Is Human Consciousness Evolving?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2005

A ‘paradigm shift’ is a radical discontinuity in the way in which we humans structure our mental picture of reality. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the impact of the new cosmologies of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton upon the late 17th, but more especially the 18th, century. The educated classes of Europe were by then faced with the indisputable reality that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that universal laws of gravitation and motion governed the relationships of all heavenly bodies. Writing about 1730, Alexander Pope declared that before Newton:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

But, as this quotation also illustrates, this particular paradigm shift did far more than provide a new cosmology. It created both a new intelligentsia, based upon secular scientific and technical expertise, and a new interpretation of history. Christian theologians and philosophers lost their pre-eminent intellectual status, and ‘salvation’ ceased to be the dominant historical theme. All at once the intellectual life of Europe became focused upon the belief that history was not static or cyclical but linear – moving especially from darkness into light, led not by the churches but by secular science. The possibility of total enlightenment took hold of the educated imagination, and the modern age had arrived.

Since then there has been a succession of lesser intellectual ‘paradigm shifts’. The theory of evolution provided by Darwin in 1859 is one such, and Einstein’s theories of Relativity in the early 20th century another. These revolutionised Biology and Physics respectively. In the course of the same century, Freudian psychology completely changed our perception of human sexuality. The impacts of quantum physics and ‘big bang’ cosmology are ongoing. The process of globalisation, begun by European voyages of exploration in the 1400s, has recently accelerated with the arrival of cheap air travel, globally mobile capital, and the Internet. This process has intermingled all cultures and faiths, laying siege to the certitudes of the past.

However, the optimistic belief of the early Enlightenment that human reason could easily construct a perfect world suffered a series of shattering reverses. These began with ‘The Terror’, the orgy of blood-letting that followed the French Revolution of 1789, giving us the new and still indispensable word ‘terrorism’. Two world wars and the Holocaust had a similar impact in the 20th century. So did the ignominious failure of the Soviet Marxist system in the recent past.

The possibility of total enlightenment has also receded for many intellectuals. ‘Post-modernism’, born to some extent out of disappointment that secular utopianism led more often to hell than to heaven, now insists that we are fundamentally unable to escape from our own subjectivity: all paradigms are purely mental and therefore fictive, so (it is argued) we can never create solid intellectual foundations for our own convictions. All we have is a multiplicity of ‘stories’, no one of them capable of claiming superiority to any other.

The question of what happens to God in all of this is of critical importance for all religions. The notion that our perception of God might also require a ‘paradigm shift’ has alarmed some and enthused others. Among the latter, Anglican Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame in the 1960s stands out. Arguing that we can no longer believe in a ‘God out there’ he has influenced many in a search for ‘God within’. Among these in our own time are the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, who has in turn influenced, among many others, Church of Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman, whose book ‘Saving Christianity’ I reviewed here recently.

Adrian B Smith’s The God Shift* is a continuation of the same theme, but this time by a Catholic priest. Beginning with the observation that many are now abandoning religion and embracing ‘spirituality’ he argues that a number of factors now tend towards a profound shift in the human perception of God. This paragraph is typical:

“It is my contention … that … for too long we have overemphasised the transcendence of God at the expense of appreciating God as immanent. The former causes us to think of God as aloof from creation and ourselves as miserable sinners seeking to placate a father-God or to win the love of a tolerant God. To restore the balance by emphasising more the immanence of God will enable us to appreciate that spark of divine life within all people and cause us to treat the natural world not as a dead, soulless machine existing purely for our use but as a reflection of its creator. The lack of this sense of the Divine within ourselves causes us to lack self-esteem and seek our self-worth instead in our role in society, our possessions, our personal achievements and our sense of superiority over others. Happily, we can recognise in some current trends – the feminist, ecological and human rights movements – a reawakening to the immanence of God.”

He places approaches to Christology within a similar progressive framework, arguing that there has been a shift from ‘Top Down’ to ‘Bottom Up’ approaches, presenting these as contrasting syllogisms:

Christology from above:

God is like this and this.
Jesus is God.
Therefore Jesus is like this and this.

Christology from below:

Jesus is like this and this.
Jesus is the icon of God.
Therefore God is like this and this.

For someone like myself, not well grounded in theology, but strongly inclined towards a Christology from below, this sort of thing is interesting and useful. So is the account of the new physics, in which the conceptual frontiers between matter and energy tend to dissipate. That matter appears to be – to put it crudely – compressed energy – or rather energy behaving in a remarkable way to provide the visible world with its apparently stable atoms and molecules – is a profound shock to a simplistic perception of reality. So is the revelation that it is the relationships between sub-atomic particles that provide this stability, not the particles themselves. Matter is not a hard and simple reality but a profound mystery in itself.

Similarly, the book’s account of the emergence of ecology, establishing the interconnectedness of all life, is useful. So is the summary of the collision between the world’s great religions and the discernment that all speak of love as the highest virtue.

I was particularly struck also by the author’s perception that human hierarchies are a barrier to spiritual development, and that Jesus of Nazareth clearly lived within a non-hierarchical spiritual paradigm. This I believe to be profoundly true, and the root source of the attraction to Jesus that we find in the humblest people. It is true also that people grow and learn far more easily in a non-hierarchical context, and that this realisation appears to be a significant feature of our era.

However, does all of this mean that we humans are undergoing some kind of rapid and beneficent species evolution, an evolution in consciousness? One gathers as much from the following:

“The development of our consciousness is precisely what is new. The leap we took out of the mythical Eden from subconsciousness to self-consciousness is now being followed by a further leap to super-consciousness. We are evolving from a physical to a metaphysical vision of reality. From viewing our world as purely physical, as scientists and western religions have done, we are beginning to appreciate the presence of consciousness in all matter. The “Gaia Hypothesis” of James Lovelock that planet Earth is a single, living, self-regulating organism – is witness to this. We are moving beyond the limitations of our rational minds, beyond what we learn through our five senses, beyond the boundaries of space and time, to the exploration of inner, deeper realms. We are stretching the boundaries of our consciousness. It is at this point in our history that we are moving beyond our physical potential to explore our spiritual potential.”

In the week I first read this paragraph I learned also that suicide bombers had taken a further toll in Iraq; that two teenagers in every classroom in these islands may be self-harming due to loss of self-esteem; that a fifteen-year-old had taken her own life in Belfast, following the suicide of her boyfriend – which had in turn been caused by the killing of his sister in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident; that Arab militias in Darfur were still burning African Sudanese alive – and that the consumption of fossil fuels had reached levels that OPEC could not meet due to problems caused in the Soviet Union by a struggle for power between the industrial oligarchs and President Putin.

Most Russian young people (we learned in the same week) admire those same moneyed oligarchs almost as much as rock stars, despite their virtually certain involvement in the murder of at least fifteen journalists in Russia since 2000 – journalists who have had the temerity to investigate their links with political corruption and organised crime.

Meanwhile the world’s most powerful republic was focused upon a different struggle for power between two highly moneyed patricians – a struggle that seemed oblivious to the environmental catastrophe that is already making densely populated but low-lying portions of the earth’s surface uninhabitable (e.g. the Maldives). This was confirmed by news from Greenland in the previous week that the arctic ice sheet is diminishing at an unprecedented rate.

And the news that many millions in China now aspire to an SUV (the ubiquitous, ridiculous, dangerous and environmentally indefensible ‘off road’ vehicle now preferred for ferrying children everywhere) was hardly cause for celebration either.

So who exactly, I wondered, are the ‘we’ who have leapt to ‘super-consciousness’? Clearly it is not a majority of the human population. And if it is only a small minority of intellectuals, is the ‘we’ justified in anything other than self-congratulatory terms? Is it anything more than a repetition of the New Age rhetorical claim to era-superiority that we have been hearing, without any real justification, for decades?

Certainly it is possible for individual humans to develop greater insight and maturity – and a deep sense of God within – over a lifetime – but this has been happening to individuals for thousands of years. What characterised all of them was a realisation of the futility of most human desires, and a valuing of simplicity. Three distinctive marks of our age are, on the contrary, an elevation of desire itself to the status of supreme cultural and economic good, an infatuation with consumption and novelty, and an increasing violence.

I say this not because I am out of sympathy with my own era, and stuck in some mistakenly idealised past, but because I cannot ignore the fact that the data I receive from news streams daily is presenting me with an almost total contradiction to Adrian Smith’s optimistic claims. Humans in the aggregate are as far as ever from the super-consciousness that he claims to be the distinctive feature of the age. The pressure of an extremely doubtful future may be forcing increasing numbers to seek a deeper spirituality – but this has happened often in the past and simply cannot justify a claim that ‘we’ (i.e. the race) are undergoing some kind of evolutionary shift into ‘super-consciousness’.

Although ‘The God Shift’ is therefore a useful overview of some encouraging scientific and cultural developments, as well as a highly readable example of its genre, it is lamentably superficial in its understanding of the weaknesses that still afflict us. For example, the author admits that he doesn’t understand why humans build hierarchies – wondering, without much conviction, if these might originate in the need to overcome gravity!

This is especially telling in the context of his conviction that the human arrival at self-consciousness, as recorded in Genesis, was an unalloyed good. It was indeed an evolutionary event of enormous importance – and inseparable from our human nature – but it had profoundly problematic consequences. Self-consciousness involves a critical awareness that others are conscious of us – and it is only then that we develop a dangerous desire to be highly-regarded. That is precisely why the self-conscious teen female is often currently aspiring to a breast implant.

That kind of self-regarding desire explains everything from conspicuous consumption to personality cults to mimetic rivalry, celebrity, power-seeking and violence – and human hierarchy arises easily out of all of these. Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced, of course, ‘Bouquet’) illustrates the point weekly on pop TV: it is precisely because she is self-conscious that she wishes to collect prestige china and rub shoulders with England’s aristocracy. Tony Blair’s meritocratic makeover of the British Labour party bears a similar explanation. (There is no more self-conscious politician on the planet.)

For the same reason, self-consciousness explains the spiritual problem identified by Thomas Merton as the construction of the ‘false self’ – the problem identified by Jesus as hypocrisy. The original hypocrite was just a Greek actor, who, significantly, wore a mask. Modern culture provides an unprecedented variety of masks designed to flatter the wearer, and some of these are fashioned by a New Age ideology that has yet to recognise that human culture is still grounded not in super-consciousness but in mindless and deeply destructive imitation of one another.

It is self-consciousness also that explains the individual’s fear of opposing the crowd, and thus the mindlessness and danger of the crowd itself – and mob-violence, and, incidentally, the crucifixion.

It is remarkable that the ‘super-consciousness’ claimed in this book does not include an understanding of the connections between human self-consciousness, human vanity, human hierarchy, human hypocrisy and human violence. Especially when some of the available literature so well explains all of this.

Scanning the reading lists that followed each chapter of this book I noticed a very striking absence of any reference to the work done on mimetic desire and violence by the Girard school. As this is profoundly illuminative of the Gospel texts, as well as modern consumerist culture, and as Girard has been publishing since the 1970s, I am at a loss to understand it – especially because Girard’s work provides every reason for optimism in the project of making a non-fundamentalist Christianity relevant to post-modernity.

The gathering human crisis will soon oblige people to grow rapidly in spiritual wisdom if the species is not to destroy itself in competition for declining fossil fuel resources. The message that they have already reached ‘super-consciousness’ is, like the first reports of Mark Twain’s death, premature. It is also strikingly similar to the flattery that this year’s presidential contenders feel obliged to heap upon ‘the great American people’.

And it is therefore, like all flattery, a profound mistake. Every one of us does indeed need to ‘evolve’ – but we must all begin with a radical honesty about our current temptations and failings. These are essentially identical to the spiritual shortcomings of our species from the beginning. Nothing could be more spiritually dangerous for an intellectual today than the conviction that he, or she, has become ‘super-conscious’. The correct name for this notion is spiritual inflation.

Other paradigm shifts notwithstanding, so long as vanity remains a human constant, we humans will remain trapped in that paradigm, and in the negative consequences of self-consciousness. Our cosmologies may change, but we will show-off nevertheless (perhaps with a lecture on cosmology). Vanity in 2004 is as pervasive as the SUV, the plasma-screen TV and the cosmetics industry, and global terrorism is born of frustrated envy of those who can afford all of these.

Super-consciousness, when it arrives, will be conscious of that to begin with.

*The God Shift: Our Changing Perception of the Ultimate Mystery, Adrian B Smith, Liffey Press, Dublin 2004

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