Back to teach at Schumacher College in April 2019: “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”

I’ll be teaching another short course at Schumacher College in the UK the week of April 22nd-26th, 2019.

Here’s a link if you’re interested in registering:

https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/short-courses/re-enchanting-the-cosmos

Here’s what I’ll be teaching on:

“The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”

This week-long course will trace the evolution of consciousness in the West from ancient Greece through to the present. The goal is twofold: to understand the historical process whereby humanity severed itself from a meaningful universe and to re-ignite the cosmological imagination allowing us to reconnect to the soul of the world. The course begins by exploring Plato’s cosmology and theory of participation and moves on to consider the Scientific Revolution and the Romantic reaction to it. It concludes with a study of several contemporary efforts to re-enchant the cosmos by grounding human consciousness back in the more-than-human creative process responsible for generating it. In addition to Plato, the course draws upon the archetypal astronomy of Johannes Kepler, the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling, the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and the contemporary participatory theory of Jorge Ferrer.

 

*featured image above by Jakob Boehme

Evolution & Spirituality Course at Schumacher College This Summer

If you live in the UK, or if you are traveling there this summer, I’ll be teaching for one of Schumacher College’s 3-week intensive courses Monday, June 18th through Friday, June 22nd on the topic of evolution and spirituality. The description of my week is below. Also teaching week-long modules in this course are the ecologists Joana Formosinho, Andy Letcher, and Stephen Harding.

Click here for more information or to register for the course.

In the second week, Matthew T. Segall will introduce several important 19th and 20th century philosophical and theological responses to evolutionary theory—responses that remain as relevant as ever to any 21st century person trying to imagine a new mode of life for humankind on planet Earth. Though other relevant figures will also be discussed, we will focus on two thinkers in particular: 1) the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), including his organic re-embedding of mind in Nature as well as his proto-Jungian understanding of the revelation of God through the gradual evolution of the mythic consciousness of human beings; and 2) the British mathematical physicist turned philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), whose panpsychist and process-relational cosmology represents one of the few comprehensive attempts to fully integrate the metaphysical implications of evolutionary theory (not to mention relativity, quantum, and complexity theories). The week will close with an exploration of the potential for a scientifically-informed spirituality responsive to the evolutionary adventure from out of which our species, our living planet, and the wider cosmos have emerged. Our human creativity, intelligence, moral insight, and aesthetic sensitivity are all expressions of a multibillion year lineage of cosmic ancestors; acknowledging this has profound ramifications for how we relate to ourselves, to our communities, and indeed, how we mould our very civilization.

Rupert Sheldrake and Morphic Fields at Schumacher

My time at Schumacher is drawing to a close, and the whole experience has been quite formative for me. Preparing meals, washing dishes, and weeding the garden provided unexpected opportunities to reflect upon the value of simple work with others. This morning I spent about an hour in the kitchen chopping the stems off about 300 gooseberries with Delphine, an older woman whose exuberance seems to have grown with age. We discussed the life of Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), especially the powerful film about his life “Fierce Grace,” and tried to understand the relationship between psychedelic experience and spiritual awakening.

Later in the day, Rupert Sheldrake discussed his theory of morphic resonance. I was already convinced that the proper metaphor for understanding the universe was as an organism, rather than a machine, but hearing Rupert express the specific reasons why he arrived at such a view was fascinating nonetheless. He believes that cosmologists are mistaken in conceiving of nature as being governed by fixed laws that somehow exist beyond space and time. Instead, he posits a radically evolutionary picture of the universe, where supposedly constant laws are actually habits which have, over great spans of time, worked themselves into groove-like patterns. Mathematical formalisms, like Newton’s inverse square law or Einstein’s E=MC2, work because they are good approximations of these habits, which are stable enough for physicists to make reasonably accurate predictions about physical processes. A deeper look, however, reveals that supposed constants like the speed of light, or the melting point of various crystals, have changed over the years, sometimes drastically (Sheldrake gave the example of aspirin, whose melting point has risen 12 degrees celsius since the 19th century).

Sheldrake also discussed the historical significance of the Scientific Revolution which brought about the reigning mechanistic conception of the universe, arguing that many of the more organic Aristotelian ideas that Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton rejected should be reconsidered. Chief among them is the idea of formative causation, which Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields redresses in modern scientific language. Aristotle wrote of various levels of soul which work in nature, including the vegetative, sentient, and intellectual souls. Plants grow with the patterning influence of the vegetative soul, which is at work in all higher forms of life as well. It is the wholeness not reducible to the sum of its parts. Animals have the added influence of the sentient soul, which gives them emotion and a higher degree of purposive mobility. Human beings are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the intellectual soul, which provides for the ability to think abstactly and to ponder the meaning of existence.

For Aristotle, the soul was not in the body, but the body in the soul. This seemingly counter-intuitive way of thinking about the soul-body relation gets at the elusive nature of Sheldrake’s morphic fields. They are invisible spheres of influence that guide the formation of physical systems. From such a perspective, the genome would not be the cause of an organim’s morphology, but the visible molecular trace of the field’s higher dimensional activity. Sheldrake insists that morphic fields are still spatial phenomena, but speculates that they exist in dimensions not directly captured by our 3D sensory experience.

He also believes that morphic fields have a temporal dimension, a morphic resonance that establishes an influence on future members of the same species (be they atomic, chemical, or animal species). In this way, physical systems are related to a non-local memory bank, so that, for example, when the genome of one member of a species mutates, other members might be simultaneously effected through a kind of subtle resonance. The punctuated evolution of species begins to become more plausible in this context, as a purely Darwinian explanation (where mutation is an isolated event effecting only individuals) seems to require too much time to account for the speed at which entirely new kinds of organism emerge.

Mechanistic materialists will of course reject all of this as unnecessary, claiming that even if molecular biologists don’t understand everything yet, complete knowledge based on reductionistic analysis is just around the corner. Sheldrake says he has lost count of how many times his more holistic biology has been dismissed by such materialistic promissory notes, which amount to nothing more than an act of faith in what is ultimately a metaphysical view. Indeed, if direct observation is supposed to be the basis of science (rather than abstract speculation), then the sort of Aristotelian organicism that Sheldrake proposes seems far more coherent with our actual embodied experience than those views which suggest we are nothing but sophisticated robots.

When it comes to phenomena like consciousness, who is more metaphysical and other worldly: someone like Daniel Dennett, who posits that our immediately felt-sense of being conscious persons with rich inner lives and spiritual longings is but an illusion because, in reality, we are but computers made of many insentient mechanical components, or someone like Sheldrake, who suggests that we are among the more complex manifestations of a living universe whose behavior is orchestated by the nested relationships between sentient spheres of influence? It seems clear to me that the latter view–if only we can overcome the fallacy of misplaced concreteness that has produced the deadened industrial ideology preached in universities–is the more adequate to our actual day to day experience. One only needs to take a walk in the woods to remember that we live upon an animate earth and to feel themselves embedded within the psyche cosmu.

I commented to Sheldrake that perhaps the real tragedy was not that such enchanted views of the universe were dismissed out of hand by the intelligentsia of mainstream culture, but that such dismissmal prevented human beings from futher developing still latent capacities (such as clairvoyance and telepathy). He agreed, but suggested that in his experience, very few reductionistic scientists and philosophers actually carry their metaphysical views over into their personal lives. On the weekdays, while they are researching and writing papers, they say what they need to in order to maintain respectability within their institutions. Our industrial economic system requires that its intellectual leaders continue to re-enforce the reigning mechanistic worldview. But on the weekend, most of these same arch-mechanists become romantic nature lovers amazed by the mystery of existence.

The problem, then, seems to be integrating scientific knowledge and personal experience, so that the two can co-exist harmoniously within a single cosmology. Sheldrake’s new science of life is a step in the right direction. Part of the necessary transformation would seem to me to require re-thinking the current hierarchy of scientific disciplines, where physics currently ranks supreme. Perhaps biology ought to replace physics as the most fundamental science. Of course, Aristotle’s physics (in Greek “φύσις,” or physis, referring to the way plants grow), was already based on a conception of the universe as living. So perhaps we just need a more adequate understanding of the physical, not as dead particles in motion according to eternal laws, but as living tissue developing within a cosmic embryo.

Sheldrake still has one more lecture for us this evening, so I will probably have more to say…

Fragile Gaia: a gift for God?

“Truth, and beauty, and goodness, are but different faces of the same All.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve just returned from the lawn outside the postern here at Schumacher. Sean Kelly lead a discussion circle with several of us that was intended to be a space for us to reflect on how the knowledge we’d internalized thus far was effecting us, both intellectually and emotionally. It quickly became a very intense meditation on the fate of our civilization, the nature of the human, and the purpose of our existence on earth. The magnitude of our ecological crisis is hard to fathom, and the momentum behind the industrial way of life seems too strong to avoid our inevitable collision with catastrophe. In many ways, both human society and the entire earth community have already collided with tragedy.

Phillip, a Frenchman who has lived in London for 20 years pursuing various fairtrade business ventures, wondered aloud to the group if all our talk about the evolution of consciousness isn’t just a defense mechanism, an assuaging story that we’ve projected onto our collective history to feel as though our species hasn’t been a complete failure. What if, in truth, no such spiritual trajectory exists and we’re nothing but an especially industrious ape with more brains than we know what to do with? Personally, I’m certainly aware of this possibility, but the evidence for some sort of evolution of human consciousness seems objective enough. Of all the thinkers who have tried to present the case, perhaps Jean Gebser provides the most thorough. And anyways, from Gebser’s point of view, evolution is as much a movement away from origin or spirit as it is a movement towards it. In a sense, humanity’s relationship with the earth and larger universe had to get worse before it could get better. As Jesuit and cultural historian Walter Ong once remarked, human beings need alienation, as it is in our nature to experience the world as outsiders, and to work upon it artistically in order to bring something more familiar into view. Another Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered a possible explanation for this odd behavior: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.”

All this is to say that the evolution of consciousness isn’t simply about changing human perspectives on the cosmos, but about the cosmos itself evolving through the deepening of human awareness. We are participating in an astonishing event with cosmic extent and importance: through us, spirit is struggling to incarnate fully into matter. It’s been quite a violent process thus far, as war and ecological devastation testify. But who would expect any different?

Regardless of the human impact today, the entire earth, at least its physical aspect, will eventually be burned up by the increasingly unforgiving power of the sun. Gaia will no longer be able to regulate her temperature once a certain threshold has been crossed. All life will be forced into extinction, aside, perhaps, from a few thermophiles on the sea floor. But even they will be incinerated in several billion more years when the sun begins to swell and swallows the earth whole. Beauty seems inexplicably tied to fragility, and Gaia is no exception. Like all living beings, she, too, must die. But might all the earth’s suffering be worth it for spirit to have been given the gift of life by matter? Perhaps the entire universe has been created so God could experience dying.

The Planetary Era

The title of the course I’m participating in at Schumacher College is “Gaia and the Evolution of Consciousness.” Biologist Stephan Harding and philosopher Sean Kelly are leading us through the scientific and cultural history relevant to these issues. Another biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, will join us for a few days next week to share his view of what a re-enchanted study of life might look like. We’re only two days into the course, but I wanted to develop some ideas and introduce you to the other students (see next post).

Earlier today (Tuesday, June 22nd), Sean lectured on the meaning and historical unfolding of the planetary era. When exactly the earth as a whole first became a concept human consciousness was capable of contemplating is difficult to discern. Perhaps a practical awareness of earth’s extent dawned with the age of exploration in the 16th century, when colonial war and commerce began to link Europe with Africa, Asia and the Americas. Copernicus’ heliocentric intimations in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before his death in 1543, are more than symbolic of the changes in humanity’s self-conception, but it is quite clear that by the middle of the 20th century, both as a result of the global paroxysm of the world wars and the technological feat of landing men on the moon, the thought of all humanity living on a fragile blue sphere drifting through the depths of space was impossible to ignore. World War II ended when the power of the sun was unleashed over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the iconic earth rise photograph revealed the as yet unimaginable beauty of our home planet to human eyes. Sean echoed the panoptic thinker Edgar Morin by suggesting that this photo represented “earth viewed from earth,” both in the sense that it was only first developed and observed by anyone (aside from the astronauts who took it) after the film had been returned to earth, and in the deeper sense that the human organism was born and is made out of the substance of the planet itself, and so represents that part of the earth that is both willing and able to escape its own gravity to experience itself from the outside.