An ongoing evolution of consciousness as meta-narrative for psychology

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 09 March 2024

section 2
the post-biological period:
changing the world and changing ourselves

If you haven't read Section 1 you may like to read that first:


We tend to take our lives as human beings as normal, but if we look back at the inorganic world we came from, then it becomes clear that being human is actually pretty special. There are plants and even animals that from the outside don't look that different from inorganic matter, and there are animals who in their emotional life don't differ that much from humans. But if you look at the whole series, right from rocks to humans, it becomes clear that what the biological evolution has achieved is completely mind-boggling.

What is more, the evolution seems to be speeding up and our human consciousness seems to have individualised and emancipated sufficiently from its physical substrate to radically change the way we live and are conscious without having to wait for any genetic mutation. In other words, the next big leap forward in the evolution might not need any further biological change, or at least, such a physical change might not be needed to start with. There are two sides to this post-biological stage of the evolution: one outward, technical and physical, and one inward, psychological and spiritual. In this Section we will have a quick look at what has happened in both areas till now.

Changing the world

The ever-increasing sophistication of the model-making capacity of the nervous system which we discussed in the first section of this chapter appears to have culminated many, many years ago into two further developments. The first was the invention of grammar-based language which made it possible to think more effectively and create complex stories, poems and sacred texts that could be learnt by heart and shared with ever larger numbers of others. The second was the use of tools to create new physical things. And then, when the sharing of our collective store of knowledge mixed with the use of tools to make more sophisticated tools, this outward aspect of the post-biological evolution entered into the dizzying spin we now see around us.

The first part, the history of the way complex, grammar-based language developed, is for us at present hard to study as it left no physical traces, but we have been able to trace the development of our physical creativity, and the most amazing aspect of it is the degree to which it is speeding up. It has taken some 40,000 years to move from simple sketches to writing. From there it took roughly 4000 years to master cheap and fast printing. Only 400 years later we had figured out how to send Morse code over electrical wires, and less than 40 years more to transmit the spoken word. Radio came hardly a few years later; video followed soon after and by now we have reached the stage in which any individual can share any amount of visual or auditory information with any number of others anywhere on the planet in near zero time and at near zero cost.

All this is not just some minor change. It took pre-mental Nature aeons to create a new type of bird with a new pattern of colours on its wings. We humans can now produce a new design within minutes, whether in our minds or on our computers, and with just a little more time and effort, we can actually make whatever we can imagine. And this is not a small or insignificant development. The embodied mind, in spite of all its defects, has made us into a kind of secondary, miniature co-actors and co-creators. Where first it was only the universe as a whole that existed, acted and grew, in this mental stage of the earth's evolution, we see in our little corner of the universe the appearance of brainy creatures who function like tiny centres of semi-individualised action and creation in which consciousness has emancipated to a degree where there seems at least to exist a certain freedom, a possibility of choice and responsibility.

Changing ourselves

And this brings us to the other, the inner, psychological and spiritual change. Amazing as the outer physical revolution is, it is the inner one that in all likelihood will be the most game-changing.

As we saw, in some quite early stage of the evolution, the animal brain begins to make multiple images of the world, which it glues together serially, so that they form one coherent plan of action which the animal can then execute, as when it walks to a place it remembers. The first beginnings of a human-like consciousness appear in the next stage when the brain manages to make sets of parallel plans from which the animal can choose one for outer action. But a fully human way of being and acting becomes possible only in a further development when the individual creature doesn't choose anymore mechanically which of a few given plans is most likely to lead to the most desirable outcome, but when it reflects on the maps themselves, attempts to make better ones, compares what happens when one looks at the world from different perspectives, or in different directions, with different levels and types of detail, and perhaps most importantly, when it images options for action involving different intentions, attitudes and ways of being conscious. It is then that the creature begins to have a real individuality and becomes a "person", someone who is increasingly capable of controlling and changing himself and as such, at least to some extent, free and responsible.

Has the time come for another radical step forward?1

That all this has happened at all is amazing enough, but what makes it urgent to reflect on it are the consequences. There can no longer be any doubt that the influence humanity has on what is happening on the planet is toxic, so toxic in fact that if we continue doing what we are doing, we will destroy the very ecosystem of which we are a part. In other words, we have reached a point where humanity is too powerful for its own good and must change its ways if it wants to survive, and the change has to be both radical, and fast.

There are still many who think that when we shift from fossil fuels to renewables, change our agricultural practices and leave a little more space for natural forests, all will be well. Though definitely needed, technical solutions like these have a tendency to create new problems that are even more intractable than the ones they solve. Something much more fundamental is needed, but what is it, and why does it elude us? Why are we humans so poor at managing our affairs in a really beautiful, effective and harmonious manner?

One of the causes might be that the kind of knowledge we humans have developed to such an astounding degree is in its very nature not good enough. As we discussed in the previous section of this chapter, the kind of knowledge we humans have is produced by the model-making activity of the nervous system. As such it is a second-hand, brain-constructed artefact. We have become incredibly good at fine-tuning it, and the approximations of science get better and better, but still, even at its best, this kind of knowledge can, intrinsically, never be more than an approximation. It is never fully right. The core of the problem may well be that it is dualistic, while dualism is not part of reality itself: reality appears rather to be one harmonious whole. Secondly, it is based on sense-impressions that are as much determined by the properties of our sense-organs as by the qualities of the world we try to know. And finally, it is not impartial. Brain-constructed knowledge came into being as a means to enhance survival and it has not fully escaped from its narrow utilitarian past: it is virtually always ego-centric and as such ego-distorted.2 Because of all this, it is inevitably, in one way or another, out of sync with reality as it is in itself. In other words, the lack of harmony from which we humans suffer appears to be an intrinsic part of the way we think.

What spirituality has given us till now

Fortunately, as we saw in the first Section of this chapter, there is another type of knowledge, an intrinsically true knowledge that is not only passive but also dynamic and inherent in being. It can be found in the entirely implicit but perfect know-how that allows inanimate things to act exactly according to the laws of nature. It is what early European astronomers referred to when they wrote that they felt as if they were studying the thoughts of God. It is the kind of knowledge that structures this incredible universe as if from inside, keeping it safely humming along. Our human problem is that in our ordinary waking consciousness, we are hardly aware of it. It gives us a vague sense of being ourselves and of being at home in the world, but the details of what that means are drowned out by all the pseudo-knowledge produced by our hyper-active brains.

This unitary and intrinsically true knowledge has been known to exist by mystics and poets in all major civilizations. Though our new global civilisation doesn't do much with it, children in many English-medium schools are still made to learn Tennyson's famous lines by heart:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower — but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

With our post-modern ecological awareness, we may now balk at Tennyson for plucking the poor flower out of the wall, but the type of knowledge he speaks of is interesting. The Indian tradition was fascinated by this kind of knowledge and produced an amazing treasure trove of practical methods to achieve what Tennyson wistfully asks for. In India, for millennia, a small but capable minority developed what we would now call a science and technology of consciousness. Originally it aimed at nothing less than a comprehensive knowledge of Brahman, the consciousness that manifests the world inside and out of itself, and it is in this context that it found that a direct knowledge of Brahman is a special kind of knowledge that makes everything known, yasmin vijñāte sarvam idaṁ vijñātam (Muṇdaka, 1.1.3). Over time, however, it seems that it left this quest for an absolute integrality behind and focused instead on a more doable, narrower and in appearance higher summit: the absolute Transcendence.

The pursuit of Liberation, Purity and Emptiness

For those spiritual paths that aim at realising the transcendent Divine, the possibility of specialisation may in first instance appear as an advantage. The reason is that it offers a short-cut that actually works. To reach the Transcendence one needs not change one's entire nature. All one needs to do is to make it sufficiently quiet, so that the centre of our awareness can move spontaneously from an already quiet and sattvic (harmonious) mind towards pure consciousness. In Sāṁkhya terminology, one could say that silencing the mind allows the centre of one's individual identity to move from one's individual portion of prakṛti (Nature) towards one's individual puruṣa (Self). This inner movement is sufficient since the individual Self is in its deepest essence already one with the Self of the Divine. And it becomes possible as soon as the outer nature has become sufficiently similar to the inner consciousness. What happens then is somewhat similar to what happens when one shifts one's centre of observation from a quiet mind to the pure witness consciousness, sākṣī, except that it includes the very centre of one's being and the scale and intensity are of a different order.3

Since on the path to the transcendent Divine, the limitations of the manifest reality can be effectively side-lined, there has been a tendency in these traditions to describe the ultimate aim of the spiritual endeavour as śūnya (emptiness), kaivalya (purity), or mokṣa (liberation). And then, whether one sees the world or the human mind as the source of suffering, confusion or illusion, the simplest solution is to leave our entire human existence behind. It is probably true that for those who live predominantly in their minds, this absolute Transcendent is the most accessible aspect of the Divine at present, but in the end it is still only one aspect of the Divine, and while what these paths find is genuinely absolute, pure joy, and free of suffering and limitation, it is not the Divine in its dynamic fulness: in this exclusive approach, there remains a gap between the Transcendent and the manifest world in all its magnificent complexity. It is as if one has found the perfection of Emptiness, Purity and Oneness, but not yet the perfection of Love.

Still, this did not make this vast effort useless "for the rest of us". The ever-growing popularity of systems like hathayoga and mindfulness shows that people, all over the world find the insights, know-how and practices which the spiritual traditions in India developed useful for their individual lives. While in modern times our collective, public effort goes mainly into the pursuit of material gain and mastery over outer circumstances, there is simultaneously an ever-growing sub-culture that pursues spiritual aims and mastery over our inner states and processes. And it is hard to exaggerate the potential of what can be brought about by a real mastery in the spiritual domain. But in spite of all that India has contributed in this area, it is not enough. There is still something missing. It is not just that the vast majority of people who "do yoga" do it only to make their little lives a little more bearable. Even those who are serious in their efforts and realise in their own experience some aspect of the Divine, don't achieve the radical change humanity needs at present.

A variety of ways to find the Divine

What is fascinating about the way spirituality developed in India is not only the heights it reached, but also its breadth. There was never a central authority which could limit the pursuit of truth, and so, while large sections pursued the absolute Transcendence, others were free to find the Divine in other forms. The early realisation that the Divine is the source of absolutely everything, led to a civilisation built on the faith that the Divine can be found everywhere, and thus that He, She, or It cannot forever escape any sincere aspiration. There arose a prevailing belief that an intense love, a complete surrender — virtually any truly one-pointed concentration can lead to a direct, experiential contact with the Divine, whatever, or whoever it is. And it is true that we humans seem to have reached a stage in our evolution where at least some of us can "jump" as it were by the sheer power of concentration from a high state of embodied mental awareness, straight to some aspect of the Divine, whether personal, cosmic or transcendent. When this happens, the encounter with the Absolute is — compared to where we normally are — so perfect and so clearly the highest state one could possibly enter into, that the few who reach there tend to be satisfied and settle down. Some continue living their old lives, some begin something new, a few start teaching; on the outside they do whatever they choose to do, while inside there is this new light, this certainty, beauty, joy. All this is perfectly understandable, and for the individual it may be fine, but for the future of humanity it is not good enough. The problem is that these "single aspect" realisations of the Divine, don't change effortlessly into the fully integral realisation humanity needs. The Divine is anantaguṇa, of infinite qualities that all hang together in harmony, while due to the basic nature of the mind, all an individual can realise at present is just one — or at most a few — of those qualities.

So, while these "single-aspect" experiences can lead to an increasingly constant inner joy and a variety of reflections from the higher levels of consciousness onto the lower planes of our ordinary human existence, what they don't manage is a genuine and complete transformation of human nature. They are bound to leave vast areas of the personality where the old ego-bound character continues to rule. Ultimately, and for our collective progress, this will not do.

In the next section we will have a look from Sri Aurobindo's perspective at the basic structure of reality and how our present predicament has come into being. As we will see, this shows why there must be light at the end of the tunnel.


1The following part of Section II is to quite an extent based on a chapter in Sri Aurobindo's The Synthesis of Yoga, entitled "The Difficulties of the Mental Being".

2Sri Aurobindo mentions these three difficulties twice in the Synthesis of yoga, once in a chapter titled "The Purified Understanding" (pp. 312-316) and once in one titled "The Instruments of the Spirit" (pp. 645-647).

3For a (slightly) more detailed discussion of the witness consciousness, see How to improve the quality our psychological knowledge.