Hermeticism and the Anthropic Principle of Evolution

In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper famously (or infamously, as far as Hegelians are concerned) attacked Hegel for his bewitching apriorism and supposed distain for empirical science, going so far as to blame his Platonically inspired “mystery method” for the rise of fascism in Germany. Walter Kaufmann offered an appropriate response back in 1959, pointing out that Popper’s poorly researched, largely ad hominem attack on Hegel’s supposed motivations is strikingly similar to the approach of many totalitarian “scholars.”

Hegel’s is undoubtedly a philosophy that takes mystical insight and religious revelation seriously, and for that reason will always remain vulnerable to the critique of those of a more positivistic bent. I’ve attempted to unpack the place of natural science in Hegel’s system before, and I’d like to revisit some of the same themes again in what follows. As my dissertation topic continues to gestate, I find myself growing increasingly curious about what our contemporary Anglo-American understanding of Darwinian evolution might still stand to learn from the Naturphilosophie of thinkers like Goethe, Schelling, and Hegel. Following Glenn Magee (see Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, 2001), I believe a strong case can be made that these three thinkers carried forward what has traditionally been known as Hermeticism. The 16th century alchemist Paracelsus offers the Hermetic cosmological perspective quite succinctly (as summarized by R. Steiner): “If we survey nature we simply see separate letters and the word they form is the human being.” In other words, as Hegel makes explicit in his philosophy of nature, the universe in its essence must be such that human consciousness is a necessary stage of its self-development. Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis. Here is the great bardic philosopher and psychedelic Hermeticist Terence McKenna making the same point:

As McKenna suggests, at the present moment in earth history, the human adventure has indeed taken center stage. As Hegel argued, the human spirit has always been at the center of cosmogenesis: the Anthropos was always enfolded, implicit in the sheer externality of space, which is the minimal form of nature as necessitated by the self-disclosure of the Idea as worked out in Hegel’s Logic. Space, for Hegel, is the contraction of the Idea, the Idea become paradoxically other to itself while still remaining self-identical. Nature is not the result or product of this contraction, but the contraction itself (meaning the Idea is fully immanent in and as nature, not its transcendent cause existing apart from or outside of it). The contraction of the Idea to make room for nature is drawn straight from the Cabalist notion of “tzimtzum” first articulated by Isaac Luria in the 16th century. The notion is an attempt to account for an infinite God’s act of creation, where the finite space and time of creation remains fully internal to and yet paradoxically apart from that which created it. Tzimtzum makes room for an independent world to develop without at first possessing any direct knowledge of its own divine ground. In the end, though, nature is nothing other than God incarnate, and in the self-conscious human, it comes to recognize this.

To recap, nature, in its logical rather than temporal unfolding, begins in the sheer externality of space. Space itself always already implies time, which implies motion, which implies matter, gravitation, light, electromagnetism, chemistry, geology, plant life, animal life, etc., culminating in the self-conscious human spirit. All this sounds very anthropocentric, but the point is not to enshrine the empirical species, Homo sapiens, as the crowning glory of all the universe. Rather, the Anthropos here in question is an archetypal ideal, rather than an empirical creature. Giordano Bruno, another 16th century Hermeticist, was burnt at the stake by the Church for, among other things, claiming that the universe was almost certainly full of other earths populated by intelligent species like ourselves. That cosmogenesis is essentially anthropogenesis is not to say the whole process leads inevitably to our particular species, but that the in built logic of the universe necessitates an evolutionary movement toward self-consciousness of some kind. The specific vehicle it achieves this self-consciousness through, whether in the familiar sort known to us as the Homo genus or an as yet undiscovered alien genus, remains a contingent matter. Homo sapiens are one example of an anthropic principle governing the development of the universe. To the extent that we realize ourselves as an incarnation of this principle, we participate in the Idea–the Divine–which grounds the whole process.

All this stands in stark contrast to the Darwinian conception of evolution as an undirected, entirely contingent process of transformation. To call Darwin’s conception of nature evolution is already to overshoot the picture he sought to paint, since to “evolve” means to unfold, as though the later stages of nature were already enfolded in the prior (much as Hermetic thinkers like Goethe, Schelling, and Hegel suggest). Transformism, as his theory was first named, is also inappropriate, since there must at least be something that is transformed, if not also something to do the transforming, some agent underlying the process. Otherwise there is only the substitution of one form for another with no substantial connection between the forms. If we say, as Darwin did, that Life is that which is transformed, we are left with an irresolvable dualism between the mechanics of the material and the organics of the living. Darwin humbly suggested that the original Lifeform must have been created by God out of otherwise lifeless matter, since his theory could only account for subsequent speciation given this one miracle. The systematic philosopher cannot settle for dualisms or miracles, of course. Hegel would certainly agree that life reflects a different moment in the logical unfolding of the universe than does matter, that organism cannot be understood according to the same laws that govern mechanism; but he would see both organism and mechanism as equally necessary moments in the self-disclosure of the Idea as nature.

Much research remains ahead of me, and while I haven’t at all given up my desire to unpack the role of imagination in speculative philosophy, I am most excited now by the prospect of delving into the Hermetic and esoteric influences on the evolutionary thinking of early 19th century German philosophy. Tentative title: “The Imagination of Evolution in Hermeticism: Towards a Cosmotheandric Re-Visioning of Philosophy.”