Back to top

COLUMN: Who are “the unconscious”? Is Consciousness progressing?

The muggle problem

Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter universe knows what a muggle is: a human being without magical ability. The word communicates a depth of low valuation, a dismissive judgement of people who cannot do what Harry and his ilk can do [though the better sort of magic-endowed feel responsible for protecting muggles from evil magicians].

The muggle metaphor has been noticed by journalists; here is an example:

if you take the Potterverse seriously as an allegory for ours, the most noteworthy divide isn’t between the good multicultural wizards and the bad racist ones. It’s between all the wizards, good and bad, and everybody else — the Muggles.

For the six readers who have never read the Potter books but who have stuck with the column thus far nonetheless: Muggles are non-magical folks, the billions of regular everyday human beings who live and work in blissful ignorance that the wizarding world exists.”
  [New York Times op-ed, Ross Douthat, June 28, 2017]
 

Other novels satirizing Unconscious People


In Orwell's 1984, a similar connotation attaches to the word “proles;” in Huxley's Brave New World, the genetically-engineered class of sub-humans called Gammas and Epsilons are the folk no one respects because they are too inferior to be taken seriously as human.

Fantasy novels thrive on the division of fantasy worlds into good folk and the mindless hordes. Sometimes, as with Tolkien, humans are basically good and the bad ones are simply victims, with Orcs and monsters embodying evil.

Are you a muggle? Are you “unconscious”? I would predict that if you live in Nelson, you can be certain that someone somewhere has referred to you in this way, for your politics and your voting preferences, or for your taste in homes or cars or cultural products, for your conversation, for your style of life. It is a delicious pleasure, to judge someone else’s level of consciousness. You see it in a certain bumper sticker with the message, “oh, EVOLVE!”

Yes, let us all evolve, and stop being so sure we are better than the hordes.

Politics and unconsciousness

The “Trump base” ― one fraction, a minority, of the American electorate ― who support President Donald Trump, have been dismissed as generally unconscious people by those who think of themselves as liberal progressives. Here in Canada, supporters of Stephen Harper when he was Prime Minister were treated to the label. Unconciousness is the adjective of judgement progressive persons allow themselves to use for their opponents.

We have a problem. No one likes being labelled a muggle. Who would agree to that?

I am guilty of judgements along these lines. I live in Nelson, it comes naturally. I assume I live among some pretty evolved people like myself, but not far off – in Trail and Cranbrook for example – I cop an attitude: “They cannot be progressive, they voted for Stephen Harper. They love capitalism rather than socialism.”

Some readers might have stopped reading already, having seen the foregoing comments. It appears that consciousness and unconsciousness are words liberal elitists in our culture apply when they wish to praise their own attitudes and denigrate others' while maintaining the appearance of being non-judgmental.
The qualities of elite attitude are pretty consistent: patronizing and arrogant; they reek of superiority to non-elite people. Can these judges explain their opinions ?
To continue this discussion, I am going to rewrite an old column and put it in here, then add some new writing on the question, “Is human consciousness evolving still? What is the evidence?”
(My previous column begins here, with revisions.)
It seems to me that when I read or hear people on the subject of the evolution of “more conscious humans”, writing of “spiritual advancement” and “personal growth,”  seekers who are “questing for higher awareness” – there I find attitudes of superiority. It may be justified somehow. Explain it or not, I am certain there needs to be more sensitivity to how the attitude appears to people who are not counted among the conscious.
I have confessed to my own attitudinal defects. Other examples of The Attitude: Ken Wilber. Don Beck. Barbara Marx Hubbard. Steve Dinan. Jeremy Rifkin. William Irwin Thompson. They are not uniformly dismissive of “unconscious people.”
Here is some online reading for research by some of these authors:
https://integralwithoutborders.net/sites/default/files/resources/Overview%20of%20Developmental%20Levels.pdf
http://barbaramarxhubbard.com/conscious-evolution-the-next-stage-of-human-development/
http://www.integralworld.net/berge7.html


Evil and consciousness
If one says in all seriousness, “I am conscious and aware; but there are masses of people asleep – they are submerged in ego, materialism, fear, ignorance, and hatred” – Why would anyone be willing to listen to that? And yet people do say this with serious intent, write about it, lecture on it, take fees for teaching it. There are people  happy to listen and read and pay for seats in the lecture hall or TV audience.
Comparison of consciousness in past and present, whether our minds grow better or worse, bears heavily on answers to questions about “evil”. To judge oneself and one's “tribe” as better than others leads to evil consequences.
I am preoccupied with the definition of evil that I have raised in past columns. I feel convinced that the question of defining evil must be answered in the context of consciousness,  and conscience.
{Interesting vocabulary note: in French there are not two words, consciousness and conscience, but only one, conscience. See the definitions here:  
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-french/consciousness
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/french-english/conscience }
 

The Present judges the Past: we are better than they were in so many ways (?)


In a previous column, I alluded to our entire culture’s assumption that we are superior to all foregoing civilizations on the basis of our manifestly-superior material science and technology. A Canadian of ordinary means and education is extremely likely to hold this view of the past; the past is below us on the ladder of progress. However, there are not only a few contrary voices challenging this opinion.
An Indian guru is quite likely to assert that Westerners are generally “not conscious”. He or she might not say most Indians are spiritually ahead of Canadians, but the assumption that the West is miserable despite its material accomplishments is common in Asia.
Addictions are rife in the West: to drugs-sex-money-things. We have high rates of family breakdown, social pathologies (e.g. homelessness, violent gangs), mental illnesses (e.g. depression, neurosis). These are the facts non-Western people cite to conclude that we are not as happy as we pretend to be or as we are expected to be. What do we lack? Why are we suffering these maladies?
Westerners who visit India or Tibet or parts of Africa or Latin America say the same thing: Westerners are spiritual but non-religious (maybe a majority of us are anti-religious – certainly we have a strong contingent of militant atheists in our societies).
We are secular, worldly, materialistic ― and apparently rather emotionally sick more often than not. But we’ve got so much stuff!  We have such wonderful experiences. We have human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Surely Westerners are happiest among humans on Earth?
Yuval Harari is an unusual historian in asking the question, are we happier now than in the past? How did humans become conscious of happiness? How did we become conscious at all?


A Cognitive Revolution


Before I go on with an inquiry into good and evil, let me quote Harari on how we humans, the species homo sapiens, became conscious.
“The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?”
Noam Chomsky too has explored the idea of a revolution in consciousness. See more at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/say-something-chomsky-language/
What went on internally, in terms of “thought,” in the large-brained heads of Sapiens or the smaller-brained heads of chimps (or pick your favorite creature ― dolphins, elephants, etc.) is pretty much obscure, apart from the very sophisticated guessing game known as evolutionary psychology.
Harari remarks, early on in his best-selling, reader-friendly Sapiens, that “the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.
What caused it? We’re not sure.” Harari’s modest “we’re not sure,” which he repeats with respect to various other knotty issues, ought to be underscored. When we talk about the origins of language, communication, and human nature, as well as what distinguishes humans from other animals, a considerable degree of modesty about our limited understanding is warranted.
[This notion of a Cognitive Revolution in the prehistory of our species is quite fascinating. View some of Harari's ideas here:     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9xM9nKdyus ]
Science and the Western Way


Western Science has lately fastened its steely-eyed gaze on a subject that the East’s meditation traditions have long studied: Defining consciousness. What is mind/ ego/ self? What is real? Science will find out.
It is my conviction that what humans have thought about their gods,  about life and death, are measures of their consciousness. Westerners, afraid of death, believing in no other world than the material one science knows, want to prolong their lives with medical sciences. We measure the meaning of their lives by accomplishments, by our “legacy” and “how much History we make.” We make sad “bucket lists” (i.e. of experiences/things we must do/possess before dying.
The Western Way seems to me to be demonstrate less consciousness than other civilizations. Where people never stop questing for the meaning and purpose of life, death, good, evil, divinity, spirit, love ― there is a society where consciousness is valued. I know we have such people here in the West. Are they the conscious minority? This is a provocative notion.
In my reading on the subject of consciousness, I find it heartening to read that there are scientists who admit, the mere matter and energy in our brains and bodies is not an answer to why we have consciousness. Consciousness is not emergent from matter. Materialist science has not got the answer to the query, “why is there consciousness at all?”


Consciousness and Selfhood


Whatever ancient humans experienced as mind, consciousness, and selfhood, we today have largely jettisoned the old religions. We stumble in the dark awaiting a new sense of certainty, and both science and new spiritual paths are willing to provide solutions; the new paths promise to lead us “upward.”
That the quality of being conscious will emerge from matter, and only in certain organisms with a particular structure of brain, is one hypothesis. But I like another. An animal with brain-matter and intelligence and knowledge does not have to have consciousness or sentience. Consciousness is not a necessity -- it is not integral to the physical property of neurons. Brains can lack mind.
Consciousness is accidental in the matter/energy world; that is the opinion of thinkers like Daniel Dennett who regard consciousness as an emergent property of matter. David Chalmers disagrees with him. Jonathan Shear edited a thick volume of writing by scientists wrestling with the issue, titled Explaining Consciousness: the Hard Problem in 1999, and much more study has been done since.
I noted in a previous column that one thesis about consciousness asserts humans around the year 1,000 BCE transitioned from “bicameral mind” ― wherein two voices spoke, one divine and one human ― into minds like our own. Professor J. Jaynes says nabi [prophet] Samuel had a bicameral mind but King David did not.
Greeks of the Homeric era were existing on the cusp between bicameral mind and consciousness, Jaynes argues; the Greek hero Ulysses was like the Israelite King Saul, a man of the transitional phase. Jaynes says Mind progressed through a first, bicameral stage, to a second stage of consciousness in a burst of change around about 3,000 years ago. The Jaynes hypothesis is in low repute with neuro-scientists, yet his notion has fascinated many historians.


Revelations of God and the Growth of Consciousness


It seems to me a fair statement to describe the writing in the Judeo-Christian bible as a recording of how human minds in past cultures “evolved;” their understanding of the infinite and the divine, of the reality of the material world, and of life, death, mystery, grew more complex, and the evidence is in the texts. The Bible can be studied as a source for observing the emergence of different kinds of consciousness in cultures: in other words, it is a key text in the evolution of human mind.
What was spiritual truth and/or practical wisdom for people 3,000 years before us is revealed in words, in the Old Testament and in Egyptian and Sumerian religious ideas too. Words of course are notoriously a problem in any estimation of the interior life of minds. I do not know what my closest friend or child “is really like” inside their heads, so how can I presume to get inside the minds of people so long ago? I cannot really know. But what is written is what those people could tell us and that's the best we have.
Many commentators on ancient belief stress two concepts that we have, that ancient people lacked – an idea of “religion” as a particular sphere of their lives, and a sense of selfhood, ego, and interior mind-space.
Religion is a word we need, but ancients did not. “What gods do you worship?” or “who are the gods of your people?”--  these were meaningful queries. “What religion/ faith/ creed do you have?”  was not the question.
A god was a very personal thing: not me, yet always here with me, in an earlier stage of human cultural history. Maybe our minds were different when we did not “practice religion.”
“Personal” had a different meaning for people of the past. My person, in the year 1,000 BCE, was not my ego. Ego was not developed then as now. No word for it existed in the most ancient biblical texts. Buddha did not have a word for ego separate from self.
It was a great innovation for a writer of the 800’s to say that god was not the wind nor the thunder, but a “small, still voice” inside the prophet Elijah. Later, Jeremiah would use a word for “heart” for the inside, for the conscience, of an Israelite, saying God would write his torah on the hearts of his people. They would have consciences.
{A really wonderful read, in my opinion, on the question of how the West's God has evolved, is the two-volume “biography of God” by Jack Miles, titled God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.}

End of Part 1.  Part 2 will continue the discussion, starting with "Greek Science, Israelite Religion, and Human Selfhood."