Ever since I was a teenager in the 1970s I have had a passionate interest in the aspects of science that point to, or otherwise hint at, the existence of a larger reality. Back then, my scientific interests included quantum physics, self-organizing systems, and the study of consciousness. Although my professional development eventually took a different path, I continued to study and contemplate the intersection of science and spirituality. Then in the late 1990s I became acquainted with an emerging new form of philosophy known as integral philosophy, which has since become the central focus of my working life.
Integral philosophy is essentially a philosophy of evolution that emphasizes the evolution of consciousness as a central factor in the process of evolution overall. This new perspective is compelling and important because it demonstrates the connection between the personal development of each person’s values and character and the larger development of human history. Through its insights into the evolution of human consciousness and culture, integral philosophy offers realistic and pragmatic solutions to the growing global problems that are increasingly threatening our civilization. That is, from the perspective of this philosophy, every problem in the world can be understood, at least partially, as a problem of consciousness. So it follows that the solutions to seemingly intractable problems, such as environmental degradation and climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, hunger and overpopulation, unregulated globalization and gross inequality, can all be effectively ameliorated by raising or changing the consciousness that is continuing to create (or prevent) these problems. Moreover, when we understand human history from this perspective, we can see how, in at least some places, human nature itself has developed, values and worldviews have evolved, and concepts of “worldcentric” morality have come to replace more narrow ethnocentric sensibilities. As a result of the co-evolution of consciousness and culture, some segments of the world’s population have increasingly come to reject war, to condemn oppression, and to place a high value on the preservation of our natural environment.
As my understanding of this new philosophy of evolution grew, I was eventually moved to try to make a contribution to the field, which led to my last book, Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution. The book described the basic contours of integral philosophy and offered some constructive critiques of its leading authors. It also applied integral philosophy’s understanding of evolution to politics, psychology, and spirituality in an attempt to expand the scope of this emerging perspective. Integral Consciousnesswas well received by reviewers and readers, and as a result of its success, I have established many new relationships and have come to an even deeper understanding of integral philosophy’s central subject: the ever-present process through which everything in the universe has come to be—the unfolding epic of evolution. Although I was initially drawn to integral philosophy because it promised to solve real world problems, as my understanding deepened, I realized that this philosophy’s greatest potential to improve the human condition can be found in its ability to help us better comprehend evolution itself.
Through integral philosophy, I have come to see that the evolutionary story of our universe, when understood in its entirety from the flaring forth of the big bang, through the emergence of our solar system, through the evolution of life, and up through the development of human society and culture, carries an unmistakably spiritual message. This message is discovered as we begin to appreciate the unfathomable value that evolution has produced in the course of its development, and how evolution’s generation of value discloses its progressive character. And as we come to clearly see how evolution progresses, this reveals evolution’s purpose. As we will explore throughout this book, the evident purpose of evolution is to grow toward ever-widening realizations of beauty, truth, and goodness; and it is through the generation of these most intrinsic forms of value that evolution expresses its spiritual message.
One of the most compelling features of this conception of evolution’s purpose is that it is apparent in the scientific facts themselves. Recognizing evolution’s purpose does not require us to adopt a specific belief system or otherwise buy into an authoritative spiritual teaching; the meaning and value of evolution can be readily seen once we carefully consider what science and philosophy have now disclosed. However, although most of the evolutionary science that provides the foundation of our discussion has been around for decades, it is only in the last few years that we have begun to grasp evolution in its fullness. And this breakthrough in our understanding of evolution overall has resulted from the enlarged appreciation of the cultural or psychosocial aspects of evolution brought about by the recent insights of integral philosophy. This new philosophy of evolution helps us directly experience the truth of evolution’s underlying purpose because it shows how the personal sense of purpose that we feel in our individual lives is directly connected to the larger movement of evolution as a whole. Stated differently, the evolutionary impulse to make things better that we feel in our hearts and minds is the very same impulse that has been driving the unfolding emergence of the universe from the beginning.
Once this became clear to me, I felt the excitement of what seemed like a new discovery. I could sense that if evolution’s purpose—both personal and universal—could be convincingly demonstrated, this insight could help bring about further evolution in consciousness and culture. Because once it has been properly pointed out, the purpose of evolution becomes relatively self-evident and self-authenticating. And as more people come to see and agree about this momentous truth, this can help us achieve greater social solidarity and stronger political will, it can make us more effective at addressing humanity’s problems, and it can increase our sense of collective well-being by helping us to feel more at home in the universe.
When we begin to appreciate evolution’s larger meaning, this does not replace or invalidate the teachings of existing spiritual traditions, rather, it confirms much of what these traditions have been teaching all along, while also refining and improving their essential message. The philosophical recognition of evolution’s purpose uplifts both religion and science by better integrating and harmonizing these two indispensible approaches to truth.
Although the meaning and value of evolution does become increasingly evident through philosophical reflection, understanding evolution’s purpose in its fullness is not simple or easy. But even though some of the arguments in this book may require sustained concentration to be fully grasped or otherwise appreciated, my ultimate thesis is straightforward: evolution is making things better. Despite the inevitable growth of problems and pathologies, and despite the ongoing presence of suffering and evil in this world, I hope to show how the process of evolution generally moves in directions of intrinsic value. Although our understanding of intrinsic value itself has evolved by dialectical steps and stages throughout history, we can nevertheless detect an enduring current in the cosmos that has been growing from the beginning toward the beautiful, the true, and the good. While this thesis may at first sound lofty or idealistic, the supporting arguments do not rely on any supernatural explanations or spiritual authorities. The evidence for every one of my conclusions can be found either in the discoveries of science or in experiential realities familiar to all of us. So in the discussion that follows, we will only transcend science where in doing so we are able to adequately include all relevant scientific facts within our analysis. And by the end of our discussion I trust you will agree that descriptions of evolution which portray it as a purely accidental and essentially meaningless process have now become as outmoded as claims that the world was literally created in six days.
Chapter Two: Necessary Metaphysics for an Evolutionary Worldview
How Metaphysics Is Used in the Science of Evolution
The theory of evolution in all its forms has always been a combination of science and metaphysics. However, this is not a criticism of evolutionary theory, because it really couldn’t have been otherwise. In fact, the enterprise of science as a whole depends on an orientation to truth and a commitment to make things better that are grounded in metaphysical premises. For example, all science is founded on faith in reason, logic, and the conviction that the universe is intelligible. Scientists necessarily proceed on the premise that the truth about nature can be discovered and reliably known, and that what is true in our part of the universe is true throughout the universe. Scientists also presume that their minds can be dependably used to investigate the reality of the world, and that their sense perceptions provide accurate descriptions of the subjects of their inquiries. Science also rests on thea priori principle that mathematics is real and can be used to model and describe physical reality. Indeed, the presumption that matter itself is real is ultimately metaphysical.
We can also detect the use of metaphysics in the way scientists rely on the premise that scientific knowledge is a good in itself. This faith in the value of scientific truth is connected to the conviction that humanity will be benefited by science’s free inquiry and progressive discovery of the truth about the universe. Similarly, the longing for greater perfection in knowledge and the hunger for discovery that motivates most scientists are also grounded in a metaphysical premise regarding the very possibility of increasing perfection. All of these foundational value assumptions thus generally presuppose a transcendent ground of ultimate value or goodness.
Beyond these specific uses of metaphysics, we can also see how the vast enterprise of science itself is supported and sustained by the metaphysics of the modernist worldview, which originally gave rise to the notion of an objective reality that could be progressively discovered using scientific methods. Prior to the advent of modernism, it did not generally occur to people that carefully controlled experiments or empirical investigations might yield greater understanding of the natural world. For example, the basic act of cutting open a cadaver to learn about the human body for the advancement of medicine was abhorrent to premodern sensibilities. Thus, the very activity of scientific investigation is a product of the modernist reality frame, which firmly rests on the metaphysical foundations of the Enlightenment.6 Without these forms of foundational metaphysics, science would be impossible. And it is worth saying here that I am in firm agreement will all of the general metaphysical principles stated above.
However, when we examine the metaphysics that is bound up with the theory of evolution, we find assumptions about reality that are far less inspiring. Today, the “experts” on evolution generally recognized by mainstream academia and the corporate media are a closely-knit group of scientists known as “neo-Darwinists.” Neo-Darwinists are firmly committed to the metaphysical principle that, like physics, biological evolution is essentially a mechanistic process that can be completely explained using reductionistic methods. For example, neo-Darwinists hold that macroevolution (major transitions in species or taxa) is to be understood entirely by the processes involved in microevolution (accumulation of variations in populations). Douglas Futuyama, for instance, declares that “the known mechanisms of evolution [provide] both a sufficient and necessary explanation for the diversity of life.”7 Although it has never been proven as a matter of scientific fact, contemporary neo-Darwinists insist that the mechanisms of random genetic variation and the genetic drift of allele frequency, coupled with environmental filtering, can account for practically all forms of biological evolution. Moreover, neo-Darwinists maintain that genetic variations must always be completely random and can never be directed toward an advantageous mutation. Process philosopher David Griffin writes:
This doctrine that mutations are random [in the non-advantageous sense] is important to Darwinists for several reasons: The idea that the organism’s purposes could influence evolution would contradict the ideal of making biology a purely mechanistic, deterministic science. Also, the idea that purposes could give a bias to genetic mechanisms seems impossible to most Darwinists. (Richard Dawkins, for example, says that “nobody has ever come close to suggesting any means by which this bias could come about.”) And, perhaps most important, the idea that variation is somehow directed toward adaptation would reduce the importance of the central Darwinian conception, natural selection. … We do know that some mutations are caused by cosmic rays; but we do not know that allmutations are due to these or analogous causes. Many neo-Darwinists, nevertheless, express great confidence in the truth of this speculation—a confidence that, in light of the number of confidently held ideas that have in the past turned out to be false, is somewhat awe-inspiring. For example, Jacques Monod, argues that random mutations “constitute the only possible source of modifications in the genetic text,” so that “chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere.”8
This insistence on the “scientific reality” of something that has not been proven is a clear example of how metaphysics and science are frequently mixed together. Similar examples of reality-framing metaphysical assumptions can be found in evolutionary science’s commitment to the philosophical doctrine of nominalism, which insists that there can be no forms, archetypes, or preexisting information involved in the process of development. Despite the facts ofconvergent evolution, wherein evolutionary solutions are repeated almost exactly in different evolutionary categories or phyla, the experts are adamant that the mysterious process of organismal development (morphogenesis) cannot involve any kind of “morphic fields” or nonphysical inputs or influences.
Related to this metaphysical commitment to the exclusivity of physical causation is the premise that evolution must always proceed gradually through a step-by-step accumulation of minute changes. This gradualism is essential for neo-Darwinist accounts of evolution. Darwin himself wrote: “If it could be shown that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”9 The fossil record in Darwin’s time contained few transitional types, but in the last 150 years abundant transitional species have been discovered. Yet even as the fossil record has been filled in, enough gaps remain that theories such as “punctuated equilibrium” are still needed to explain transitions at the species level. Moreover, paleontologists have found that “once a species appears in the fossil record, it tends to persist with little appreciable change throughout the remainder of its existence.”10 This finding underscores that at some point in the appearance of every major new form or evolutionary innovation, significant novelty enters the universe. In other words, evolutionary scientists now agree that emergence is a ubiquitous characteristic of biological evolution, and emergence by definition signifies that there has been a jump or a surge—that something more has come from something less.
Thus, when we face the facts of evolutionary emergence, we can begin to see that the underlying assumption that evolution must alwaysoccur randomly through tiny steps and without the influence of any “outside information” is not a scientific fact, but rather a commitment of faith held for the sake of the consistency of the theory. Unproven theoretical conclusions in science do not necessarily amount to metaphysical premises, but when these theoretical conclusions contradict the weight of evidence and are held primarily because they preserve a priori metaphysical commitments to materialism, they are more metaphysical than scientific.
Among the many philosophical principles used in the evolutionary sciences, perhaps the most radically metaphysical of all is the assertion that evolution is not progressive and indeed pointless. Today, it appears that the majority of biologists think that evolution does not progress, and that the development of species over time is merely a “random walk.” Stephen Jay Gould went so far as to call the idea of progress in evolution “noxious,” maintaining that there are no criteria by which improvement could be measured. Gould wrote: “If an amoeba is as well adapted to its environment as we are to ours, who is to say that we are higher creatures?”11 And despite the basic moral intuition shared by most people that a dolphin or an elephant is “higher” (and thus worthy of greater moral consideration) than an ant or a bacterium, Gould’s repudiation of the notion of evolutionary progress is accepted by many biologists without question. This “scientific proposition” can be found not only within the field of biological evolution, it is also echoed by cosmologists. In an oft-quoted passage, Nobel Laureate in physics, Steven Weinberg, writes: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” But by this stage of our discussion, I hope it is obvious that science has not “proven” that evolution is unprogressive, let alone pointless. These pessimistic assertions are based on the philosophy of scientism—the materialistic belief system that has become an embedded feature of the institutional culture of science.
We will return to the discussion of evolutionary progress in chapters 5 and 6. The point to be emphasized here is that within the academic study of evolution, including cosmological, biological, and cultural evolution, the metaphysics of the scientific worldview plays a major role in determining the boundary conditions under which evolution can be studied or even understood. These metaphysical commitments are for the most part unconscious, and thus they are usually held uncritically. And because the metaphysics of the modernist, scientific worldview is generally received by scientists in the course of their training and held unconsciously, this metaphysics is passed on to others far more readily by insinuation rather than by direct argument. Despite the fact that the metaphysics of the modernist worldview has been severely questioned by professional philosophers, professional scientists continue to use this reality frame as a definitional container for the institutional study of evolution.
However, from an integral perspective, modernist metaphysics is not “all wrong,” as some postmodern philosophers contend. The naturalistic spirit of the scientific enterprise has been responsible for many of science’s greatest achievements. Integral philosophy thus seeks to include the advantages of methodological naturalism within its purview, even as it transcends the limitations of scientific materialism. As we look at the history of science we can see how the various philosophies of materialism and positivism have served the important function of cleansing our thinking about nature by ridding it of superstition and all kinds of fallacious assumptions. In a world that was once dominated by traditional consciousness and state-sponsored religious political authority, mechanistic materialism served as the protective shell out of which the “chick” of science could be born. But now the chick is hatched and science has become the new politically empowered authority on the truth. And this has resulted in the accompanying metaphysics of scientism becoming a new kind of state-sponsored belief system, used by materialists as a quasi-religious power base in academia and the mainstream media.
As we have seen, there is no getting around metaphysics—if we want to investigate reality we must have a categorical framework with which to organize both our investigations and our findings. Historically, the metaphysics of materialism served science well because it was the most minimal form of metaphysics available. Scientists wanted to get at the bare facts, and it was presumed that a philosophy of materialism would interfere the least in their apprehension of these facts. However, scientists adopted materialist metaphysics not only because it seemed to interfere least with the process of getting at the facts. In practice, the primary use of materialistic accounts of evolution was found in their symbolic role of overcoming the cultural power of traditional religious worldviews. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the theory of evolution was used as an effective tool for recruiting people into the modernist worldview because it provided a creation story that was more rational and more satisfying than Biblical, or other scriptural accounts. Thus, despite its abundant utility for science, the theory’s greatest power was found in its ability to produce cultural evolution. As Stanford scholar Robert Wesson observes: “Darwinism became the banner of those who would overthrow what they saw as an irrational, superstitious view of human origins. … The theory of evolution became the focus of the confrontation of science and religion.”12
… /snip/ …
This discussion of the metaphysics that is closely, sometimes imperceptibly, associated with the evolutionary sciences is not an attempt to refute the sturdy basics of descent with modification. As explained in the introduction, I am not trying to smuggle in a specific spiritual belief system or otherwise advocate unscientific theories such as intelligent design. Rather, my intent is to affirm as much evolutionary science as possible. Yet at the same time, I want to show how the abundant metaphysical assumptions that frame so many features of the evolutionary sciences have become theoretical handcuffs that prevent us from moving to the next phase in our understanding of evolution. For most fields of scientific investigation, metaphysical materialism continues to provide an adequate reality frame for doing science. But in the field of evolution, which has such profound explanatory relevance for human affairs, the metaphysics of strict materialism is now worn out.
Contrary to the assertions of scientific materialists, explanations of evolution that rely exclusively on the mechanisms of chance mutation and environmental selection cannot explain the appearance of self-consciousness and the transcendent powers of human awareness. Moreover, as we discussed in chapter 1, materialism’s need to assert physical causation as the only possible explanation of the origins of natural phenomena breaks down when confronted with the radical novelty of emergence. As we will explore further below, the ubiquity of emergent novelty and creativity that can be found throughout the evolutionary process, together with the evident affects of the downward causation produced by emergent systems, points to the influence of both the formal causation of information and the final causation of an underlying purpose. Yet if we are to come to grips with these evolutionary causes, we need a new kind of categorical framework. This new framework will not be found through a return to the supernatural metaphysics of premodern reality frames, it must retain the spirit of naturalism and be as “minimally metaphysical” as possible. However, while our new framework must keep its metaphysics both transparent and sparingly lean, it must also be willing to recognize the authentic reality of a variety of causal factors that are presently ruled out by materialism.
Chapter Six: Evolutionary Progress in Nature
The Value of Wholes and Parts
As we are coming to see, one of the primary catalysts that is causing the emergence of this new evolutionary worldview is a deeper understanding of evolution itself. And at the heart of this deeper understanding is a recognition of how the process of evolution generates value naturally and prolifically as it unfolds. To demonstrate this point, in this section we will examine evolution’s trend toward increasing quality using two crucial concepts that are central to integral philosophy. The first concept focuses on the structural pattern produced by evolutionary emergence, and the second concept reveals how this expanding structure of emergence produces complementary forms of intrinsic and instrumental value.
Our analysis begins by reexamining evolution’s natural hierarchy of developmental levels. In chapter 1, we saw how the process of evolution as a whole has manifested itself through three major domains or primary levels of emergence (physical, biological, and cultural), with each domain itself unfolding through a nested sequence of emerging levels. This hierarchical structure is formed by evolution’s basic technique of building increasingly more complex systems upon simpler foundational systems. Although science did not begin to study the processes or structures of emergence until the twentieth century, the deeper meaning of this hierarchical ordering pattern has intrigued philosophers throughout history. Venerable thinkers such as Leibniz and Hegel spent significant time contemplating this structural feature of the natural world.
Then beginning in the 1960s, philosopher Arthur Koestler advanced the theory of “holons” and “holarchy,” which described the pattern created by emergence wherein each evolutionary entity is a whole in one context and a part in another. Koestler pointed out that in the sequence of emergent evolutionary levels, every whole entity is composed of parts, but is also itself “a part” that is included in larger wholes. For example, in the sequence of biological emergence, a cell is simultaneously a whole that contains organelles and molecules, and also a part that is contained by living tissue. Every form of evolutionary organization consists neither of simple wholes nor simple parts; in the organization of evolution there are only “whole/parts,” or what Koestler called “holons.” Moreover, the development of holons does not result in a simple hierarchy, like geological strata stacked on top of each other. Rather, the pattern resembles the structure of an onion or a nested series of concentric spheres that are interdependent and complexly interactive—this structure of evolutionary systems is thus itself a system. Koestler also coined the term “holarchy” to refer to the natural hierarchy formed by evolution’s construction of holons within holons. Figure 6.1 illustrates two complementary views of this developmental pattern: The figure on the left illustrates the nested structure of a holarchy’s “development by envelopment,” as well as how each holarchic level “transcends and includes” its predecessors. The figure on the right illustrates the holarchic principle of “more depth less span.” That is, as emergence builds on itself, higher levels of development are generally less physically numerous than lower levels. This naturally occurring form of organization can be found in practically all forms of evolutionary development.
Figure 6.1. Different graphical representations of the same structure of interdependent hierarchy produced by the emergence of holons, known as a “holarchy”
Koestler’s important insight about the underlying structure of evolution has since been adopted by a number of prominent writers on evolution, including Lynn Margulis and Ken Wilber. Recognizing the evident growth in value demonstrated by this pattern, Wilber writes:
In any developmental or growth sequence, as a more encompassing stage or holon emerges, it includes the capacities and patterns and functions of the previous stage (i.e., of the previous holons), and then adds its own unique (and more encompassing) capacities. In that sense, and that sense only, can the new and more encompassing holon be said to be “higher” or “deeper.” … Organisms include cells, which include molecules, which includeatoms (but not vice a versa). Thus, whatever the important value of the previous stage, the new stage has that enfolded in its own makeup, plus something extra (more integrative capacity, for example), and that “something extra” means “extra value” relative to the previous (and less encompassing) stage. This crucial definition of a “higher stage” was first introduced in the West by Aristotle and in the East by Shankara and Lieh-tzu; it has been central to developmental studies ever since.9
Wilber’s explanation of the growth of value through holarchical development begins to reveal the connection between the theory of holons and the theory of intrinsic and instrumental value introduced above. Recall that intrinsic value is a good in itself, and instrumental value is a good for something other. Applying the recognition of these complementary categories of value to evolution’s whole/part pattern, we find that holons exhibit both kinds of value as a result of their participation within this structural sequence. That is, in their function as parts, holons are instrumentally valuable to the larger wholes that embrace them. And in their role as whole entities, holons possess intrinsic value in themselves. This recognition of the simultaneous existence of both instrumental and intrinsic value within evolutionary forms provides the basis of Holmes Rolston’s influential environmental ethics. Rolston explains:
Organisms value other organisms and earthen resources instrumentally. … Plants make resourceful use of water and sunshine. Insects value the energy that plants have fixed by photosynthesis; warblers value insect protein; falcons value warblers. … Organisms value these resources instrumentally because they value something intrinsically: their selves, their form of life. No warbler eats insects in order to become food for a falcon; the warbler defends her own life as an end in itself and makes more warblers as she can. From the perspective of a warbler, being a warbler is a good thing. … A life is defended intrinsically, without further contributory reference—unless to defend the species and that still is to defend a form of life as an end in itself. Such defenses go on before humans are present; and thus both instrumental and intrinsic values are objectively present in ecosystems. The system is a web where loci of intrinsic value are meshed in a network of instrumental value.10
Rolston’s description of the presence of both intrinsic value and instrumental value within biological systems has been extended by Wilber, who describes how these different forms of value increase in opposing yet complementary directions as evolutionary holarchies build over time. In other words, as evolution unfolds it results in both increasing intrinsic value and increasing instrumental value.
Beginning with intrinsic value, Wilber observes that as evolution produces larger and larger encompassing holonic levels, each new level contains more and more parts, and thus more and more whole entities. And as holons come to embrace more whole/parts within themselves, this increases their intrinsic value, or what he calls their “evolutionary significance.” Wilber thus concludes that “cells are more significant than molecules, because cells contain molecules … An ape is more significant than a cell, and so on.”11
Yet according to this theory of “holonic ecology,” as evolutionary levels grow in wholeness or intrinsic value by embracing more parts, the parts themselves simultaneously become more and more instrumentally valuable. For example, in the scheme of evolution, as atoms are encompassed by molecules, and as molecules are in turn encompassed by cells, and then cells by organs, the underlying atomic level is taken up and used by more and more evolutionary entities. And as a given holonic level becomes increasingly more useful in this way, it becomes more instrumentally valuable to the successively larger wholes that embrace it. As Wilber explains, “the more partness-value a holon has—that is, the greater number of wholes of which that holon is a part—the more fundamental that holon is … An atom is more fundamental than an ape.”12 This conclusion is supported by the fact that atoms can exist without apes, but not vice versa. (Note that Wilber uses the terms “fundamental” and “significant” as synonyms for instrumental and intrinsic value respectively; and we will continue to use these synonyms interchangeably as our discussion continues.) Using the structure of emergence first shown in figure 6.1, figure 6.2 illustrates the key theoretical insight that shows how evolution generates value in opposite yet complementary directions as it unfolds.
Figure 6.2. Directions of growing value in evolution
The philosophical perspective that can recognize growth in both fundamental value and significant value helps us overcome both extremes in our interpretation of progress—the view that flattens all hierarchy and recognizes no progress, as well as the view that values only humans and is blind to the intrinsic value of nature. This philosophy affirms that all life has intrinsic value while also recognizing that some forms of life are more significant than others. And this theoretical approach provides a way to validate our moral intuition that the evolution of life has indeed progressed from its simple beginnings, and that humans are “higher” than other forms of life. What makes humans more evolved is our embodiment of a level of emergence that transcends biology. The physical bodies of humans may not be that different from the bodies of other complex mammals, but our minds, elevated by cultural evolution, constitute a level of emergence that distinguishes us from our animal cousins.
Chapter Seven: Purpose in Evolution
The Experience of Purpose
Purpose is in the universe. We all have it and experience it directly and regularly. And as we have seen, all forms of life also have purpose. Although the purposes of simple life forms may be genetically instinctual and apparently mechanical, these creatures’ interactions with the world are nevertheless non-computational—even with exhaustive knowledge of their present state, the exact future state that will result from their choices cannot be calculated with any possible computer.1 Indeed, it is this purposiveness in living things (or at least quasi-purposiveness) that actually distinguishes life from non-living matter. This unique ability of living things to strive and choose is the primary reason why biology cannot be reduced to physics. And to choose is to evaluate—every choice, no matter how instinctual, constitutes an evaluation. Therefore, because life forms are “spontaneous evaluative systems,” their ability to strive and choose allows them to evolve non-deterministically in ways that matter alone cannot—it is the inherent striving of life forms which enables them to fill every available ecosystemic niche, and which results in the increasingly complex phenomenon of the evolving biosphere. Moreover, it is this spontaneous creativity inherent in biological evolution that allows life to evolve at a much faster rate (once it gains momentum) than the glacial pace of deterministic geological evolution.
Just as the first-order purpose (or quasi-purpose) possessed in increasing measure by all life forms is the primary factor that distinguishes them from matter, the second-order purpose (self-reflective purpose) that emerges in humans is similarly the primary factor that distinguishes us from other forms of life. Our human sense of purpose is an aspect of our free will, and as we discussed in chapters 2 and 3, it is the freedom of our will that gives us the ability to perceive and thus pursue higher values. And it is this emergent capacity to discern truth and make moral distinctions that gives us the ability to evolve our culture. Because of our sense of higher purpose—because we can feel the ever-widening potential of a better way—humans are continuously driven and drawn toward more complex forms of social organization. By benefiting from, and participating in, humanity’s unique form of cultural evolution, human consciousness is able to evolve beyond its biological origins. Moreover, humanity’s expanded capacity for purposiveness allows cultural evolution to unfold at a faster pace (once it gains momentum) than biological evolution, due to the superior power of “actual selection” over natural selection. And as human cultural evolution accelerates, our purposes and values become more refined and are gradually transformed from the negative motivations of fear and the avoidance of pain, to more positive motivations toward our expanding conceptions of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Thus, in the scheme of evolution, creature purpose is far more than a “trace element,” it is not merely epiphenomenal; it is actually a major feature of the development of the universe. Emergent purpose within life forms is a primary driver of the evolutionary process and a seminal factor that distinguishes evolution’s major levels. Again, life’s inherent purpose differentiates it from matter, and humanity’s transcendent purpose differentiates us from other forms of life.
The fact that we all have a direct experience of purpose—that we know what it is like from the inside—gives us a sense of the kinship between our human awareness of purpose and the purpose experienced by all forms of life. That is, the purpose of almost all living things is to survive and reproduce—to keep from becoming food, to find food, and to find a mate (in roughly that order). Like animals and even plants, we can feel these biological purposes in our own experience. The feeling of fear, the feeling of hunger, and the feeling of sexual desire are all accompanied by a sense of urgency, and their relief or satisfaction provides a feeling of pleasure or even ecstasy. Among these biological influences, the evolutionary impulse of purpose is particularly acute in the case of our sex drive, wherein the eros of value attraction becomes fully embodied. But as we discussed in chapter 3, this same sense of eros that can be felt in our bodies can also be felt in our minds as we are attracted to the deeper reaches of eros, which Plato described as the “passion for intellectual beauty and wisdom, [that] culminates in the mystical vision of the eternal, the ultimate source of all beauty.”2
The way purpose is distributed across the evolutionary spectrum lends itself to a comparison with other universal forces. For example, one of the most significant aspects of Newton’s theory of gravity was his revelation that the force that moves the planets is the same force that causes apples to fall from trees. And the fact that this gravitational force is consistent across scale gives us a sense of its lawful and universal nature. So as we now consider purpose as a similar (albeit non-physical) kind of universal force, we can perhaps sense that the purpose which causes plants to grow and birds to build nests is, in some ways at least, the same purpose that drives us to seek our own self-actualization and to give our gift to the world. Moreover, by contemplating the “phenomenology of purpose,” we can begin to sense how our individual, micro-purposes are related to the macro-purposes which we are attempting to discover within evolution as a whole.
Although the major events of emergence found within human cultural evolution clearly result from the purposes of individual humans, the causes of specific forms of emergence in biological evolution cannot be directly tied to the individual purposes of organisms. At least not according to standard Darwinian theory. However, we can perhaps sense that there is nevertheless a connection between the micro-purposes of individual life forms and the macro-purposes exhibited by biological evolution’s generation of value over time. And the nascent sciences of epigenetics and adaptive mutation (discussed in chapter 2) may soon be able to demonstrate this connection explicitly.
Evidence for Purpose in Evolution
Some philosophers have argued that claims for purpose in evolution are completely devoid of evidence, and that the triumph of the Darwinian account is that it shows how evolution functions through blind mutation and environmental selection, without the need of any purpose whatsoever. In response to this I can begin by observing that “purpose” is not a material entity subject to investigation by science. Scientists cannot even measure or prove purpose in humans, so we certainly cannot expect their instruments to detect purpose in evolution as a whole. As noted, scientists have not been able to fully explain how purpose or will functions within the neurological structures of the human brain, and many scientists go so far as to argue that free will is an illusion. So the only evidence for purpose in humans is their apparently purposeful behavior. And as we will see below, it is the apparently purposeful, emergent behavior of evolution that provides similar evidence for its purpose.
As we discussed in the previous chapter, scientific examination of the physical features of cosmological evolution reveals compelling evidence that the universe is organized for life. Yet the fine-tuning of the pre-biotic physical universe only reveals an apparent purpose forevolution. If we want to find direct evidence of purpose in evolution, we must look to the presence of life and its inherent agency. And if we want to discover the comprehensive purpose of evolution as a universal process, our investigation must be broadened beyond matter and life so as to include the psychosocial evolution of humanity. Evidence for evolution’s purpose is thus found in a set of interconnected observations about the behavior and character of evolution overall. As a preview of our forthcoming discussion, these observations can be summarized as follows:
Evolution generates value—it progresses by emergent steps that result in an increase in both instrumental value and intrinsic value. The nested structure of development that results from evolution’s 13.7 billion year trajectory of growth has achieved unfathomable value, and it is in this relatively consistent movement toward value that we can recognize purpose.
Evolution exhibits a rising flow of creativity that consistently overcomes entropy, ingeniously solves difficult problems by navigating through immense hyperspaces of possibility, produces astonishing diversity and originality, and continually transcends itself through the emergence of radically novel forms and new levels of organization.
Evolution’s purpose can be directly felt within us across a spectrum of experience that includes biological, personal, social, and spiritual impulses for improvement. The kinship between our individual purposes and the overall purpose of evolution is found in the way our personal purposes mirror and connect with the larger interdependent structure of wholes and parts that orders the unfolding of evolution throughout the course of its development.
These observations regarding the evidence for purpose in evolution are interrelated, and their individual evidential strength is mutually reinforced by combination. So as we now consider these elements of purpose in sequence, please keep in mind that these arguments are not presented as a “chain,” wherein the weakness of any link undermines the strength of the whole, but rather as a “braided cable,” wherein the otherwise thin strands reinforce each other.
Chapter Nine: The Promise of a New Evolutionary Worldview
Elements of an Evolutionary Worldview
It bears repeating here that integral philosophy is essentially a philosophy of evolution; and it is integral philosophy’s enlarged understanding of the evolution of consciousness and culture that reveals where evolution is headed and where our opportunities lie. Examining the historical record using this evolutionary perspective shows how modernism emerged out of traditionalism, and how postmodernism in turn evolved beyond modernism. And this perspective also shows the next stage of cultural evolution that is beginning to appear on the horizon of history.
The rise of the modernist worldview during the Enlightenment was the result of many factors, making a comprehensive analysis of this emergent event beyond the scope of our present discussion. Yet among the many causes of the Enlightenment, historians are in general agreement that the metaphysical philosophy of Rene Descartes was particularly significant. Beginning in the early seventeenth century, Galileo’s demonstration of the heliocentric structure of the solar system had shown the superiority of scientific descriptions of reality over the mythical teachings of the Church. Spurred by these discoveries, Descartes developed an original philosophic foundation for the scientific revolution. His radical philosophy divided reality into a subjective, supernatural world of mind, and an objective, material world of matter. And by doing so he helped inaugurate a new era of reason and scientific discovery. By literally reframing reality using new metaphysical categories, Descartes helped open the eyes of scientists to the “objective” way of seeing and understanding the natural world.
A New Ontology
Now in our time, integral philosophy is doing something very similar; it is reframing reality so as to open up the “ontology of interiors.” Guided by the philosophy of Whitehead, Wilber, and others, as well as by the breakthroughs of system science, integral philosophy has discovered that the worldview structures that provide the steps of evolution for consciousness and culture are actually dynamic systems of agreement that resemble the dynamical systems (also known as “dissipative structures”) found in nature. These worldview systems have both an exterior, physical expression, and also an interior dimension. On the external side, the features of these dynamic systems of culture are fairly straightforward; they can be found in the various forms of communication and social expression through which worldviews are transmitted and consolidated. Yet on the internal side, in addition to the subjective experience of individuals, integral philosophy has revealed a previously unrecognized collective interior aspect of worldview systems. And it is through its expanded recognition of the collective interiors of cultural evolution that integral philosophy reveals a new ontology.
As noted, historically significant worldviews are powerful, multi-generational, large-scale agreements that frame reality and provide identity for those who ascribe to them. And although these agreements are ultimately affirmed and maintained within the subjective consciousness of individuals, there is an element of such agreements that is neither wholly subjective nor completely objective. That is, worldview structures are partially objective, partially subjective, but also partially “intersubjective”—these dynamic systems occupy the “agreement space” that exists in between individuals. Put differently, evolutionarily significant, macro agreements about values occupy multiple domains simultaneously: these worldview systems subsist in objective forms of communication, subjective forms of assent and concurrence, and enduring intersubjective forms of connection that make up a large part of the “interior corpus” of these agreement structures.
This intersubjective aspect of worldview systems is not merely metaphorical. According to integral philosophy, the intersubjective realm is an interior dimension of reality that cannot be reduced to either objective or subjective categories. And it is by recognizing this collective interior dimension of cultural evolution that integral philosophy provides an expanded reality frame; a fresh perspective that helps us better understand the developmental structure of human consciousness and cuture. Of course, cultural worldviews are not conscious entities, but they do exhibit enduring systemic behaviors that resemble other types of self-organizing evolutionary structures such as ecosystems.
Recognizing the similarities between worldview systems and biological systems helps us better understand the “metabolism of values” through which cultural structures maintain their systemic vitality. Just as cells are the micro-systems that make up an organism, agreements about specific values act similarly as the internal micro-systems that aggregate into historically significant worldviews that persist through time. Moreover, as discussed further below, this new understanding of value metabolism can help us better understand why some cultures are vibrant and healthy and why other cultures remain dysfunctional. This expanded ontological recognition of cultural evolution thus allows us to better see, contact, and work with these worldview systems as never before.
Further, integral philosophy’s expanded recognition of interiority avoids the problems of Cartesian dualism by explaining how the subjective category of consciousness (or interiority in general) is not “supernatural”; sentient subjectivity is as real and natural as the external aspects of reality. Building on Whitehead, integral philosophy argues that every naturally occurring form of evolutionary organization possesses an interior aspect. While this recognition of pervasive interiority does not imply that structures such as cells or molecules have consciousness per se, it does show how consciousness does not simply “pop out” at the top of the evolutionary scale. This reframing of reality thus helps avoid the mind/body problem, which has vexed materialistic forms of philosophy for over 300 years.2
So, just as Enlightenment philosophy opened up the externaluniverse to a new era of investigation and discovery through objective science, integral philosophy now promises similar advances within theinternal universe of consciousness and culture. And our growing recognition of the central role of organismal agency and value gravity in the evolution of the universe (discussed in chapter 3) provides an example of the kind of discoveries that can be made through the use of this new form of philosophy. Although a thorough description of integral philosophy’s ontology of interiors is beyond the scope of our discussion, in the sections below we will consider examples of how this new understanding can also be used to diagnose and solve many of the cultural problems that currently plague our world.
A New Epistemology
The “new way of seeing” that arose with the modernist worldview during the Enlightenment came about through the use of the emergent epistemological capacity of reason. Although premodern thinkers also used reason and logic, they lacked a systematic method of analyzing objective reality from a scientific perspective. Nor could they see how the mythical descriptions of the universe provided by their premodern worldviews were in fact inherently unreasonable, if not completely irrational. It was only through the new objective clarity provided by a thoroughly rational worldview that Europeans were able to “disenchant” their understanding of nature. And just as the rise of modernist consciousness provided a new epistemological capacity, the enlarged perspectives of the evolutionary worldview likewise provide the expanded vision of a new epistemological capacity. This new capacity, which Wilber calls “vision-logic,” arises as we come to increasingly view the world through dialectical perspectives.
This dialectical way of knowing can be distinguished from both “formal operational thought” (originally described by Piaget), and “relativistic thought.” Formal operational thinking, which is most often associated with modernist consciousness, usually perceives the world as presenting “right or wrong” choices within a closed system of lawful relationships. Relativistic thinking, which is most often associated with postmodern consciousness, can see the validity of more than one choice, but cannot usually see how such alternatives can be reconciled or synthesized. In contrast to both of these earlier ways of knowing, dialectical thinking always anticipates the possibility of development, and thus perceives the world as a fundamental process of changing dynamic relationships. This dialectical way of seeing thus recognizes how conflicting perspectives can actually work together, mutually supporting each other, even when in apparent opposition, in a manner that can be compared to the function of a tension strut in an architectural structure.
Developmental psychologist Michael Basseches illustrates dialectical thinking using the example of three college students who are each frustrated by standardized assignments and tests, and feel that their freedom and love of learning is being stifled. In this example, the first student (representing formal operational thinking) is angry about his situation, but resigns himself to the unfairness of the system and cynically decides to just give teachers what they want in order to get by. The second student (representing relativistic thinking) is confused; he knows his education would be improved if he had more curricular freedom, but he also “assumes that the college is run by experienced educators, who must have determined that the use of tests and assigned papers to measure and grades to motivate is the soundest educational method.” However, the third student in Basseches’ example (representing dialectical thinking), “reasons that this contradiction will only really be resolved when the basic relationship of the colleges and universities to society is transformed. He decides that he will devote his time at college to trying to learn all he can that might help him contribute to that kind of transformation of educational institutions. He accepts that in the meantime he will be given standardized assignments and grades and will have to make compromises … But he is resolved not to lose sight of his own educational goals.”3 This example thus suggests how dialectical thinkers can take conflicts in their stride, using them for further development. Additional examples are discussed below.
The emergent epistemological capacity of reason that arises with modernist consciousness is a cognitive capacity of the mind, which involves rational thinking. In contrast, the new epistemological capacity that arises with the evolutionary perspective is an emergentvolitional capacity of the will, which comes about mostly through dialectical evaluation. That is, it is usually only by appropriatelyvaluing the elements of a problematic situation that we can correctly perceive the crucial functions of such elements within the situation as a whole. This involves more than simply “weighing the alternatives” and assigning different values to various components; it is a way of understanding and appreciating that requires an intuitive sympathy achieved only by “getting in close”—by identifying with and actually entering into the alternative perspectives that generate opposing values. When we look at evolutionary processes without this ability, all we can see is conflict. But when we come to recognize the unfolding of internal structures through time, we can begin to better appreciate how they are working together within a larger developmental system, and this allows us to engage these structures more effectively. Recognizing this, developmental theorist Robert Kegan actually defines dialectical thinking as “the capacity to see conflict as a signal of our overidentification with a single system.”4
A New Set of Values
As we have seen, historically significant cultural worldviews are made up of discrete sets of values that are related to the problems faced by a given worldview’s “time in history.” Continuing this pattern, the emerging evolutionary worldview also has its own relatively unique values, such as the aspiration to harmonize science and spirituality, an enhanced sense of personal responsibility for the problems of the world, an enlarged appreciation of conflicting truths and dialectic reasoning, and a new appreciation of the significance of evolution in general, and cultural evolution in particular. But unlike older worldviews, this evolutionary perspective also recognizes that every previous worldview contains important values that are necessary for the ongoing functionality of society. As a result of this understanding, the evolutionary view is able to better appreciate and thus better use the healthy values of the entire spectrum of cultural development. And it is by including a wider range of values within its purview that the evolutionary perspective is able to transcend all previous worldviews. Earlier worldviews tend to see each other primarily for their pathologies, discounting the important cultural role that each worldview plays within the larger system of cultural evolution. But the evolutionary perspective can see existing cultural structures within a broader evolutionary context, and can thus more effectively “objectify” earlier values without being repulsed or embarrassed by them.
This process of cultural evolution through objectification is described by Kegan’s well-known “subject-object theory.” Kegan explains the progress of consciousness through the stages of development by observing that a person transcends a given stage when what was previously embedded in that person’s subjective consciousness becomes objectified, or recognized from an external perspective. According to Kegan, “[T]ransforming our epistemologies, liberating ourselves from that in which we were embedded, making what was subject into object so that we can ‘have it’ rather than ‘be had’ by it—this is the most powerful way I know to conceptualize the growth of the mind.”5 For example, in the traditional stage of consciousness, one’s religious belief system is a part of their subject—the traditionalist’s subjective consciousness is embedded or contained within their belief system. The objective world is thus perceived and constructed to satisfy the demands of this belief system. However, when a person transcends the traditional stage and achieves the increased epistemological capacity of modernist consciousness, he may still hold the same essential religious beliefs, but these beliefs are now objectified; he can see beyond his beliefs, and thus gains a greater capacity to adopt the perspective of others and see the world through their beliefs as well as his own. As a person’s consciousness evolves he can still “have his beliefs,” but in more evolved stages those beliefs no longer “have him.”
Kegan’s description of the process of subjective evolution through expanding objectification also helps us understand how the evolutionary worldview makes progress. Unlike previous worldviews, the evolutionary perspective is able to objectify the entire spectrum of established cultural development, and is thus able to achieve an “expanded vertical perspective” that can recognize a new kind of depth. Yet not only does this evolutionary view better objectify previous stages, together with the larger system of which they are a part, it also bettersubjectifies previous stages by identifying with them more closely. As noted, it is only by “getting in close” to the values of these earlier worldviews that we can begin to separate their “dignities” from their “disasters.” Recall that as a result of the dialectic of progress and pathology, successes are often tied to failures in cultural evolution. And this means that the positive values of a given worldview are accordingly tied together with that worldview’s shortcomings. Recovering the useful and enduring values of previous worldviews thus requires careful attention and a sophisticated form of sympathy.
Using the traditional worldview as an example, we can see how the values that we continue to need—values such as honesty, decency, modesty, and personal responsibility—are connected with outlooks that we must now discard—such as sexism, racism, and religious fundamentalism. When we view the traditional worldview from the outside, it is these negative aspects that are often most apparent. But when we come to also see this worldview from the inside, by better identifying with it and partially making it our own, this allows us to better appreciate, and thus tease apart, the core values of this worldview from its remaining outmoded prejudices that continue to hold us back. And as we make common cause with the healthy values of every worldview, “they” become “us.”
A Second Enlightenment
As a result of its place within the sequence of historical development, the emerging evolutionary worldview is in many ways a synthesis of modernism and postmodernism. Without the sensitive and pluralistic values of postmodernism, the evolutionary perspective would be somewhat indistinguishable from cynical modernism. However, although it embraces many postmodern values, this evolutionary worldview also carries forward some of modernism’s important strengths, such as its penchant for problem solving and its focus on progress. Thus, because the evolutionary perspective is a kind of “higher harmonic” of modernism, the historical context out of which this evolutionary view is emerging shows many similarities to the previous appearance of modernism during the Enlightenment. As mentioned, modernism came about through the rise of powerful new philosophical systems, which were rooted in the scientific advances of the seventeenth century. Similarly, this new evolutionary perspective is being catalyzed by philosophical advances in our understanding of emergent evolution, which reveal the influence of values and show how evolution is both driving and drawing the development of human consciousness and culture.
This parallel with the historical events of the Enlightenment can also be seen in the tension between academic philosophy and the new form of philosophy that is giving birth to the evolutionary worldview. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, “the officially and legally sanctioned philosophy prevailing in universities and academies, and dominating philosophical and scientific discourse and textbooks” was Scholastic Aristotelianism, a philosophical system that supported the precepts of the Christian Church. Although Scholasticism had been a vibrant part of medieval thought, by the time of the Enlightenment, this academic philosophy had stagnated as a result of having become the handmaiden of religion. Now in our time we can observe a very similar situation wherein the officially sanctioned academic philosophy of our age has become stale. Yet the relative stagnation of contemporary professional philosophy has not resulted from its subservience to the traditional worldview; this time it is subservience to the modernist worldview that has caused the problem. In other words, just as Scholasticism had lost its potency by the time of the first Enlightenment as a result of being compromised by religion, now at the beginning of what may come to be recognized as a kind of “Second Enlightenment,” much of professional philosophy, and especially the philosophy associated with life and evolution, has been similarly compromised by its subordination to science.
Thus, just as in the first Enlightenment, when philosophy was liberated from the static confines of the reigning establishment, leaping forward like a coiled spring, we can now anticipate a similar period of philosophical progress ahead. In the first Enlightenment, philosophy became separated from mythic religion, and now philosophy is becoming similarly liberated from the confines of scientific materialism.
Admittedly, the emergence of the modernist worldview and the rise of science was one of the most significant events in the history of humankind, so these comparisons with the Enlightenment may be overstated. Yet the emergence of this new evolutionary perspective could end up having a similarly dramatic impact on history as a result of its ability to produce social progress. Again, modernist science’s power came from its ability to better understand and thus more effectively control the external, material universe. Similarly, the promise of this emerging evolutionary view is that it can better understand and thus more effectively achieve evolution within the internal universe of consciousness and culture. And a significant part of this enlarged ability to help bring about cultural evolution arises from integral philosophy’s new insights about values.