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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Don Salmon and Jan MaslowDon Salmon, a clinical psychologist and composer, received a grant from the Infinity Foundation to write a comprehensive study of yoga psychology based on the synthesis of the yoga tradition presented by 20th century Indian philosopher-sage Aurobindo Ghose. Jan Maslow, an educator and organizational consultant, has, with Dr. Salmon, given presentations, classes and workshops in the United States and India on this topic. Both have been studying yoga psychology for more than 25 years.

KEN WILBER'S
EVOLUTIONARY VIEW
GETS A TRIM WITH
OCKHAM'S RAZOR

Part II: The Fractal Nature of
the Evolution of Consciousness

Don Salmon

(To get a sense of how this article relates to others I've written for Integral World, see "A Context for the Trimming of Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View" over at the Integral World Forum. If you want to get a better sense of how Ken Wilber's evolutionary view is being "trimmed", please see my response to Frank Visser's article, "Up the Evolutionary Stream Without a Paddle").

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My intention in posting these excerpts is not to claim that when looked at together, the findings of neuroscience and evolutionary biology prove some kind of directionality or purpose to evolution.

This is a collection of excerpts from a book I wrote with my wife, Jan Maslow entitled Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity, based on the Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo. The previous essay in this series examined the controversy over the idea of direction or progress in evolution. Frank Visser wrote a very interesting response (see "Theories are Confessions: Response to Salmon"). I originally posted my response to Frank's article in the Integral World Forum ("Up the Evolutionary Stream Without a Paddle"), which Frank took and posted here at Integral World. If you have questions or criticisms, but don't have the time to put together an essay, I invite you to join me over at the Integral World Forum or on the Integral World Facebook page.

In this essay, which is Part II of a series of essays on evolution, I'm presenting excerpts from our yoga psychology book which highlight the extremely interesting parallel that exists between the unfolding expression of an increasingly complex consciousness over billions of years of evolution, and the unfolding of human consciousness in each moment over the course of a few hundred milliseconds.

In the early stages of researching the yoga psychology book, I came across this statement by neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson, in the Scientific American book, Consciousness: "Consciousness is graded across evolutionary time, over the course of development, and even continuously from moment to moment." Hobson suggests that this "graded" nature of the unfolding of consciousness may be explained in part by chaos and complexity theory. For an interesting esoteric discussion of the relationship of consciousness, chaos theory and fractal geometry, see physiologist Don DeGracia's "Beyond the Physical," which is available for free online and is being discussed over at the Integral World Forum.

At the time I came across Hobson's comment, I was already familiar with the work of neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner Francisco Varela, who had explored the unfolding of consciousness from moment to moment from a Buddhist perspective. Varela, and later physicist/Buddhist Jeremy Hayward, wrote several very interesting articles for the Journal of Consciousness Studies suggesting a strong resemblance between the unfolding of consciousness as discovered by contemporary neuroscience and the Buddhist "Skandhas." The following excerpts are based largely on their ideas, and in particular, draw on Jeremy Hayward's Journal of Consciousness Studies article, "A Rdzogs-chen Buddhist Interpretation of the Sense of Self."[1]

My intention in posting these excerpts is not to claim that when looked at together, the findings of neuroscience and evolutionary biology prove some kind of directionality or purpose to evolution. Rather my goal is to elucidate what I find to be some extremely interesting parallels between the two. Whether this suggests the working of any kind of "quasi mystical" force or is merely the result of a "blind, uncaring shuffle through Chaos"[2] is left for the reader to decide.

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The Emergence of Consciousness in Each Moment

The gradual unfoldment of cognitive, emotional, and volitional capacities that took place over the course of terrestrial history is repeated over the course of each individual human lifetime. The emergence of consciousness appears to be similarly graded in every moment of our experience as well...

If our minds were sharp enough, we would see that our consciousness in the first moment of awakening from sleep emerges not all at once, but in a series of rapid stages. First there is a simple registration of sensation—sound, light, the touch of the body against the mattress. Along with this a primitive feeling tone arises accompanied by a reaction of attraction or aversion. Within the space of less than a second, more complex feelings, thoughts, and intentions come into play. Finally, our ordinary 'self' is fully reconstructed and we 'awaken.'

If we were to expand each of these periods of milliseconds to billions of years, we would see a remarkable parallel to the unfolding of consciousness... over the course of evolution. From a state of apparent sleep, the universe 'wakes up' to the consciousness of 'matter,' then in plants and animals gradually becomes conscious of primitive feelings and reactions. In mammals and primates, the capacities of knowing, willing, and feeling become progressively more complex until, in the human being, thoughts, intentions, and feelings come together to form a 'self.'

[To come back to the emergence of consciousness from moment-to-moment]: In each moment, there are overlapping strands of experience emerging into conscious awareness. And each one of these strands moves through a non-linear continuum: from unconscious to pre-conscious status, to what William James calls "fringe" experience, eventually emerging into full consciousness. Each arc of experience bears the imprint of our entire evolutionary past as well as our entire lifetime. Yet, at the same time, according to recent research in cognitive science [the chaos theory of Walter Freeman, for example] each moment contains the possibility of freedom from that past. Whether we repeat the patterns of our personal and ancestral history, or shift the course of our development, seems to depend—at least to some extent—on what we do with our attention in each moment.

The unconscious processing[3] that precedes a moment of conscious awareness in the human adult resembles the workings of consciousness seen in the earliest stages of evolution and the earliest stage of human infancy:

  1. initially, there is a simple registration of a sound, light or other vibration by the senses (knowing), accompanied by a primitive feeling tone (feeling) and an initial reaction of attraction or aversion (willing);
  2. this simple experience is elaborated, with memories, associations, and beliefs coming into play, further shaping the interpretation of the stimulus, giving it richer meaning.
  3. more conscious and complex feelings and intentions gradually come into play;
  4. finally, a "self" is constructed in relation to the event, and emerges—in conjunction with the feelings, intentions and interpretation of the event—into conscious awareness.[4]

The "self" is thus not a fixed entity, but is reconstructed in each moment of experience. Similarly, the "world" is constructed anew in each moment as well. The world we experience is not a direct perception of something "out there." It is rather a virtual world, an internal construct updated each moment according to new sensory data, filtered through past conditioning, organized and interpreted by the self, and shaped by that to which its attention is drawn. The entire evolutionary spiral of increasing complexity of consciousness, the whole lifetime journey from fetus to adult, emerges in hardly more than an instant of experience.

To get a sense of experience emerging out of the "unconscious" into conscious awareness, you might notice that just a moment ago, the feel of the surface on which you are sitting was probably in the background, emerging into full awareness only as you read these words and directed your attention to the relevant sensations. [Footnote from the book: "We use quotations for the word 'unconscious' because, as we'll see later—from the perspective of the view from infinity—there is nothing that is wholly 'unconscious.'"] Yet the whole time, your brain was processing sensory data regarding the contact of your body with the chair. Similarly, the ticking of a clock, the whirring of a fan, the hum of a computer, are sounds that often remain in the background of awareness, tending to emerge only in rare moments, most often when they change in some way. Though they seem to emerge suddenly, in retrospect you may be able to recall a partial awareness of such sounds in the moment just before they became fully conscious.

It is possible to refine our attention to the point that we can actually perceive the process by which each moment of awareness is constructed. Cultivating this level of refinement provides us with the means to bring about a radical transformation of our experience. [This issue—refining attention to perceive the way that each moment of awareness is constructed—will be explored in the final part of this series. Next, we'll look at this process of moment-to-moment unfolding of awareness from the point of view of someone awakening from sleep]:

CHART #1: This chart, from the yoga psychology book, provides details regarding the evolution of consciousness over billions of years. The 4 "basic cognitive functions", found in column 1, will be explained in a moment. The 2nd column shows how affective and volition functions become more complex over the course of evolution. This data was drawn largely from the research of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, particularly regarding affect. The 3rd and 4th columns show the evolution of cognitive and volitional functions. This was drawn in part from the work of Cooper, Hobson, Griffin and Narby, but primarily from Merlin Donald, especially his chapter, "The Consciousness Club", from his book, A Mind So Rare. The final column is based partly on the work of these authors, but also involves a considerable amount of speculation on our part regarding "first-person" experience—if "person" is the right word to describe the experience of slime molds, spiders, snakes and squirrels!

THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS OVER BILLIONS OF YEARS
BASIC COGNITIVE FUNCTIONS EVOLUTION OF AFFECTIVE/ VOLITIONAL FUNCTIONS EVOLUTION OF COGNITIVE/ VOLITIONAL FUNCTIONS ANIMALS IN WHOM THESE FUNCTIONS ARE FIRST ACTIVE EXPERIENCED WORLD ASSOCIATED WITH THIS WAY OF KNOWING
(3) and (4) Understanding and Volition More complex emotions developing in tandem with the more complex cognitive functions Enduring relationships, clearly defined social roles, complex communication, and flexible cultural traditions Most intelligent primates and all humans A "world" in the sense we think of it comes into being. This is the beginning of a 'story' that defines the emerging 'self' and 'world'
Selective attention; associative 'thinking' using nonverbal concepts; complex planning and problem-solving; increased flexibility of behavior The most intelligent mammals and all primates World becomes progressively more solid, defined, and enduring
Ability to construct complex mental maps; i.e., to recall and organize many details of one's experience and environment in the form of internal images More complex birds and mammals More complex relationships between perceived objects in the environment; the capacity to hold in mind past relationships gives greater solidity, definition, and endurance to the perceived world
Complex knowing and problem-solving; greater ability to adapt; capacity to anticipate and plan; beginnings of cultural transmission Birds and mammals
(2) Perceiving Impulse toward fight or flight, as well as the impulse for cooperation and collaboration Object awareness: recognition of more complex stimuli by comparison with internal images; association learning Amphibians and reptiles Extremely limited groups of sensations combined into objects
(1b) More Complex Sensing Simple feeling awareness of a stimulus as pleasant or unpleasant (life-enhancing or threatening) Crude recognition, simple (conditioned) learning, crude mental maps Insects Relationships between poorly defined classes of sensations
(1a) Simple sensing Barest registration of stimuli; awareness of vibration, heat, light One-celled organisms Formless vibrations

"SEEING THE PUPPY": ILLUSTRATING THE UNFOLDING OF COGNITIVE/VOLITIONAL FUNCTIONS

In the process of awakening, after a first dim awareness of the body arises accompanied by a vague feeling state, the mind comes more actively into play. If we could zoom in on the few hundred milliseconds that follow, we would see a wide range of unfolding mental functions. This same unfolding of consciousness occurs in each moment. However, most of us have not refined our awareness to the point where we're able to discern all that happens in a few thousandths of a second. Perhaps by looking at a fairly mundane experience and examining it in slow motion, we might get a better sense of how this process unfolds.

Suppose you're walking down a street at dusk, thoughts passing through your mind in a somewhat random manner. Out of the corner of your eye, you catch a glimpse of something moving. You begin to make out a shape, but you're not sure what it is. As the amorphous shape becomes clearer, you see what you recognize to be a puppy—not any particular puppy, just "puppy." From the first glimpse of something moving to the realization, "It's a puppy" all happened within the space of a second or two.

Less than a second later, you recognize it as the puppy that belongs to the little girl who lives down the street. As you begin to think about the little girl and how happy she was several months ago when her parents gave her the puppy for her birthday, you pause. You notice the dark, rich blue of the sky, the clear air, and watch with a smile as the puppy dashes down the street toward her house. You observe that your mind has become quieter and your body feels more relaxed.

What's happening here in terms of the unfolding mind? There is first a simple undefined sensation (a glimpse of something moving), followed by a clearer non-verbal perception (you make out a shape). As the shape becomes clearer, there is a recognition (ah, it's a puppy), and then some further conceptual elaboration (the realization that the puppy belongs to the little girl down the street, she was so happy when she got it, etc). There is then a moment of self-awareness, a kind of stepping back from the situation, creating some open space in the mind (pausing to notice both the external environment and your internal state of mind and body).

[footnote in the original text: Describing this process purely in terms of mental components may sound quite dry. In actual experience, it is not possible to separate out the feeling aspect from the workings of the mind. Though we are now focusing in on mental functions, all aspects of consciousness are active in every moment. For example, in the scenario above, though only the functions of the mind were described, the [instinctive/emotional] consciousness was active as well—from an initial reaction to a potential threat, to more complex feelings of happiness associated with the memory of the little girl's love for her puppy.]

The emergence which occurred in the space of a few seconds—from the initial sensation, through conceptual elaboration, to self-awareness—is similar to what took place as the mental consciousness emerged over the course of evolutionary history. It began more than a billion years ago in one-celled organisms with the dim registration of an external stimulus, and developed into the complex capacities of social intelligence and self-awareness of which primates and humans are capable.

CHART #2: This is the same as the chart above, with an extra column added on the left, to help see the connection between way that consciousness emerges in each moment, as described above in "seeing the puppy", and the way that consciousness emerges over billions of years.

THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS—OVER BILLIONS OF YEARS AND IN EACH MOMENT
SEEING THE PUPPY BASIC COGNITIVE FUNCTIONS EVOLUTION OF AFFECTIVE/ VOLITIONAL FUNCTIONS EVOLUTION OF COGNITIVE/ VOLITIONAL FUNCTIONS ANIMALS IN WHOM THESE FUNCTIONS ARE FIRST ACTIVE EXPERIENCED WORLD ASSOCIATED WITH THIS WAY OF KNOWING
"a moment of self-awareness, a kind of stepping back from the situation" ("pausing to notice both the external environment and your internal state of mind and body) (3) and (4) Understanding and Volition More complex emotions developing in tandem with the more complex cognitive functions Enduring relationships, clearly defined social roles, complex communication, and flexible cultural traditions Most intelligent primates and all humans A "world" comes into being. There is a 'story' defining the emerging 'self' and 'world'
Selective attention; associative 'thinking' using nonverbal concepts; complex planning and problem-solving; increased flexibility of behavior The most intelligent mammals and all primates World becomes progressively more defined, and enduring
"further conceptual elaboration" (the realization the puppy belongs to the little girl down the stress, she was so happy when she got it, etc.") Ability to construct complex mental maps; i.e., to recall and organize many details of one's experience and environment in the form of internal images More complex birds and mammals More complex relationships between perceived objects in the environment; the capacity to hold in mind past relationships gives greater solidity, definition, and endurance to the perceived world
Complex knowing and problem-solving; greater ability to adapt; capacity to anticipate and plan; beginnings of cultural transmission Birds and mammals
"A clearer nonverbal perception" (you make out a shape) into objects (2) Perceiving Impulse toward fight or flight, as well as the impulse for cooperation and collaboration Object awareness: recognition of more complex stimuli by comparison with internal images; association learning Amphibians and reptiles Extremely limited groups of sensations combined
"Simple undefined sensation" ("a glimpse of something moving") (1b) More Complex Sensing Simple awareness of a stimulus as pleasant or unpleasant (life-enhancing or threatening) Crude recognition, simple (conditioned) learning, crude mental maps Insects Relationships between poorly defined classes of sensations
(1a) Simple sensing Barest registration of stimuli; awareness of vibration, heat, light One-celled organisms Formless vibrations

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NOTES

[1]. [Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1998, Volume 5, issue: 5-6, pgs. 611-626). For an extensive discussion of the application of complexity and chaos theory to the evolution of consciousness, see Allan Combs' The Radiance of Being.

[2]. This comment was originally made by philosopher Daniel Dennett in reference to (what he sees as) the accidental arising of "laws of physics" but, I think, could be equally indicative of his outlook toward the idea of "purpose" or "progress" in evolution.

[3].This statement was accompanied by a footnote in the book: Unconscious', that is, from the perspective of the view from nowhere. As we explain in the book, the "view from nowhere"—a phrase coined by philosopher Thomas Nagel—is the view that the universe can be understood from a wholly objective perspective

[4]. A footnote was inserted in the book here: "We describe it here in a linear fashion but it actually takes place in as a series of overlapping strands."

Next in Part III: Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View Gets a Trim With Ockham's Razor:
When did consciousness first appear in the universe,
and how did it emerge in plants and animals over the course of evolution?





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