Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Andrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).
The Dimensions of Experience
Andrew P. Smith
(Note: The following article is Chapter 1 of a book-in progress).
Nothing seems to separate us so clearly from other forms of life on earth as our consciousness, yet perhaps nothing so connects us, either. Much of what we are conscious of--ideas, concepts, visions, the past, the future, the possible, the impossible, and most of all, our consciousness of being conscious--we probably share with few, if any, other animals. Yet the simple fact that we are conscious, that we experience anything at all, is perhaps universal in nature. To exist at all, we could argue, is to be in some sense aware.
The notion that everything, even ďinanimateĒ matter, is conscious is known as panpsychism (ďall mindsĒ). Itís a very old idea, going back to the dawn of human history. Almost all preliterate societies held an animistic view of their world, believing that everything in nature was alive and conscious (Campbell 1959; Gebser 1986). But panpsychism has also been an explicit part of the thinking of some of the worldís greatest philosophers, including Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, William James, Alfred North Whitehead and Sri Aurobindo.
To most of us who live in modern, scientifically-based societies, panpsychism is likely to appear quaint, the kind of anthropomorphic fantasy that young children engage in, but hardly a view to be taken seriously by a rational adult. Almost all of us can accept that a dog is or could be conscious, and perhaps a bird, maybe even a snake or a fish. But what about a snail, a bacterium, a plant or a stone? Or a molecule or an atom? Surely not everything is conscious?
Recently, though, panpsychism has been making a rather surprising comeback. A significant and growing number of philosophers, and at least a few scientists, are beginning to consider the possibility very carefully. The stakes in this debate are enormous. A panpsychist view radically revises our conventional notions of not just what is conscious, but of what conscious isóthat is, it has profound implications for our understanding of the relationship of consciousness to the physical universe, and how it has evolved along with this universe. In this book, I will explore these implications, and attempt to demonstrate that the panpsychist view provides a new way to tell the evolutionary story in which we are the latest characters.
Before we begin this story, however, we need to examine the rationale underlying it. It is a fundamental limitation of ourselvesóone that all the scientific advances of the past several centuries have been powerless to change--that we can never directly experience the consciousness of another form of life. This raises two serious issues at the outset. First, what is the evidence for panpsychism, that is, what grounds do we have for asserting that any other forms of life, let alone all other forms, are conscious? And second, even if we do believe other forms of life are conscious, how can we access this consciousness? How can we say anything at all about how another form of life experiences itself and the world? These are questions that could beóand have beenóthe central focus of entire books without definitive resolution. Here I will be content with addressing them in the remainder of this chapter. My goal is not to convince anyone that I have certain answers to either, but only that the case for both is reasonable enough to justify an examination of where they lead us. Having established that, we can then embark on that path.
The Case for Panpsychism
There are at least two major arguments that philosophers use in support of panpsychism. One of them is purely theoretical, or what Paul Edwards (1967) called genetic, while the other is based on experimental data, and which Edwards referred to as analogical1. The genetic argument has emerged in an effort to understand the relationship of consciousness to the material world. Traditionally, as any beginning philosophy student knows, there have been two ways of understanding this relationship. The dualistic view, which goes back to Descartes, says that matter, on the one hand, and mind or consciousness2, on the other are two entirely different sorts of ďsubstancesĒ or phenomena. This view, which is probably still held by most people today who are not professional scientists or philosophers, seems to make obvious sense. After all, our mental or conscious experiences seem completely different from any properties of matter that we are familiar with. How can our simple sensory experiences of sight, sound, taste, etc., let alone more complex feelings and ideas, be explained by the interactions of physical matter?
The problem with the dualistic view, however, is that it fails to explain how mind and matter can interact, as they obviously do. The brain, which is composed of matter, somehow manifests consciousness. If the brain is manipulated in certain specific ways, our consciousness may change in specific ways--or as philosopher Colin McGinn puts it more bluntly, ďif we get hit on the head, introspection lets us know that our consciousness has been altered.Ē3 How can such a close relationship between mind and matter exist if the two are completely distinct phenomena?
The most common alternative to the dualistic view today is materialism4, which is held by almost all scientists and probably a majority of philosophers. In the materialistic view, consciousness is a property emergent from and ultimately derivable from matter. Just as life--including the once mysterious phenomena of growth, development and reproduction--can now be understood to a great extent in terms of complex molecular interactions, so, in the view of materialists, can consciousness--in theory if not in practice.5 In support of this view, they note the obvious interactions between mind and matter that pose such a problem for dualism--interactions which science in the past several decades has illuminated and characterized in progressively more compelling detail.
The weakness in the materialistic argument, though, is that none of the known properties of matter seems capable of giving rise to consciousness. Not only has no materialist been able to provide a coherent theory of how consciousness might emerge from the properties of the brain; no one can even really conceive of how to begin such a project. Whenever a materialist comes along claiming to have such a theory, it always seems to turn out that he is ignoring the most essential features of consciousness, not so much explaining them as explaining them away.
This mind/matter argument has been raging for a long time, and many subtle twists to both the dualistic and the materialistic positions have been proposed. In an effort to escape this dilemma entirely, however, some philosophers have recently suggested a third possibilityóand this is where panpsychism makes its re-entry. Consciousness, this argument goes, is neither separate from matter, as the dualists claim, nor emergent from it in the materialist view, but is an inherent property of it, just as, for example, mass and charge are according to modern physics. In this view, known as property dualism, the existence of consciousness is a fundamental aspect of matter, and its relationship to matter thus requires no further explanation (Chalmers 1996). That is, just as no physicist attempts to explain ďwhyĒ matter has mass or charge, because these are assumed to be part of what matter is, so, the property dualists claim, should we understand consciousness.
Ironically, perhaps, this argument has been aided to some extent by that traditionally most materialist of all scientific disciplines, physics. Advances in quantum physics have established that physical events can be connected in a noncausal manner, suggesting to at least some thinkers that the connection is a form of mentality (Lockwood 1991; Goswami 1993; Hameroff and Penrose 1996; Seager 1999). Indeed, most scientists who are now at least sympathetic to the panpsychist view are probably well trained in quantum physics.
In any case, if consciousness is an inherent property of matter, it follows that all matter--not simply that in the brains of humans and other animals --is to some degree or in some sense conscious. This conclusion obviously has very radical implications for our scientific worldview. To be a panpsychist does not mean that one necessarily believes that trees or rocks or lakes think or have feelings; one does not have to adopt the magical view of life our ancestors held. But panpsychism does insist that consciousness was a property of the universe from its very beginning, billions of years ago. So the consciousness that we humans know and enjoy today, far from being a completely new evolutionary advance, might better be viewed as just the latest development in a process that started when the physical world was born. Just as the very atoms that compose our bodies and brains go back in time billions of years, so has something essential to our ability to experience the world.
The panpsychist argument--which, to repeat, has emerged as an attempt to reconcile the apparent inability of either dualism or materialism to provide a coherent account of the mind/matter relationship--thus forms one major pillar in support of extending consciousness far beyond our own species (Nagel 1979; Lockwood 1991; Chalmers 1996; Griffin 1998; Sprigge 1999; Seager 1999a,b). Not all philosophers, by any means, accept or even respect this argument. Many believe itís ludicrous, not even worth debating. But there is a second argument for a broader view of consciousness, less sweeping and profound in its conclusions, but also more solidly supported by experimental evidence. This is being provided by studies in the growing field of animal intelligence. As the relationship of brain to mind has become of much wider scientific interest in the past few decades, some researchers have developed new methods for identifying and characterizing the intelligence of lower forms of life. Traditionally, our knowledge of animal intelligence has come from observations in the field. While these still form a valuable and necessary part of this project, our insights into what may actually be occurring within another animalís mind have grown more powerful through the use of controlled experiments. The subjects of such studies include not simply non-human primates like chimpanzees, and higher vertebrates such as mice and rats and birds, but lower vertebrates like fish, and even invertebrates such as insects (Hauser 2000; Griffin 2001). There is even a substantial body of research on learning, memory and perception in single cells (Wood 1973; Eisenstein et al. 1982; Csaba et al. 1984; Nakagaki et al. 2000). Examples of the kinds of questions being asked in these studies include: What kind of stimuli can a particular organism recognize and respond to? Can it learn new forms of behavior? Can it remember past events? Can it count? Can it recognize, or distinguish among, different members of its own species? Can it recognize itself in a mirror? Does it carry around images of objects, or other organisms, even when the latter are not in its immediate presence? Can it communicate such information to other members of its own species?
While the problem of not being able to experience what another organism experiences remains apparently insuperable to science, these studies have made it clear that many fairly complex mental phenomena or capabilities exist in a wide variety of species. Many organisms are capable of performing tasks which, in our own human experience, require or are greatly facilitated by some conscious experience of the world. At the very least, these studies justify the conclusion that a great many forms of life could be conscious.
How Can We Access Another Form of Consciousness?
It seems conceivable, then, that consciousness did not emerge with our species, but has been around in some form for a very long time. Arguably, it goes back to at least some invertebrates, perhaps to single cells, possibly even to inanimate matter. If we accept this view as a reasonable premise, one worth exploring further, we have a somewhat new or modified view of evolution on earth. Itís not simply the process by which new structural or exterior forms of existence have emerged, but also one by which new conscious or interior forms have developed. Evolution becomes a story of how matter and life on earth have become increasingly more conscious.
The purpose of this book is to tell this story. While the evolutionary history of life on earth is well known, at least in its general outlines, this history has almost always been described purely in terms of the exteriors--including both anatomical structures and empirically observable behavior--of lifeforms. A complete history of interiority, of consciousness, to my knowledge, has never been written. Several evolutionary accounts have been written by authors somewhat sympathetic to a panpsychist view (Aurobindo 1950; Teilhard de Chardin 1959; Wilber 1981), but their discussions of consciousness have been largely limited to that of our species. This book attempts to go much further back in time, to as close to the beginning of consciousness as possible. The book asks, and attempts to answer, two fundamental questions. First, if all forms of existence are to some extent conscious, what is this consciousness like in each case? For example, what does a molecule or a cell or a plant or an insect--as well as a bird or a dog or a chimpanzee--experience? And second, if our human consciousness is the result of a long evolutionary history of consciousness, how did each stage or level of consciousness make the transition to the next? What are the processes by which lower forms of consciousness evolved to higher forms?
To many readers, this might appear to be a quixotic venture. We can never put ourselves in the position of another form of life, so how can we pretend to know what, if anything, it experiences? Even granting the premise that lower forms of life are conscious, how can we even be certain that we are capable of understanding what their experiences, presumably so very different from our own, are like?
One answer to this objection is to remind ourselves that we can never put ourselves in the position of another person, either. We assume not only that other people are conscious, but that their consciousness is very much like our own, because they are so like us in other ways--in the manner in which they move, speak, express themselves and communicate to us. In somewhat the same way, students of animal intelligence look within the behavior of their subjects for clues to what these other species might be experiencing. While itís obviously a major handicap in suchstudies that other animals have a very limited ability to communicate directly with us, this problem to some extent may be overcome by the intentional design of experimental situations that increase the likelihood that the animal will express itself in a way that we can interpret. As we will see later, for example, scientists have ways of asking animals such questions as whether they can form internal maps of the areas in which they live; whether they continue to believe in the reality of objects or other animals in the absence of direct experience of them; and whether they have some understanding of both their similarity to and differences from members of their own species. From the answers to such questions, we can begin to build an understanding of what an animal could--and just as important could not--experience in a conscious manner.
Another very important, and I believe almost completely overlooked, tool in this endeavor is our own ability to experience multiple states of consciousness. When we describe outselves as conscious, we generally are referring to the state we exist in during our waking hours. But in addition to this state, we are able to access several others, such as when we sleep or dream, are under the influence of certain kinds of drugs, or follow special meditative techniques (Tart 1972; Masters and Johnson 1966; Austin 1998). A major theme that this book will explore is that some of these alternative states of consciousness may have important features in common with those experienced by other organisms, and thus provide us with a more direct path to understanding the consciousness of these creatures.
While this is certainly a novel way of studying animal consciousness, its underlying rationale should not really come as a surprise. Scientists recognize that the human brain evolved not by discarding the evolutionary adaptations of earlier organisms, but rather by adding to them. Our brain is in fact often referred to as triune in its organization, meaning that in addition to the cognitive or thinking portion represented by the cerebral cortex, we also possess a limbic or emotional brain, much like that of other vertebrates, and a more primitive set of structures controlling posture and gross bodily movements, commonly called the reptilian brain (MacLean 1990). In fact, the triune model can, and should be, expanded in its concept to still earlier evolutionary forms, such as the autonomic nervous system and the spinal cord. Each one of these portions of our complete human nervous system functions, in certain types of organisms, as an entire brain. So we clearly carry around within us literally hundreds of millions of years of evolution of the nervous system. It would seem that in principle we have the ability to experience ourselves and our world through each of these different levels, and in this manner commune very profoundly with the worldview of other organisms.
Of course, there are limits to what we can directly experience, while still maintaining our uniquely human capacity to describe it in a manner capable of communication to others. After all, we are ultimately composed of atoms and molecules, so in principle we might have access to the experience of these forms of life, too, but could we really expect to be able to access this experience in a meaningful way? Could we descend to the level of a molecule, experience its world, then regain our more usual state of consciousness and report our findings to others? Highly unlikely. To probe consciousness at depths so far from our ordinary existence, we surely need some other approach, one that will have to be based not on experimentation, but on theory. We need, it seems to me, a way of evaluating consciousness based on other aspects of the lifeform that are accessible to us. In other words, we need a theory that describes, for any form of existence, the relationship between its observable, so-called surface or exterior features, and its interior experience. The assumption underlying such a theory is that if we know what any form of existence looks like we can immediately know something about what it experiences.
If this sounds like a considerable stretch--if such a theory appears to have the magical property of revealing what is invisible from what is visible--consider that this has in fact been the goal of the field of neuroscience for the past half century. Most scientists believe that human consciousness emerges in some manner from the organization of the human brain--the way in which its neurons are connected to each other--and are trying to define just how this comes about. Furthermore, according to the school of thought called functionalism-- a view held by many, though by no means all, modern philosophers-- organization is the critical word here. In the functionalist view, any form of existence--artificial as well as natural--will manifest consciousness if it has the proper organization among its components (Dennett and Hofstadter 1981). No need to use neurons. Silicon chips will do just fineóor tin cans for that matter--if there are enough of them, and if they are connected in the proper way.
Itís not necessary to be a functionalist, however, nor even to accept the prevailing scientific premise that consciousness emerges from the activity and the organization of the brain, to see that there is a close relationship of some kind between the two. If we compare the brains of humans and other organisms, vertebrate and invertebrate, we see immediately that evolutionary development closely correlates with what we can call complexity. Without trying to define this latter term precisely here 6, it should be obvious that our brain is more complex than that of a dog, the latterís brain is more complex than that of a fish, which in turn is more complex than that of an insect. These relationships in fact follow directly from the triune or extended triune model of the brain that I mentioned earlier. If we accept the premise that consciousness follows the same pattern--that humans are more conscious than dogs, which are followed by fish and then insects--we see evidence for a close relationship between consciousness and complexity. The more complex an organismís brain, the more conscious it is. I believe almost all scientists would accept this conclusion as a general rule, though many might quibble over some specific comparisons.
Can we extend this relationship further? Can we claim that for living things that have no brains--plants, for example, or single-celled organisms--there is also a relationship between consciousness and complexity of organization? Can we even make this argument for non-living things such as molecules or atoms? If we adopt the panpsychist premise, it seems to me that we not only can, but must. If consciousness of some sort is a fundamental property of matter, we would expect that as matter becomes more complex, so would consciousness. The key question then becomes, what exactly is the relationship of consciousness to matter? How does complexity in one manifest itself as complexity in the other?
Dimensionality and Consciousness
A central claim underlying the discussion in this book is that this relationship can be understood most simply in terms of the dimensionality of existence. I contend that every form of life exists in a certain number of dimensions, and that these dimensions are directly manifested in both its exterior features and its interior experiences. Thus an organism that lives and functions in three dimensional space will not only have a three dimensional body, but will also experience the world in three dimensions. Lifeforms that function in fewer or more dimensions will likewise have an exterior describable in these number of dimensions, as well as direct experience of these dimensions.
Before discussing this model further, including a careful explanation of what I mean by dimensions, I want to point out that this approach to consciousness is not entirely new. In his pioneering history of human experience, The Ever-present Origin, Jean Gebser (1986) used insightful interpretations of the artifacts of earlier civilizations to make intelligent guesses about the worldviews of the people who lived at these times. Gebser proposed that these worldviews evolved in several fairly discrete stages, which he referred to as the archaic, magical, mythic and rational. He described the main features of each in some detail, but what concerns us here is his use of dimensions in these descriptions. According to Gebser, evolution of human consciousness has been accompanied by an increase in the dimensionality of our perceptions. Our earliest ancestors had a one-dimensional view of the world, followed by subsequent civilizations of a two-dimensional view, then the three-dimensional view of modern peoples. Gebser further believed that a new stage of consciousness, characterized by a four-dimensional view, is now emerging.
Though I have great respect for Gebser as an innovator in the study of human consciousness, I find two major problems in his approach. First, his concept of dimensionality is not consistently defined. Sometimes he appears to mean it the strict mathematical sense, in which one-dimension corresponds to a line, two dimensions to a plane, three to space, and four to space plus time. Thus his description of contemporary human consciousness as three-dimensional obviously fits with our awareness of three-dimensional space, and his view of a proposed emerging four dimensional perception appears to involve a similar understanding of three-dimensional space related with a fourth dimension of time. On the other hand, his description of the one-dimensional and two-dimensional consciousness of our early ancestors clearly is clearly not meant to be understood in mathematical terms. Unless I have completely missed Gebserís point, he is not saying that one-dimensional consciousness is aware only of a linear world, or that two-dimensional consciousness is aware of only a planar world. Whatever the validity of his understanding of these earlier forms of consciousness--and Iím not arguing that he did not make some very perceptive observations about them--to refer to them as one- and two-dimensional is to use the concept of dimensionality in a very different sense from the way he seems to apply this term to modern people.
A second problem with Gebserís view is that his description of the consciousness of earlier humans is unrealistic--or at least leaves us with no where to go in an exploration of the consciousness of lower lifeforms. The archaic worldview, according to him, was a state corresponding to deep sleep, while those in the magical stage spent their entire lives in the state we call dreaming. If this was the state of our ancestors, who were even then evolved well beyond all other organisms on earth, the latter must have been in a still deeper state of sleep. So in Gebserís view, it seems that any form of waking consciousness emerged only recently in history, and is the property of only human beings.
This conclusion seems to ignore the reality that our ancestors, like all organisms, had to contend with an environment which was constantly challenging them: predators attempting to attack them; prey attempting to flee from them; competition with other members of their species for mates; and so on. Could a human being in the state we call deep sleep, or even dreaming, avoid predators, find sources of food and shelter, and successfully create and raise a family? Could such an individual have any chance at all of survival? Imagine how long any one of us today would survive even in the midst of civilization, let alone in the wilderness, if we were constantly in deep sleep. How could we function at all?
In an effort to defend Gebserís position, one might argue that it is perfectly plausible that a human being could engage in any kind of behavior, even the most intelligent and complex, all the while lacking all awareness of oneself and that behavior. Such a person (if that is the right word) is what todayís philosophers of mind call a zombie (Chalmers 1996), and the concept unquestionably poses a serious problem for any understanding of consciousness. The problem, fundamentally, is that there is no way to determine if anyone other than ourself is conscious, except through observing their behavior--what she does in certain situations, how she responds to certain questions, and so on. All of us engage in this kind of assessment all the time, of course. But itís not impossible to imagine such behaviorís being manifested by a completely unconscious being. Lacking any knowledge of just how consciousness is related to activity in the brain, it appears quite conceivable that whatever activity is required for any particular human function--moving, speaking, seeing, learning, remembering, and so on--might be completely irrelevant to the manifestation of consciousness. In other words, our ordinary consciousness may simply accompany our behavior, without actually in any way being dependent on or integrated into it.
So Gebserís view of early human beings could conceivably be correct. Our ancestors could have been sleepwalkers, moving about their world as oblivious to it and to themselves as we are every night. They were nonetheless able to find food, avoid predators, mate and raise families, and so on, because their brains were able to process sensory stimulation from the environment, and execute the most appropriate responses, all at an unconscious level. Though this may seem bizarre, many philosophers believe that consciousness canít exist in the absence of language, a position that implies that prelinguistic humans must in fact have been unconscious in some important sense.7 In fact, as we shall see later, a great deal of information processing occurs unconsciously in the modern human brain, so one might argue that the difference between contemporary man and woman and Gebserís archaic Homo sapiens is only a matter of degree.
However, if one wants to take this position, one must, as I noted before, come to the same conclusion about all other organisms. Since even apes, let alone dogs, horses, mice and so on, surely have less consciousness than even the earliest of our ancestors, we must assume that modern human beings are the only organisms on earth who have emerged beyond the realm of deep sleep. If this is the case, there is not much point in trying to study animal consciousness, because there basically is none. We are, therefore, back to the orginal problem of trying to explain how consciousness emerged relatively suddenly in our evolutionary history, which leads in turn to the dualist vs. materialist quagmire. Only this time the suddenness of the arrival of consciousness is not a matter of a few million years, but only a few thousand--a truly astonishingly short period of time in the evolutionary scale.
This is not to say that Gebser is necessarily wrong, of course, or even if he is, that the zombie problem doesnít remain. Even those who find the very idea of human zombies absurd (and who doesnít?) may find it quite plausible to view other species this way. Many organisms, particularly invertebrates, are known to function to a large extent through ďhard-wiredĒ behavior patterns, stereotyped ways of moving that involve no learning and which can be modified very little if at all (Bullock and Horridge 1965; Kennedy 1967; Willows 1970). Since scientists are accustomed to viewing consciousness as an evolutionary adaptation that allows us much more flexibility in dealing with our environment, itís not at all obvious how consciousness in such behaviorally limited organisms would enhance their survival. To put it bluntly, why would such simple creatures need any consciousness? What purpose would it satisfy?
One answer to this objection is to point out that if we adopt the panpsychist view, in which all forms of existence have some associated consciousness, itís not really necessary to view consciousness as an adaptation. We could argue that what is selected for in evolution is not consciousness, but certain forms of behavior which are associated with certain kinds of nervous system organization (or in the case of existence below that of the organism, certain kinds of non-nervous organization). In this view, consciousness inevitably is associated withthe behavior, not because it provides a survival advantage, but because itís a fundamental property of some form of organization that does provide a survival advantage. This view, taken seriously, leads to the conclusion that even human beings do not really make conscious choices. Choices are made, and the individual is aware that they are made, but the experience of being the chooser is an illusion. The illusion is manufactured by the invariable association of some form of behavior with a consciousness of that behavior.
Iím aware that many people will find this conclusion unsettling, though in fact it is very similar to the view of many mystics, who argue that in our ordinary state of consciousness, we are slaves to our desires--that we may do what we want to do, but we donít choose what we want to do (Ouspensky 1961; deRopp 1968). In addition to this argument in support of why consciousness should be associated with simpler forms of life, however, there is another that I will suggest a little later, which does treat consciousness as an evolutionary adaptation. In any case, however, the notion of a zombie, though mostly just a theoretical tool used by philosophers to explore the relationship of human consciousness to our brains, casts a strong shadow over all purely experimental evidence of animal consciousness. The underlying premise of these studies is that if some form of animal behavior involves a certain amount of complexity--and particularly if it is like the way a human being might act in a similar situation--then itís strong evidence for consciousness. Strong, perhaps, but never compelling. This is in fact a major reason why the theoretical or genetic argument for panpsychism is so important to this debate.
The Holarchy of Life
Despite the inadequacies of Gebserís use of dimensions, I believe the concept itself is profound, and captures something essential about consciousness that is not easily stated in any other terms. The reality of three-dimensional space is obviously a critical feature of our consciousness, and it would seem very likely to be critical to the consciousness of many other organisms as well. Awareness of time, which is usually considered a fourth dimension of existence, is an equally key aspect of human consciousness. What I want to argue now is that the evolutionary path of life, which we have seen earlier has moved from the less complex to the more complex, can be described as an unfolding of a series of dimensions, of which our common understanding of a three- or four-dimensional world is only one stage. That is to say, lifeforms like ourselves that are conscious of three dimensions of space did not evolve from those with no consciousness of space; rather, evolution has moved through creatures conscious of one dimension, then those conscious of two dimensions, then finally to awareness of three dimensions.
I must emphasize that my use of dimensions, though much more similar to the sense in which scientists and mathematicians mean it than is Gebserís, is not quite the same as this conventional usage--or to speak more precisely, itís not confined to this sense. To a mathematician, dimensions exist in a relationship of infinity to each other. A one-dimensional line contains an infinite number of zero-dimensional points; a two-dimensional plane contains an infinite number of one-dimensional lines; a three-dimensional cube contains an infinite number of two-dimensional planes. Dimensions as I use them, in contrast, may have a relationship to one another which is indeed very large, but which is not infinite.
Consider an atom. In the scientific view, an atom is a three-dimensional form of existence. However, it is so very small, compared to the world with which we are ordinarily familiar, that we might regard it as approximating a point, a zero-dimensional body. From this vantage, certain kinds of molecules, which are composed of a large number of atoms, are one-dimensional bodies. Examples would be amino acids and sugars, both of which are found in all living cells (see Table 1A ). More complex molecules, which consist of large number of one-dimensional molecules, are two-dimensional bodies. They exist in one dimension more than their component molecules, and in two dimensions more than their component atoms. Examples are certain biological polymers, such as peptides, which are composed of many amino acids, and cellulose, which is composed of many sugar molecules. Still more complex molecules are composed of many two-dimensional molecules, and are thus three-dimensional with respect to their component atoms. I have discussed some of these properties elsewhere (Smith 2000), and will add to this discussion in later chapters in this book.
These relationships illustrate two essential points. First, as I said earlier, in each of these dimensional stages, the relationship is not of infinity, but of many to one. There are many atoms in what I call a one-dimensional molecule, but not an infinite number. There are many, but not an infinite number of, one-dimensional molecules in a two-dimensional molecule; there are many two-dimensional molecules in a three-dimensional molecule. Second, the relationship is not (necessarily) one of point to line to plane to cube or sphere. When I claim that certain molecules are one-dimensional with respect to their component atoms, I donít mean that their atoms are arranged like beads in a necklace (though sometimes in fact they are 8). I mean that the atom, the zero-dimensional body, is the fundamental unit that composes the molecule. There is ordinarily no stable stage or state between the one and the other. In nature, we generally go from atoms to molecules of a certain minimum size 9. Likewise, what I call a two-dimensional molecule does not necessarily have a planar appearance. Itís two-dimensional because it contains a large group of one-dimensional molecules, which in turn contains a group of zero-dimensional atoms. And similarly with the third dimension.
Thus each new dimension is created by joining together a large number of similar units representing the preceding dimension. Notice that at every dimension, the units are both wholes, containing many units of the lower dimension, and parts, acting as units which compose a still higher dimension. Units that are simultaneously both wholes and parts are called holons (Koestler 1991; Wilber 1995), and their overall organization is known as holarchy. Holarchical organization is found throughout nature, and several models of existence based on this kind of organization have been proposed (Ouspensky 1961; Land 1973; Young 1976; Jantsch 1980; Wilber 1995; Smith 2000). I will have much more to say about holarchy in this book, but for now I want to emphasize the dimensional nature of the relationship that holons bear to their component holons. We could say that mathematical dimensions are an abstract ideal of what is approximated by relationships between holons as we find them in nature.
So far I have considered only dimensions of space, but we can also deal with those of time. Consider a complex protein, which I have provided as an example of a three-dimensional molecule. The protein exists not only in space, but may also exist in time. That is to say, in order to understand its behavior, we not only have to take into account its spatial dimensions--its particular shape or conformation--but also that these dimensions can change during time. For example, an enzyme molecule catalyzes the conversion of some substance, called a substrate (usually a smaller, one-dimensional molecule) to another substance (called the product) by changing its shape in a certain way. To understand the enzyme molecule, or to perceive its complete existence, we must therefore see it not only in space, but also over a certain period of time. During this period of time, which is known as the enzymeís catalytic cycle, the enzyme molecule will typically change its conformation from one shape which allows it to interact with its substrate to a second, different shape that allows it to release its newly formed product. An enzyme molecule seen over this entire period of time is therefore a four-dimensional body with respect to its atoms. It has three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension which the atoms do not exist in.
As with space, we may imagine several dimensions of time. A four-dimensional enzyme molecule, for example, may undergo another kind of cycle over a much longer period of time, one in which many catalytic cycles take place. Or it may be part of a much larger structure composed of many similar enzyme molecules, each of which undergoes a catalytic cycle. The principle is basically the same as with the spatial dimensions. A new unit or holon is created by the organized interaction of many holons of a lower dimension.
To summarize the discussion so far, nature creates new forms of life by joining units, called holons, into more complex holons. Atoms form amino acids; amino acids form proteins; proteins form larger structures. We might imagine that new dimensions could be created endlessly in this manner, by simply organizing holons at one dimension into ever larger groups. In nature, however, this process does not, and cannot, go on forever. It reaches a definite limit.
Why should this happen? The organization of holons as I have described them so far is relatively simple. Each is composed of a great number of similar holons of a lower dimension. Because all of these lower-order holons are similar, and because they are organized in a relatively simple manner, there are limits to what they can accomplish. In particular, holons of this kind canít reproduce themselves. A molecule, for example, no matter how complex, canít on its own divide and produce two identical copies of itself 10.
For reproduction to occur, a somewhat different kind of organization must emerge, one in which many different kind of holons are put together. In the evolution of molecules, this occurred with the emergence of the cell. Unlike an amino acid, which contains only atoms, or a protein, which contains only amino acids, a cell contains many different kinds of holons. In fact, it contains all the different kinds of molecular holons that are found in nature. In any cell, we find individual atoms; small molecules such as amino acids and sugars; simple polymers such as proteins and complex sugars; and still more complex groupings of these holons.
The difference between the organization of a cell, on the one hand, and that of any molecule, however complex, on the other, is reflected in two related but different terms, hierarchy and holarchy. Hierarchy is any organization characterized by several levels, ranked in higher/lower relationships. Holarchy is a special case of hierarchy in which the higher levels include the lower. Thus proteins include amino acids, and amino acids include atoms. Holarchy is exemplified by a series of Chinese boxes, each of which is nested within the next (Fig. 1A). In addition to nested hierarchy or holarchy, however, hierarchy can also take a non-nested form, and this is characteristic of the cell. A cell is like a Chinese box which contains many separate boxes within itself (Fig. 1B). Each of these boxes, itself, may be like a traditional Chinese box, with the one-within-the-next form. So I refer to the cellís organization as mixed hierarchical, meaning it contains both nested (holarchical) and non-nested hierarchical structures.11
In my model of holarchy (Smith 2000), a cell completes one level of existence, the physical, and begins a new one, the biological. Because they can reproduce themselves, (some) cells are capable of existing outside of higher-order holons. For this reason, I commonly refer to this type of holon as autonomous (or fundamental, as it is the basis of a new level of existence). Atoms, though they do not reproduce, are also capable of existing outside of higher-order holons, and so are also to be considered as autonomous or fundamental. Holons such as molecules I refer to as social or intermediate holons, since they are composed of groups of autonomous holons, and form intermediate stages within a single level of existence. They generally cannot exist outside of higher-order holons. Thus individual protein or nucleic acid molecules, for example, are not found outside of cells, except in the artificial conditions of the laboratory.
Because a cell manifests such a different form of relationship from its components, assessing its dimensionality with respect to the latter is difficult. But since it begins a new level of existence, we can simply repeat the process we just went through with atoms and molecules. That is, we can begin by taking the cell as a zero-dimensional body or a point, just as we did with the atom before. While the cell is obviously not zero-dimensional with respect to its component atoms or molecules, it is zero-dimensional with respect to the new level which it is beginning. From this point of view, certain simple tissues, referred to by anatomists as cell units and which contain a large number of cells, can be considered one-dimensional. More complex cell units are made up of many simple cell units,and are thus two-dimensional. Still more complex tissues and organs are three-dimensional, containing many two-dimensional units (see Table 1B ).
. We can also identify multicellular holons that have an existence in time as well as in space, just as we saw was the case with certain kinds of molecules. A good example of this is nervous tissue, say a cortical module. The neurons within such a holon repeatedly send and receive impulses to and from one another, forming a network of activity that circulates in the tissue. This activity generally has a certain pattern that occurs over a period of time, after which it may repeat itself. The tissue thus forms a four-dimensional holon, consisting of the three dimensional network of cells over the period in which their pattern of activity occurs.
Again, however, we eventually reach a limit, beyond which pure holarchical organization does not pass. And again, evolution solved the problem in basically the same way: by creating a new form of life composed of many different kinds of holons, namely, the organism. Just as the cell contains all the different kinds of molecular holons, so the organism contains all the different kinds of multicellular holons. In an organism, we find individual cells, individual tissues of various kinds, and individual organs, all integrated into a single large holon. Like the cell, and unlike its component tissues and organs, an organism manifests the mixed hierarchical organization.
Just as the cell completes the physical level and initiates the biological level, the organism completes the biological level and begins the mental or behavioral level. And just as we took first atoms, then cells, as zero-dimensional holons, so can we take organisms, understanding that they are zero-dimensional with respect to the level they are beginning. From this point of view, a one-dimensional body is a small group of related organisms, such as a colony. A two dimensional body is represented by a simple family of genetically related organisms. Still higher dimensional forms of organization are illustrated by societies (see Table 1C ).
As with the physical and biological level stages, the stages on the behavioral level may exhibit dimensions of time as well as space. Organisms in complex societies interact with each other in certain patterns--behavioral displays, for example, and in the case of our own species, through pattterns of thinking--so that they can be considered to have an existence over a certain length of time as well as space.
In summary, life evolves in the form of a holarchy, in which newer forms of existence both transcend and include former forms. Though as noted earlier, several models of holarchy have been proposed by others, the model I use here is distinguished by the fact that it differentiates between levels and stages. The levels in my model are formed by atoms and various kinds of molecules; cells and various kinds of tissues; and organisms and various forms of social organizations of organisms. Each of these levels contains several stagesómolecules, tissues and societies 12. Moreover, each stage is related to the stage below it by one dimension.
As I emphasized earlier, I am defining dimensions more loosely here than a mathematician would: as a relationship of many (not infinity) to one. However, itís my claim--which I will document in this book--that our experience of dimensions in the mathematical sense--of three-dimensional space, for example--is directly related to an organization of holons that is three-dimensional in the looser sense that I have described. That is, if some lifeform experiences the world in three dimensions, it does so because it has a holonic structure that consists of three stages. There is a process that translates, so to speak, the more approximate form of dimensions exhibited by holons to the ideal form. I further claim that all experience of organisms and other forms of existence--including, for example, the way they experience themselves, their relationships with other organisms, various thoughts and emotions they experience--is also closely related to their degree of dimensionality. That is, every experience of an organism can be described as, or analyzed into, a certain number of dimensions, in either a strict or looser sense. Quite bluntly and boldly, Iím going to argue in this book that dimensionality is a key to understanding all of existence.
Before passing on to the next step in this argument--a discussion of how dimensionality of structure, or exterior, is related to dimensionality of interior, or consciousness--I want to make two other important points. First, on any given level of existence, not all fundamental holons participate in the higher stages, which eventually create a still higher level. In fact, only a few of the fundamental holons in existence do so. Thus on the physical level, of the more than one hundred different kinds of atoms, only about a dozen are found in cells, and of these, only half a dozen--carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur--are present in more than trace quantities. Likewise, on the biological level, of the many different kinds of cells that are or have been found in nature, only a few kinds make up organisms. And of the many kinds of organisms in nature, only some form social arrangements, and only one kind--Homo sapiens--forms the highest and most complex social stage. Thus as I have discussed in somewhat more detail elsewhere (Smith 2000), evolution is a highly selective process.
Second, fundamental holons, by virtue of their membership in higher stages, may acquire some of the properties of these stages. Looking at Table 1, the reader is likely to have the impression that all atoms are zero-dimensional in their properties, as are all cells and all organisms. This is not the case. It is true that autonomous atoms, cells or organisms are zero-dimensional, that is, those atoms that exist outside of cells, those cells that exist outside of organisms, and those organisms that exist outside of societies 13. Examples of autonomous atoms include helium, as well as atoms like hydrogen and oxygen that can exist in very small molecules that function essentially like atoms. Examples of autonomous cells are bacteria and other single-celled organisms that exist outside of multicellular organisms. Autonomous organisms are those that exist outside of any social structure, and are exemplified by a variety of primitive invertebrates.
When fundamental holons become part of higher order holons, however, they may acquire some of the properties of the latter, and thus exist to some extent in higher degrees of dimensionality. For example, some atoms in an amino acid molecule have the ability to interact with other atoms in the molecule they are not immediately adjacent to. This is a one dimensional property, not exhibited by autonomous atoms. Likewise, cells in most tissues, and organisms in most societies, have the ability to interact with each other in dimensions not accessible to autonomous cells or organisms. In fact, as we shall see, most of our uniquely human properties depend on our ability to participate in the higher degrees of dimensionality afforded by the social organizations in which we live.
Itís just because fundamental holons have this ability to participate in the higher-order dimensionality of the stages they exist within, that we can speak of different dimensionalities of these fundamental holons. That is, we can identify and characterize zero-dimensional, one-dimensional, two-dimensional and so forth properties of atoms, cells and organisms--and that is what this book is in fact all about. So as we see in Table 2 , we can rank not only social organizations, but even individual kinds of organisms, according to the dimensionality of their experience. The stages of organisms shown in this Table, which we will examine in detail in subsequent chapters, correspond closely to the stages of social organization shown in Table 1C. They have this dimensionality, according to my model, only because they participate in social organizations which actually manifest these higher properties.
Thus when we examine the higher-dimensional experience of human beings, it will be from the premise that this experience is only possible because human beings are members of very complex societies, and are able to participate in the properties of these societies. Most scientists tend to assume that all features of human consciousness somehow emerge from an individual human brain. I argue here very strenuously that they emerge from the interactions of a very large number of human brains, with any one individual brain able to tap into this experience.
The Dimensions of Interiority
The preceding section was entirely concerned with the exterior or surface properties of life. An atom, as science understands it, is a very small amount of mass which can be proven to exist, even visualized indirectly, by certain procedures. Science cannot, however, use such procedures to determine what, if anything, the atom actually experiences. The same goes for molecules, cells, tissues and organs. Even organisms, at least some of which we believe do have some interior experience, have been treated in the above discussion purely as exteriors, as very large organizations of cells which can in turn organize into families, tribes, societies, and so forth.
However, I began this discussion by asserting that there is a close relationship between the exterior and interior properties of any form of life. My premise is that whatever degree of complexity a holon has, as seen in the interactions of its component holons, will be reflected in a corresponding degree of complexity in its consciousness. As applied specifically to the model of holarchy I have developed, this leads to the conclusion that every form of existence, in addition to exhibiting a certain number of dimensions in its exterior properties, likewise experiences a certain degree of dimensions in its awareness of the world. Itís this fundamental aspect of my model that allows us to evaluate a lifeformís degree of consciousness from its exterior features that are actually accessible to us.
This correlation between exterior and interior dimensionality makes good sense in evolutionary terms. If a form of life functions in, say, three dimensions, it will presumably be to its advantage to be aware of all these dimensions. On the one hand, if it is aware of fewer dimensions, itís blind to events that critically shape its existence. Like the Flatland creatures who can have no understanding of the origin of phenomena that enter into their plane of existence from the third dimension, such creatures will be constantly taken by surprise, bumping up against events that donít fit into their view of the world. On the other hand, if a lifeform is aware of more dimensions than of those in which it actually functions, it will experience events that have no apparent relevance to its life. Somewhat like the sterotypical professor who walks blindly down the street because his mind is in the clouds, such creatures may become preoccupied with phenomena that, however real they may be to some forms of life, contribute nothing to their own immediate survival.
We can thus regard these two cases of imbalance between exterior and interior dimensionalities as driving forces that tend to lead to the evolution of lifeforms that experience the same number of dimensions as those in which they function 14. Indeed, as I will discuss later, it is precisely when such an imbalance occurs--when a form of life becomes aware of more dimensions than those in which it functions, or vice-versa--that a major transition--to either a higher or lower stage of dimensionality-- is likely to occur.
The general features of consciousness in the six different degrees of dimensionality that I have described earlier are summarized in Table 3. Note that for each dimension, the experience can be manifested in two ways, as that of an exterior and that of an interior. I said earlier that consciousness is an interior property. However, what a lifeform is conscious of can be either an exterior or an interior. We can appreciate this easily if we consider our own experience. We are conscious of an exterior world consisting of rocks, trees, cars, buildings, other people, and so on. I call this type of experience spatiotemporal, because the framework in which we experience the world in this manner is one in which we are aware of a certain number of spatial as well as temporal dimensions, in the strict mathematical sense. Some philosophers also refer to this kind of experience as public, because itís one we all share. We presumably all see much the same thing when look at a rock, a tree or a car, for example. 15
But we are also conscious of an interior world of thoughts, ideas, feelings, imaginations, fantasies, and so on. I call this type of experience one of identity, because it shapes our sense of who we are--how we are similar to, and how we are different from, other people and other things. This kind of experience is also called private, because itís different from one individual to the next, and canít be shared as easily or as completely as experience of exteriors can. This world also has a dimensionality, though here the dimensions are in the looser sense, as layers or stages. For example, I call the distinction between kin and non-kin a two-dimensional experience, and contrast it with the one-dimensional experience of distinguishing self from other. Just as two mathematical dimensions (a plane) include one dimension (a line) while making a further differentiation of the kind of line (horizontal or vertical), the ability to distinguish kin from non-kin includes the ability to distinguish self from other, but makes an additional differentiation of the kind of self/other relationship.
The distinction between exterior or public experience and interior or private experience is a well-established one in philosophy, going back at least to Descartes. In philosophy, this distinction is intended to apply only to human consciousness. As shown in Table 3 , however, I believe this distinction can be extended to other forms of life. Though many organisms presumably experience the world very differently from the way we do, itís my claim that this fundamental exterior/interior distinction is preserved at all levels of existence (except, as can be seen in Table 3, in the lowest stage of any level, where no outer/inner distinction is made).16
In the following chapters, we will consider the qualities of experience manifested in each one of these dimensional stages in more detail, as illustrated by numerous examples of lifeforms that I contend represent these stages. Before beginning, however, I want to emphasize several important implications of the scheme shown in Table 3. First, the two fundamental distinctions I have made between exterior and interior, or public and private, can incorporate more detailed distinctions of consciousness. Many if not most psychologists today accept that human beings manifest a number of different aspects of consciousness, including cognitive, affective, moral, esthetic, and physical (Gardner 1983;Wilber 1998). I have no quarrel with such distinctions; Iím simply trying to abstract them to more fundamental divisions that I believe include them. For example, an individualís moral development is closely related to the number of dimensions in whichshe experiences her identity. A person whose identity is with her particular organism will be less developed morally than someone who identifies with her family, society or possibly the entire planet. Likewise, cognitive development is closely related to the number of spatial and temporal dimensions an individual is aware of.
A second important point to keep in mind is that these stages of dimensionality are repeated at every level of existence. This means that while our own human consciousness may be unique, it bears certain significant analogies to that of certain lower forms of existence. Indeed, I believe there is a sense in which the consciousness of certain cells, and even of certain kinds of atoms, is more like that of our own consciousness than is the consciousness of other organisms. This provides a point of departure for my contention, as I noted earlier, that certain states of human consciousness can provide insights into the experiences lower forms of life are likely to take.
Third, while these stages of dimensionality effectively mark off certain evolutionary events, the divisions are not always completely distinct from one another. We will see that many organisms represent transitional forms between one stage and another. For example, green plants, which I classify as zero-dimensional holons, show some evidence of existing in, and being aware of, a single dimension of space. Some one-dimensional lifeforms have some properties of two-dimensional existence, some two-dimensional forms have some indications of a third, and so on. These observations indicate that at each stage, the new dimension does not emerge full-blown, but generally makes its initial appearance in a rudimentary form. In such cases, the lifeform manifests evidence of being aware of this dimension in some aspects of its life, but not in others, for example, or of being aware of the extension of this dimension from itself to a limited distance, but not to as great a distance as is the case for other dimensions. As we will see later, identification and analysis of such lifeforms may provide insight into how one stage makes the transition to a stage of a greater degree of dimensionality.
A final issue I want to raise at the outset is the question of the origin of dimensions. The conventional scientific view is that when the universe was created ten or so billion years ago, four-dimensional space time was born with it. Like matter, space and time have always been around. They are a fundamental aspect of the universe that has not and cannot change.
There are, however, at least two alternatives to this view, both of which find some support in panpsychism. The first possibility is that dimensions have evolved along with everything else. That is, if, as panpsychism holds, awareness is an inherent property of matter that has evolved along with matter, one might argue that dimensions have no reality apart from lifeforms that are capable of experiencing them. So in this view, the higher dimensions of space and time have not existed for most of the earthís history, but only emerged with the evolution of our species, or with other vertebrates that are capable of experiencing three dimensions of space as well as a dimension of time. Before the evolution of such lifeforms, there were fewer dimensions of space, even, at one time well after the birth of the universe, no dimensions at all.
This view is certain to strike most readers as bizarre. Our entire understanding of evolution on earth rests, of course, on the assumption that there has been an earth, a three-dimensional body in space a certain distance from the sun, and moving around it at a certain rate in time. If we jettison this premise, and hypothesize that evolution began in a zero-dimensional universe, itís difficult to understand how the process ever began. Evolution involves the interaction of different forms of matter in time and space, and if there is no time and space, then how can there be evolution?
Without trying to answer this objection immediately, let me consider the other alternative. This is that there indeed have always been space and time since the beginning of the universe, but that these are not limited to the four-dimensional spacetime of the current scientific view. There may be in fact many more dimensions of space and of time than we are aware of, or are able to detect by any scientific observations. By dimensions I mean the fully extended variety that we are aware of, and not the very tiny and curled up additional dimensions that have been postulated to exist by string theory (Greene 2000). So while we are aware of three dimensions of space extending beyond us infinitely or at any rate a very great distance, there could be in fact four or five or perhaps many more such dimensions, which we simply are unable to perceive.
This possibility, it seems to me, is quite reasonable. As Edward Abbott proposed purely hypothetically in Flatland, and as I will show in this book is actually the case, there are lifeforms that exist in lower dimensions of space than we do--in two, one or even zero dimensions--who have little or no awareness of three spatial dimensions. If a creature can live in and experience a two-dimensional world while being blind to a third dimension, how can we possibly rule out the notion that we are imbedded in a world of more dimensions than we are aware of? Abbott, itís true, speculated that denizens of a two-dimensional world, when confronted with a phenomenon from three dimensions, would witness something completely mysterious and beyond the laws they were familiar with. Rucker (1985) has used this point to argue that we, who are aware of no such paradoxes, must be aware of all dimensions that actually exist. There can be no fourth or fifth dimensions beyond us. But in the first place, we are of course confronted with many paradoxes, phenomena that are not simply unexplained but seem unexplainable in terms of our scientific framework. Quantum experiments provide several examples, such as phenomena that are determined by when and how they are observed or measured, and apparently instantaneous transfer or communication of information. Another paradox, as noted earlier, is our inability to reconcile the existence of consciousness with that of matter. The dualist vs. materialist debate is not one of those arguments that simply awaits further experimentation to provide a resolution. We canít even imagine an experiment that would resolve this problem, one way or another. Still other examples of paradoxes are found in age-old philosophical problems such as the ultimate origin of the universe. All these paradoxes illustrate very clearly that there are many aspects of the world we experience that make no sense in terms of the common assumptions we use to explain, with more or less success, the rest of the world. They point to phenomena that are not simply beyond our current ability to understand, but perhaps, as philosophers such as Nagel and McGinn insist, beyond our ultimate ability to understand.
A second point is that Abbottís reasoning is based on a flawed premise. He assumed that creatures that live in lower-dimensional universes would be capable of the same kind of logical processes that we are capable of, including reasoning about cause-and-effect. This is a permissible view for a work of fiction, but as I will discuss in detail later, in the real world, creatures that live in lower dimensional worlds do not have such capabilities, so one cannot assume that there is or could be anything paradoxical to them about living in such worlds. The lesson, as we shall explore later, is that we may be similarly blind to dimensions beyond our world.
In conclusion, we canít rule out a priori the possibility that the universe we find ourselves in has one, two or perhaps many spatial and perhaps temporal dimensions of which we are unaware. If we accept this as a possibility, then we have another way of looking at evolution: itís a process by which life experiences, becomes aware of, an increasing number of dimensions. But then we are still left with the problem of where these dimensions came from. One possibility is that they were created with the Big Bang. In other words, we are simply modifying the current scientific worldview, which says that out of the Big Bang emerged matter and four dimensional spacetime, to the possibility that the dimensional framework is larger than what we actually can experience.
A second possibility, very much at odds with the scientific worldview but consistent with many religious or spiritual traditions, is that the universe was not created from below, with matter evolving into ever more complex forms, but from above. In this view, there has always been a highest or most evolved form of existence, variously referred to as God or higher consciousness. This highest form of existence created lower forms (through a process called involution) which then, according to some traditions, are in the process of evolving, or returning, to their ultimate origin. To accept this view, one must assume that the highest form of existence has some means of guiding the lower forms in their return. Evolution is not completely blind, but has some purpose. The question is, what is the basis of this purpose? How is evolution towards the higher assured? What I want to suggest here is that the concept of dimensionality provides a framework in which we might understand purpose in this sense. If we assume that the highest form of existence laid down all the possible dimensions of existence, then we can view evolution as the process by which lower lifeforms ascend this ladder, one dimension at a time.
Keeping this in mind as at least a possibility worth further exploring, we will now consider each of these dimensions in turn, beginning with the lowest. Because, as noted above, these dimensional stages repeat themselves on every level of existence, the story as I will tell it is not of evolution in the conventional sense, beginning with the first forms of existence, and proceeding, in a purely sequential and chronological order, to those following them. Itís a story, rather, that must be told--and appreciated--multiple times, as it has occured on multiple levels of the holarchy. It is a story of how atoms came to create cells; of how cells came to create organisms; and how organisms came to create life on earth as we know it now.
To make the presentation simpler and more coherent, however, I will in the following discussion heavily emphasize evolution on a single one of these levels--that beginning with the earliest multicellular holons or organisms, and culminating in our own species (and beyond). I do this also because a) the available evidence, from the fossil record and other sources, is much more extensive for this level than it is for lower levels; b) the degree or intensity of awareness of lifeforms on this level is presumably much greater, and therefore more comprehensible to us, than is the awareness of lifeforms on lower levels. But I urge the reader to keep in the back of her mind the repetitive nature of this evolutionary scheme. Its central tenet is that history does indeed repeat itself.
1. In a highly recommended article on the history of and the support for and against pansychism, Seager (1999a) suggests that there is a third argument for it, which he calls the ďintrinsic natureĒ argument. In its essence, this is the claim that whatever properties of any form of existence we observe must reflect some deeper nature, that is most likely to be mental or conscious in nature. This seems to me to be a difficult argument, and in my view not entirely separable from the genetic argument, but I leave it up to interested readers to decide for themselves.
2. Iím equating mind and consciousness here, as this was done by Descartes himself. In his day, we must remember, we knew virtually nothing about the brain, and all mental phenomena seemed mysterious. Today, however, philosophers commonly distinguish between mind and consciousness, or define consciousness in several different senses. I will do this, too, but for now I follow the thinking of Descartes.
3. McGinn (1999), p. 52
4. Iím glossing over some important distinctions for the sake of a quick summary of the traditional mind/body problem. Strictly speaking, dualism is contrasted with monism, the belief that mind and matter are both composed of a common substance. While materialism is the commonest form of monism today, there are other forms, such as idealism, of the kind made famous by philosopher George Berkeley (Darcy 1998). In Berkeleyís view, everything is composed of, or is a manifestation of, mind, including what we call matter.
In addition, some philosophers hold a monistic view in which mind/matter differences are accounted for in terms of what is called property dualism. In this view, mind and body may be composed of the same substance, but represent very different properties of this substance, and so appear to be very different. If these propeties are fundamental--that is, cannot be explained in further terms, just as mass, velocity and charge are fundamental--then mind and matter, though of the same substance, require no further explanation. This is discussed further below in the text.
5. Philosophers such as Thomas Nagel (1986) and Colin McGinn (1999) while agreeing with materialists that consciousness ultimately reflects material interactions, argue that our brain has inherent limits that make it impossible for us to ever discover and appreciate this basis.
6. Despite an enormous amount of recent research, experimental as well as theoretical, into complexity, a precise definition of this term remains elusive. I have defined it as the number of different states in which something can exist, retaining its identity as a particular form of life (Smith 2001). Complexity will be further discussed later.
7. A similar view has been espoused by Jaynes (1976), who argues that consciousness could not have evolved prior to human language. Jaynes even argues that at one point in our history, humans believed their mental life originated outside of them, confusing their own thoughts with voices or visions of Gods. This type of consciousness appears similar to the dreaming state that is one stage in Gebserís model.
However, in addition to the problems discussed in the text, there are several other unwelcome implications of this view. The kind of people who lived on earth thousands of years ago are not entirely absent today. Members of some indigenous societies have worldviews that seem in many respects similar to the archaic or magical--certainly the mythical--view . If we accept Gebser, we must conclude that many of these people are in a state of consciousness vastly lower than our own. Furthermore, if some of these people--not to mention other animals--are in a state of deep sleep, they presumably feel much less than we do. One could therefore use Gebserís understanding to justify almost any kind of treatment of animals and of members of some other societies.
8. Most biological polymers are in fact linear chains of units like amino acids, sugars or nucelotides. Furthermore, some of these polymers may exist in planar forms (such as the b-sheet conformation of certain peptides), while still others take on an approximately spherical conformation (most enzymes). So one can to a significant degree describe molecules in cells in terms of lines, sheets and spheres. Nevertheless, the concept of definitions as I use it requires a broader, less specific meaning, particularly at other levels of existence.
9. There are of course very small molecules (what I call simple molecules) such as water, carbon dioxide, and molecular hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. All of these are composed of just two or three atoms. However, I regard these as so simple as to be essentially like atoms in their properties. Though they have new or emergent properties that are the hallmark of a new stage or level of existence, these properties are much less different from those of the individual atoms than are the properties of amino acids, for example. See Smith (2000a) for further discussion of this point.
10. DNA and RNA molecules can reproduce themselves in the artificial conditions of the laboratory. But these conditions generally require numerous additional molecules, such as specific enzymes, that in nature are found only within cells. No molecule has ever been described that can reproduce itself without the aid of other molecules.
11. The mixed hierarchical structure o the cell is basically what allows it to bring different kinds of holons together, as is required for reproduction. Thus for DNA to reproduce itself, it must be able to associate specifically with certain enzymes. This would virtually impossible if the DNA and the enzymes were not organized in a particular way.
12. To be consistent with organization on lower levels, societies of organisms should be organized into a new fundamental holon. Presumably this new holon has not yet completely evolved or emerged. Itís my assumption that it is, or will be, represented by the entire planet, understood not simply in a physical, biological or even mental sense, but as a complex form of life not completely understandable by ordinary human consciousness.
13. See footnote 9.
14. This view is valid only if we regard consciousness as an evolutionary adaptation. As discussed earlier in the text, a panpsychist could challenge this notion, arguing that consciousness is invariably associated with organization of a certain degree of complexity, and therefore is not subject to selection. If this is the case, however, no further explanation for the parallel between exterior and interior dimensionality is required.
In any case, in a very profound sense, most if not all forms of life are unaware of all the dimensions they live in. Atoms and cells are unaware of the higher-order holons in which they are embedded, and which ultimately determine their fate. While the everyday activity of an organism may have little effect on most of its cells, the eventual disposition of these cells is ultimately tied to their membership in the organism. When the organism dies, so do all its tissues and cells. We humans may likewise be unaware of our participation in still higher holons. In this sense, we are blind to the most fundamental forces affecting our lives, and the ultimate penalty we pay for our ignorance is death. However, holons are adapted to live in a certain number of dimensions, and this is the number they need to be aware of in order to live out their normal life cycle.
15. This is somewhat of an oversimplification. Most philosophers believe there is no such thing as pure direct experience of the external world. All our experience of this world, in this view, is subject to interpretation, that is, to the influence of certain interior views such as ideas, concepts, prejudices, and so on. Nevertheless, our view of the external world is presumably much more similar to that of others than is our interior world.
16. This is a fairly strong and unconventional claim, and requires further elaboration. The philosopher Immanuel Kant first argued that our exterior experience of the world is directly related to an awareness of (three dimensions of) space, while our interior experience presupposes an awareness of time:
Space then is a necessary representation a priori, which serves for the foundation of all external intuitions...Space is nothing else than the form of all phenomena of the external sense, that is, the subjective condition of the sensibility, under which alone external intuition is possible. (Kant 1990, pp. 24, 26).
Time is nothing else than the form of the internal sense, that is, of the intuitions of self and of our internal state. For time cannot be any determination of outward phenomena. It has to do neither with shape nor position; on the contrary, it determines the relation of representations in our internal state. (Kant 1990, p. 30).
Moreover, he drew a very sharp boundary between these two classes of what he considered to be a priori knowledge:
Of time we cannot have any external intuition, any more than we can have any internal intuition of space. (Kant 1990, p. 23).
If we were to accept this claim, then extend it to other forms of life besides ourselves, we would have to conclude that--contrary to what is implied by Table 3--no lifeform without some awareness of time could have any interior experience of self.
However, it seems to me that the validity of Kantís view hinges on what we consider to be the sense of, or experience of, self. Even very simple forms of life, such as single-celled organisms, exhibit a property known as irritability. When they come into contact with a foreign object, they immediately withdraw from it. To do this is to recognize a boundary or distinction between self and other, and if we accept the starting premise that all lifeforms have some form of consciousness, then this is evidence of an awareness of this boundary. However, this kind of primitive response does not seem to require any awareness of time extending beyond the present moment. That is, while some finite amount of time is required for a lifeform to perceive an other in its environment--just as it is required for it to perceive some form of space--it does not have to extend this perception beyond the period in which the encounter occurs. So if the organism finds itself in an environment in which otherness of some kind is always present--and as we shall see, this is always the case--then it is constantly making a distinction between itself and this other, just as it is constantly perceiving some form of space.
Is Kantís distinction between exterior/space and interior/time invalid, then? Kant of course was only considering human beings, and here he was surely conceiving of interior and self in a somewhat different sense--one not involving, or only involving, experience but also image or concept. An experience of self, to repeat, results from a contact with other in the present moment, just as an experience of space (in Kantís view) does. It does not (necessarily) extend beyond this moment. A concept of self, on the other hand, results when this experience is extended into time. It is a relatively permanent and unchanging self/other distinction that the lifeform carries around with itself all the time, and applies to all events.
Even in this case, though, I believe the concept of self can be extended far below our own species. Indeed, to the extent that Kant is correct, I think a corollary of his conclusion is that not only human beings, but other lifeforms must have some concept as well as experience of self. For just as itís difficult to imagine (both logically as well as a condition of evolution) an organism having an awareness of three-dimensional space without any awareness of objects situated within that space, so is it difficult to imagine an organism having an awareness of time without any awareness of the self that--according to Kant--is what fills or is shaped by the sense of time. In other words, if space and time are the basic frameworks that condition our awareness of an external and internal world, any organism possessing both these frameworks surely must have an awareness of both these worlds.
According to my presentation in Table 3, only fairly evolved organisms--the higher vertebrates--actually have an awareness of time. However, this is somewhat of an oversimplification. We know that lower organisms, including some fairly simple invertebrates and even single cells, have some sense of time, because they exhibit the ability to learn under some conditions. They can, for example, display classical or operant conditioning, much like that behaviorists made famous with laboratory animals. In order to learn, to change its behavior with respect to some stimulus, an organism must have some sense of time, that is, be able to experience an object or a phenomenon when it is no longer present. For example, if a simple invertebrate such as a worm can learn to associate a light stimulus with an electrical shock, so that it responds to the light alone in the way it would normally respond only to the shock, then we must conclude the organism has some sense of the shock stimulus that extends beyond its actual experience of the shock. In this rudimentary but significant sense, it must have an internal representation, or concept, of the shock. And as we shall see later, we can easily go from a concepts of other to concepts of self.
To be sure, there are degrees--many of them--in the concept of self. As the term is commonly used by animal behaviorists, it refers to the ability of an organism to recognize itself in a mirror. It turns out that very few species other than our own can do this, not even including, apparently, all other primates (Hauser 2000). I regard this as just more evidence that a fully developed sense of time did not emerge until quite late in evolution. But it does seem that some sense of time emerged very early, with the evolution of simple invertebrates, and with it some meaningful sense of a conceptual self.
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