of behavior patterns, very diverse in origin but remarkably similar in function, which plays an important part in preserving the invariance of cultural tradition.’ And this ritualized behavior is present in various animal species such as in the dance of bees and the mating displays, and pawing in the cat species, and antler bashing in the deer species, where the behavior is not being used for the purposes it was originally created for but it is used as a demonstration to show that this one is the leader, or this one is only playing, or this one knows where it all is, but its going to take time for everyone to figure it all out, so we are going to dance around in this circle until everybody knows, and then we are all going to go there - but ritualized behavior is for the purpose of transmitting information. And, he says that there are remarkably extensive parallels between these processes in the phylo-genetic and the cultural fields, remarkable parallels between the way animals use ritual and the ways humans use ritual. Communication, channeling of certain behavior patterns into specific areas, for example, channeling aggressive behavior - so we have our sports events where we channel our aggressive behavior, we have our war games that we play with other countries so that they know and we know how important these things are and how good we are at them and how advanced we are. And we have marriage ceremonies which let everybody know that this means whatever it is supposed to mean even if it doesn’t mean that. And everything, this academic situation, this going through the motions of summarizing information, is a kind of ritual behavior that is undertaken in western society, especially. We can all live perfectly well without it. It’s not essential to our survival. Going to the priest every Sunday and hearing the same message over and over again for generations - this is ritual behavior. Also, sitting in front of the TV, watching the soccer game in the bar with your friends, is ritual behavior.
These are behavior patterns that reinforce our social cultural stability. If there were not a certain invariance in these things, people would fight with each other, more than they do, or they would be less satisfied with their meager incomes. The capitalist society can reinforce these rituals in order for people to be satisfied with a level of sustenance that is much lower than others who have more expensive rituals, who sail their yachts to Morocco and wear their suits in front of slot machines, and that’s their ritual, while the average guys go to the bar and watch the soccer match.
From the superficial convention of manners, - like driving on the right side of the road, unknown in some cultures - to the underlying substance of ethical attitudes and convictions, social conduct bears the mark of the age. (We are not in the bullock cart age any more guys!) And the spirit of that age imposes on man’s innate program of social conduct a pressure that increases with the development of the culture in which he lives. Why? Because the morphogenetic structures don’t change as fast as the culturally transmitted behaviors do, and the more developed these culturally transmitted behaviors become, the more difficult it is for the common behaviors to adjust to them. One of the reasons why high cultures suddenly collapse may be that a revolt breaks out against a situation in which a culture that is becoming more and more ritualized, more and more sophisticated, imposes a degree of constraint on the lower vital and physical which is felt to be increasingly intolerable, a revolt diagnosed as a decay of morals.
It may also be diagnosed as a leap forward for some, for the few, the elite. But, the elite may see that it is no longer viable the way it is, and so that decay of morals may be a necessity for a recycling of higher values. There are many ways to look at this, but what Konrad Lorenz has done, is give us a scientific picture of the evolution of behavior structures which are rooted in the cells, but which have emerged in highly sophisticated human behavior patterns in the past five thousand years or so of culture. We have subsequently overpopulated the planet and our survival is now an issue. We will see what Sri Aurobindo has to say about this. But this has been a free rendering with commentary of the book by Konrad Lorenz, Behind the Mirror (1973). What an analysis of these ideas from a spiritual point of view should show, is that these drives and the leaps in cultural values, at every stage of cultural evolution, have to be explained by something other than the mechanisms; the mechanisms don’t explain the leaps.