Friday, September 25, 2015

Evolution vs the Perennial Philosophy

I don't believe that consciousness 'evolves'. Evolution is a 19th century abstraction that we impose on our experience. And I'm suspicious, because the primary mechanism for evolution is 'survival of the fittest', a harsh and unforgiving ethos that merely reflects the capitalism of the day. A Creation Myth (for that is what it is) that justifies the worst in human nature.

A few months ago I had a dream in which I saw a speckled moth, beautifully part of and belonging to its surroundings, and at the same time I understood that evolution as we know it told us virtually nothing about how this moth came to be.

I'm not a creationist. You could say I'm a metaphysical agnostic: I just don't know how these things come to be, and I don't think they can be understood in any simple 'rational' way.

I think that Evolution is generally understood mythologically rather than scientifically. This is because most of us haven't seriously studied the evidence, yet so many accept it as a fact that you don't seriously question. It is therefore mostly a belief. We accept it because it tells a story about how we came to be, that is more acceptable nowadays than the Biblical creation myth. We accept it more for emotional than intellectual reasons.

There is nothing wrong with this. We need stories about the world that are emotionally appealing. It has always been this way. These stories contain truths about existence, and ideally you need some of them to contradict each other, just so we don't think we are in possession of the 'one truth'.

The problem with evolution as a story is that it twists life into a brutal struggle, and reduces the scope of existence to the visible, material world. (As quantum physicists have asserted, it is consciousness, not matter, that is primary.) Evolution is a story posing as an unassailable fact, that continues in an inverted form the brutal creation myth of the Old Testament.

It is this resonance with what came before that contributes to the emotional appeal of evolution. Intellectually we are satisfied because evolution opposes the religion we have left, emotionally we are satisfied because it resembles that religion, with the added bonus that humans are now at the top of the Great Chain of Being instead of somewhere in the middle.

It is because of this emotional appeal that Evolution is firmly accepted as a theory on the basis of evidence that would be laughed out of court in most other scientific disciplines. There is more direct evidence, for example, of homeopathy working, but again for emotional reasons, that evidence is frequently rejected.

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No-one has seen evolution occur, the most we have directly seen is a bit of adaption to circumstances, which is not the same thing. The evidence is partial and circumstantial. Something has gone on, we know that from the fossil record. And DNA studies show that all forms of life on earth are closely related to one another, which is a wonderful result.

But how a whole new species arises is not understood. Assuming it is consciousness, not matter, that is primary (though that statement itself suggests a divide between matter and consciousness that I don't think exists), I think new species are dreamed into being by consciousness, as much as they are generated by physical processes.

Though to what purpose they are dreamed into being is a mystery, part of the Great Mystery, the unknowability of existence.

This piece was prompted by an article by astrologer Glenn Perry, in which he sets the development of astrology in the context of a purported 'evolution' of human consciousness, in which he (wrong-headedly) declares "It must be emphasized that human awareness at this stage (4000 B.C.-1500 B.C.) was still quite dim, more like a toddler’s consciousness than a modern adult human."

Evolution has become central to the way we think about life, and it is natural to take the step of thinking of evolution as not just a physical process but as a mental/emotional process.

Evolution implies progress from an inferior stage to a superior stage of life. It is not just saying that change occurs - which would be fair enough - but that there is a value to it that makes the later stage in some way 'better' than the earlier stage.

It is one way of making sense of human history, but I think it is hard to get away from the implication that we are more 'advanced' than our forebears. I don't think this is justified, and if you junk that idea, then I think you have to junk the whole idea that human consciousness 'evolves'.

I used to have a Canadian Indian friend visit (yes, they call themselves Indians, not native this or that) and he was brought up speaking the language of the Chippewa Cree and immersed in their stories and philosophy. One thing that impressed me was their subtle understanding, through the stories of Wisahitsa, of the human ego and the tricks it gets up to: one of those tricks would surely be the self-important idea that we are 'superior' to our ancestors! Philosophically the tradition is keenly aware of how unknowable the universe is, refusing, for example, to take a position on what happens after death. And their philosophy and psychology is set in the richly imaginative context of the traditional stories, which my friend was able not just to tell but to expound on their meanings.

The usual patronising evolutionary story is that early people had their wonderful participation mystique with nature, which we have lost, but that is the price we have had to pay for the development of self-awareness, individuality, a strong ego and rationality.

In "The Passion of the Western Mind", astrologer Richard Tarnas says that it has been the task of masculine consciousness to forge its own autonomy and then come to terms with the great feminine principle in life, and thus recover its connection with the whole. This will constitute "the fulfillment of the underlying goal of Western intellectual and spiritual evolution." (p442)

In "The Philosopher's Secret Fire" (pp 263-6), Patrick Harpur takes issue with this position: "Evolution is a spirit notion which soul does not recognise. Traditional societies do not evolve. They live within a mythology which contains all imaginative possibilities, Earth Goddesses no less than Heraclean egos... Because we are changing, we think of ourselves as evolving. We are not. We are literalising the old myths...  If the rational ego is to disappear it is more likely to be destroyed by the ricochets of ideologies made in its own image."

My experience with my Indian friend suggested to me that early peoples are NOT lacking in rational egos - if you think about it, they needed to be a lot more creative and thoughtful than we need to be just to survive, apart from any philosophical sophistication they may have had - but rather, that ego has not become divorced from a sense of participation in nature.

As the poet Ted Hughes said: "The story of mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man."

I think that is the real story.

I think there are perennial truths about existence that have always been available to people from the earliest times, along with elements in our nature that can take us away from those truths. And the big truth we have lost is a felt sense of our participation in nature. What has gradually developed over the last few thousand years - ever since Plato and his separation of 'ideal forms' from nature - has been a massive loss of soul.

For a great exposition of this theme, see Anne Baring's book The Dream of the Cosmos. She explores this idea in the context of a well-researched account of the shift from lunar to solar mythologies.

There has been dazzling technological progress, and in a way it is natural to assume that makes us more 'advanced' than people who do not have that technology - as if we personally invented it! But I don't think it has made us more whole as humans.

What has developed has not been the rational ego - that has always been there - but the rational ego divorced from nature. Nature as something we can separate ourselves from and look on dispassionately, out of which has come at least as much harm as good, as the environmental crisis testifies to.

I think it is possible to view much of the technological progress of recent times as a mad dream created by an out-of-control rational ego. We didn't need all this technology for tens of thousands of years. It has been produced by a crazed mind, crazed because it has lost its roots in who it is.

The world we live in needs re-dreaming. We need to recover the perennial truths of existence, in which we are participants in, rather than observers of, the cosmos, and use that as a point of balance.