May 25, 2007

Evolution of Consciousness?

Many, if not most, people nowadays are pretty sensitive to the various kinds of chauvinism; national, gender, religion, age and so forth. One pretty big one that goes unremarked is what might be called historical chauvinism or prejudice against the past. This goes hand in hand with what I've called The Myth of Progress, the casual assumption that things are continually getting better, and we're getter smarter, more moral and probably better looking.

I've doubted this for some time, and I'm not the only one apparently. Here's a thought-provoking essay by Jared Diamond about The Worst Mistake in Human History. (spoiler: it was the invention of agriculture.) I've often thought that the high point in human history was the Cro-Magnon period. By high point, I mean the time when people were happiest. Who wouldn't rather be out hunting wooly rhinoceros with the boys than digging in the dirt for your over-lord in Sumer?

Something I've often wondered is how different our minds are from those of our ancestors. Various writers have broached this subject, but most like Julian Jaynes with his Bi-Cameral Mind theory, begin by assuming that the present model is more correct and interpreting ancient ways of knowing in a manner that makes them equivalent to pathologies.

Some time ago I read an article by a Christian writer about angels (sorry no reference, I'm winging it here, no pun intended.) He had one quirky idea that stuck with me. He suggested that the invention of perspective in the Renaissance wasn't really an invention at all. The odd flat scenes in Medieval painting wasn't a lack of technique. It was, he said, a faithful representation of the way people actually saw things.

Then came a shift in human consciousness around the middle of the 15th century and suddenly we were seeing things in 3-D. We had entered fully into the material plane and while gaining a better perception of that realm, we lost contact with the spirit realm.

I'm not sure I buy this theory, it sounds too much like a classic Calvin and Hobbes routine. But in a broader sense, I think he's on to something. Something did change around then, and arguably not for the better. The religious hysteria that gripped Europe for two centuries was perhaps a symptom of a loss of contact with higher consciousness, and a desperate attempt to refind it. When the dust settled from the Reformation, there followed the Scientific Revolution and the increasing knowledge and mastery of the arena left to human consciousness, the realm of matter and form.

In my more optimistic moods, I think this may be a phase we as a species needed to go through. Perhaps we needed to work out a deeper relationship with matter before we could return to spirit with fresh insights; an upward turn of a spiral. In my pessimistic moods, I think it was the beginning of the great crash of our species.

In no case do I buy the view that we are wiser than our ancestors. Nothing comes without a price, and our culture's descent into materialism has cost us dearly.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

"In my more optimistic moods, I think this may be a phase we as a species needed to go through. Perhaps we needed to work out a deeper relationship with matter before we could return to spirit with fresh insights; an upward turn of a spiral. In my pessimistic moods, I think it was the beginning of the great crash of our species."

I think you're feeding the problem. We need to get out of Cartesian thinking and the tired spiritual/material debate. The great strength of Indian religions was that they could bypass the spiritual/material dialectic that plagues Western thought. Recommended reading:

http://www.history-and-evolution.com/kant/page2.htm

http://www.history-and-evolution.com/2nd/chapfour4_7_2.htm

Noah Yuttadhammo said...

Bhante,

Sadhu for everything in this post except:

Who wouldn't rather be out hunting wooly rhinoceros with the boys than digging in the dirt for your over-lord in Sumer?

It sounds like a rhetorical, as though we'd all rather be out killing endangered species than performing honest physical labour.

Now if you'd said, "Who wouldn't rather be out riding woolly rhinoceros with the boys than digging in the dirt for your over-lord in Sumer?" I'd be the first to sign up.

Just thought I'd add a quote from Douglas Adams as well:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

doug rogers said...

As to that flatness, as opposed to perspective… Bracque an Picasso reinvented it. So far as I understand the mediaeval flatness it was an expression of how important the elements were as part of the story. You can still see this kind of thing in Thankas. It was a proximity of feeling or thinking, versus a proximity of seeing - reading the image as opposed to seeing. Essentially this moves the viewer inside the head, a reflection of science as a method of understanding, rather than faith.

The Greeks made amazing sculptures before mediaeval times. They approached understanding the world in a more rational fashion didn't they? Think seeing versus feeling. The design work on pottery was a storytelling vehicle, a feeling mode.

So did people actually see things differently? or begin to understand in a different fashion? I don't think that that flatness was "a faithful representation of the way people actually saw things." but 3D space was a revolution in the way people thought about things.

anonyrod said...

As an observation, the recent content appears to have focused upon intellectual pursuits, rather than Buddhist; quoting people throughout history who were or are quite professional in their own academic disciplines. However, when it comes to the study of the mind their theories are about as meaningful as quoting movie stars, politicians, or sports celebrities.

Buddhism was founded upon people who know, not upon people who think. Thus, science and academia should be understood as what they really are, conventional intellectual disciplines. Sometimes they may get close to reality, but for the most part it is simply materialism and wild speculation. Some modern theories may appear to be fascinating, but they are no different than believing in a god or a devil or that we are all fleas upon a dog’s back; just unfounded views and opinions.

The one distinct difference between those who have a clue and those who don’t is correct meditative practice and a lifestyle that fosters it. As for why the people who do know do not give lucid explanations, it basically comes down to telling blind people what it is like to see. Therefore, there is not a great deal to be said, other than, “Make the effort and find out for yourself.”

There is a great deal of difference between knowing and thinking.

As some of the Ajarns have been known to point out, all the academic and intellectual developments throughout history are about as useful as the blue prints of a sausage factory when it comes to understanding the mind. People think all kinds of things. Thus, we would be just as close quoting Monty Python.

A theory of the evolution of consciousness that dates back to some six thousand years ago in Sumer is somewhat recent in human development, and the development of metaphysics probably goes back thousands of years before that, perhaps tens of thousands of years. As for knowing ancient minds, according to the Ajarns they know what some of the minds of 2,500 years ago were like, and they also know that many minds of today are just as primitive as they were thousands of years ago.

The main problem in holding discussions on intellectual opinions is that to begin with the people who make up these theories have no idea what consciousness is, they simply take it to mean being alive rather than understanding it as a mental phenomenon that arises from contact, is continually arising and perishing, and is accompanied by 52 mental states.

Consciousness cannot evolve, what evolves is perception.

Anonymous said...

"The main problem in holding discussions on intellectual opinions is that to begin with the people who make up these theories have no idea what consciousness is, they simply take it to mean being alive rather than understanding it as a mental phenomenon that arises from contact, is continually arising and perishing, and is accompanied by 52 mental states."

Scientists have the tools to get a dim idea of what is going on but most of them are so provincial that they can't see the forest for the trees. I'm not a fan of QM "mysticism"(Tao of Physics type crap) but you have to admit that there are some uncanny similarities between QM and the accounts in the Abhidhamma. Both are radically discontinuous and both imply that there are no substantial entities in the phenomenal world. Maybe if the science community didn't have such a prejudice against "religion" it might contribute something to their understanding. I guess societal inertia is too strong and scientists are embarrassed by the implications of QM and relativity.

"There is a great deal of difference between knowing and thinking."

I recommend the book "Extraordinary Knowing" by the late Berkeley psychologist Elizabeth Mayer. She has some good theories on why the "knowing" part of the mind has been ignored in Western thought.

http://www.amazon.com/Extraordinary-Knowing-Science-Skepticism-Inexplicable/dp/0553803352/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-3721744-3690350?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1180414097&sr=8-1

Anonymous said...

"The one distinct difference between those who have a clue and those who don’t is correct meditative practice and a lifestyle that fosters it. As for why the people who do know do not give lucid explanations, it basically comes down to telling blind people what it is like to see. Therefore, there is not a great deal to be said, other than, “Make the effort and find out for yourself.”"

I think the problem is that people make Buddhism harder to understand intellectually than it really is. Don't misunderstand me, it's difficult in practice but you don't need to understand a lot of concepts. In the West, people are really only familiar with the highly metaphysical Tibetan and New Age versions so they think Buddhism is too "woo woo." That's what I admire about the Theravada and in particular the Thai forest ajarns. They only taught what was necessary.

Barry said...

"Consciousness cannot evolve, what evolves is perception."

Anonyrod is spot on with this remark. He is pointing to the journey not the idea of the destination and from a Buddhist perspective that nails the point.

I see no need to go much further than the historical materialist view - if you need a view at all - for explaining the rudimentary mechanics of the relationship between ideas and historical evolution in that there is a relationship between the economic base and the superstructure. It at least points at tangible changes in how we organised societies to give some rationale for how we 'might' have thought. It can only be rudimentary because as anonyrod correctly points out the materialists do not make any distinction between thinking and consciousness let alone being and consciousness.

For all materialism is about the object. For Buddhists the object exists in space - in a sense we are surrounded on all sides by the unborn undying the unconditioned. We have consciousness from birth, it is stainless but we persist in defining in relation to what enters it.

But you will not know this without making the clear distinction anonyrod makes between thinking and perception and the knowing mind, the consciousness which holds both the thought and the perception and all the objects of mind.

I agree with the Bhante that the notion of inevitable progressive future is a myth and one which has an ideological purpose. It is very good for business because our society is dedicated to dissatisfaction.

The future and the past are just ideas. There is only this moment. What you realise now is all that matters because the present moment is eternal. How could it possibly be any other way?

anonyrod said...

Due to our certified state of ignorance we have to recognize that whatever answers or theories we come up with they are all the wrong ones, even if we have certificates to prove otherwise, and no matter how strongly ‘the self’ protests.

Buddhism, the sole exception among these answers, has its compartmentalized intellectual side too, but this is just the logical interface to the practice, and as Spock once wisely stated, “Logic is simply the beginning of knowledge.”

The core of Buddhism is meditative technique, and as previously pointed out, whether or not we fully understand the intellectual side is not that important, as long as we develop the correct meditation.

anonyrod said...

Just one additional point, resulting from the fact that we all use the same words but often understand a different language, the term ‘knowing’ should be understood as ‘knowing from direct experience’ rather than intuitive knowing. Intuitive knowing is certainly interesting, but it is also a characteristic of the Brahman realms; as those who have experienced instant rebirth into these realms of form by various means (anapana-sati, exotic flora, Dr.Hoffman’s recipe) will well remember. In these realms, intuitive knowing replaces thinking.

Intuitive knowledge, however, is still mundane, not really the answer we are all looking for, and there is obviously a connection between the ability to think and contemplate as an element of Buddhist practice and the fact that the early stages of mind development are limited to the human and deva realms. In the Abhidhamma, it is also noted somewhat sparsely that intuitive knowledge has to undergo purification, showing that in a state of ignorance nothing is worth holding on to, and that the only answer is to head for the door.

What we aspire for is the ‘all knowledge’ that comes from the realization of nirvana as a result of mind purification; summed up by Ajarn Buddhadasa as, “Give everything to the void, take everything from the void.”

pdxstudent said...

"The core of Buddhism is meditative technique, and as previously pointed out, whether or not we fully understand the intellectual side is not that important, as long as we develop the correct meditation.

I don't agree with this. I don't think the Buddha's words do either. I may not know exactly how you're using "understand the intellectual side," but the Buddha is quite clear that there are things necessary to understand. The Noble Eight-Fold path is, after all, about wholeness in each of its constituent parts, in life itself.

When you or anyone else says meditative technique is the "core" of Buddhism I am inclined to know what you mean by meditative technique and core. I do not believe that the Buddha prescribes any one act, thought, ritual, technique, doctrine that trumps the rest; I don't think the Buddha was dogmatic like that. To hold meditation over all else is a theological assertion that I don't think the Buddha was interested in making. He was much more concerned with the practical effort of becoming awaken, which encompasses a whole program of techniques, each fundamentally dependent upon the other.

The swinging of a hammer is perhaps crucial to the building of a house, though no house-builder would tell you it is the core of how they make a house.

Anonymous said...

"The core of Buddhism is meditative technique, and as previously pointed out, whether or not we fully understand the intellectual side is not that important, as long as we develop the correct meditation."

I think the intellectual side has become very important. Look at how watered down Buddhism has become. It's extremely difficult to find good teachers and/or authentic dharma. You have to understand the general framework or you can get sucked into the spiritual eclecticism that dominates the West. If you neglect the intellectual side, then you're going to end up with the type of Buddhism documented in this article:

http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/23667.shtml

Anonymous said...

Noah Yuttadhammo said;

Now if you'd said, "Who wouldn't rather be out riding woolly rhinoceros with the boys than digging in the dirt for your over-lord in Sumer?" I'd be the first to sign up.

I know where you're coming from with that, but really, don't you think it's just a bit anachronistic? There weren't any paleolithic vegetarians.

anonyrod said...

Sine, Samadhi, Pannya: the core of Buddhist practice.

If you do not meditate then you do not develop pannya, and it is this pannya that takes you beyond Dukkha, not the intellect.

However, given the hundreds of meditative techniques available, and the hundreds of people teaching incorrect vipassana meditation, we have to emphasize ‘correct’ meditation, i.e. that which develops pannya.

The reason people teach ‘incorrect meditation’ is that they either spent a short time learning, or spent a long time learning the wrong method, and their intellect reasoned that they were qualified to teach.

The intellectual ability required is minimal; enough to be able to understand cause and effect, basic morality, and the three characteristic marks of unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and non-self.

While it would be nice to just study things like the Eightfold Path in Buddhism, unfortunately this does not create pannya. Reading a lot of books gives you the ability to talk a lot about Buddhism but not much else.