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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].
The Dialectic of Involution-Evolution
The view of the dynamic I am speaking of is more or less of a seed that self-organizes and evolves its internal structures through a process of maturation or increasing complexity.
The idea of involution is that the things of this world come from on high rather than from below, that the world has descended from a higher spirit rather than ascended from lowly brute matter as in evolution. Involution is therefore similar to the idea of entropy, where things break down into smaller constituents toward greater chaos over time, beginning in a state of low entropy and moving toward greater entropy, as in the ageing process from birth to old age and death, as the universe as a whole has been doing from its own beginning.
From the idea of involution we get the idea of the golden age and the mythical time of the gods that eventually decayed into the iron age and the time of decadent humans. The fall of humans from their divine origin in spirit to soul to mind and eventually to the flesh of the body is redeemed only in a return to their source in spirit via the mind (conscious awakening) and then to the soul (spiritual awakening) and on-ward to enlightenment in an evolutionary reversal of the descent.
This descent and then ascent is repeated many times in the cycles of a persons life as they are presented with ever new challenges to overcome that require an inward descent into confusion, chaos, and darkness before there can be a re-emergence into the new light of a resolution. This is the hero's journey, otherwise known as creative-adaptive problem solving, and it is actually what happens to us every night when we go to sleep and then reawaken to the new light of day. But it's also how the history of civilization has proceeded, and the evolution of species, with endless cycles of the decline and rise of empires and species, and the long march toward historical and evolutionary advance through developmental learning (often with hard lessons) and what I call the involution-evolution dialectic.
Anytime a more orderly unity decays into a more disorderly many units, something like involution occurs. We see this happening all the time as when things get old and break down (entropy). But in order for the descent to be a truly involutionary process the many parts must retain some aspect of the higher order within them, such as in the case of an incarnation of a deity, or an appearance of a higher power in the form of grace, which departs a quality of the larger whole to the part. Hence holism or holography is an integral part of what involution means, when the part reflects an image of the whole, when the higher order or the order of the whole descends into the parts, which then becomes at once an immanent and a transcendent aspect of their being.
Evolution comes in when the parts return to their source in the whole of which they are a part, using this source as a guide and a generative “inspiration” for their evolution. However the involutionary source of evolution is not already evolved and fully formed as the object that is evolved into. Rather the source acts more like a landscape of possibilities into which an object can evolve. And this is where the aspect of free will and consciousness, as well as fortuitous chance and synchronicity, would enter into the picture of the involution-evolution dialectic.
Just as everything has a memory of its existence which is also its primary meaning, everything has a future possible form of its existence which is its potential meaning. But both of these, the past and the future of a thing, are emergent properties of the generative structure of time itself, which is the relation between things from moment to moment. Those who are familiar with the AQAL will be able to recognize in this organization of reality the intersubjective, subjective, and interobjective nature of an objective thing, respectively. And what it suggests is that the involution-evolution dialectic begins in the objective environment of things, the whole in which all things have their existence, and from this totality or spirit of reality a past memory (soul) and a future possibility (mind) for things (body) is generated.
Reality is generated, in other words, as the relation between the past, future, and present of things, and specifically from the past (memory) to the future (potential), and only then to the present (the actual). This would also be the involutionary flow from spirit to soul to mind to body, or from the totality of things in the environment, to the past memory of things, to their future possible forms, to their present manifestation. Evolution would then be the reversal of this flow, from a present manifestation to a future possible form (literally as a quantum leap to an adjacent possible form) that then gets recorded as a new memory and imprinted into the environment as a new object relation.
In actuality, as I propose here in hypothetical form, evolution takes shape as repeating cycles of this flow from spirit to body and back again, in a oscillation within and between the links of the great chain of being. A simple secular example would be how societies and individuals develop along such a dialectic, where social class and functional role structures, within both modern societies and tribal bands, generate in a syntactically socio-structural way the ideological and cultural semantic meanings that individuals internalize and transform with their own interpretations, which then lead to both standardized behavioral traits and innovative ones, which can then flow back into cultural meanings that will either reinforce or shift and reshape the institutional and relational “grammatical structures of society”.
This same dynamic flow pattern where there is an oscillation between the involutionary and evolutionary flow tendencies could be said to occur in psychological development as well, as I outlined in my essay on Chakra evolution. Of course, this flow does not always follow a direct linear sequence 'up the ladder' in all cases. Vertical progress toward increasing complexity is a messy affair, punctuated by many false starts, regressions, dead ends, and detours along the path that do not necessarily follow the sequential order of the great chain from beginning to end. The great chain flow of spirit to body (involution) and back again (evolution) is simply the main circuit or core process along the way to a full spectrum evolutionary development.
In fact, all levels of human development are present from the beginning as latent potentialities in a general or archetypal but not in a specific form within our species, which means that levels in their nascent forms that have not yet fully emerged in human history are still operating to some extent in the evolution of lower levels, acting as a kind of future influence on the past. Those lower levels in turn are actively shaping how the higher levels will eventually emerge as fully functioning stages, in the usual scenario of the past influencing the future. But it is important to remember that many different kinds of combinations and sequences of interaction between spirit-society, soul-culture, mind-self, and body-nature overlap and mesh together over the course of the overall dynamic. One implication of this is that traditional, modern, post-modern, and meta-modern do not have fixed or universal characteristics. There can be and are different forms of each of these levels in human psychological and social development depending on the historical contingencies of their emergence.
The view of the dynamic I am speaking of is more or less of a seed that self-organizes and evolves its internal structures through a process of maturation or increasing complexity, and it does this through the oscillating feedback between the internal structures of the great chain of being (spirit, soul, mind, and body), which is both internal to human beings and an external characteristic of the social, natural, and cosmic environment within which they live. Thus we can see this oscillating pattern not only in social and psychological development, but in language and biology, and ultimately in how the universe as whole is manifested and evolves.
In the case of language, it all seems to begin with generative grammar, the equivalent of “the spirit of language” in the LR quadrant of the AQAL. Generative syntax, in minimalist form, is when you put one thing together with another to create a third thing, and then reiterate that procedure within the same structure to create an infinite series and variety of meanings. Once there are rules for ordering and sequencing the semantic content of language then meaning can be fixed and standardized by the formal ordering process, and once meaning has been standardized it can be accumulated. With a storehouse of meanings, new meanings can then be created in endless combinations of comparisons and contrasts with new manifestations of words to represent them. Finally, in a reversal of the process, once new word-objects have been created (names for things) then new subjective and intersubjective meanings can emerge, creating the conditions for slight and ever more complex modifications of the syntactic rules for ordering them.
According to the thesis I am presenting here, this is how languages develop and evolve, through the oscillation within and between the different domains of the great chain of language-being from syntax to semantics, signifiers, and words and then back again, but the seed form of their developmental potential is always already there from the beginning. In the case of biology, again I postulate that it begins with what might be called the generative organizing principle of the system, equivalent to the function of syntax in language, and what might be considered “the spirit of an organism”. Biologists usually think of the external aspect of this principle as the eco-environment in which organisms exist, the environment that selects traits and fits organisms into niches. But there is also an internal aspect of the generative syntactic principle of organisms that has to do with their internal self-organization, and biologists so far know little about this aspect, though some attempts are being made in the areas of complexity science and biosemiotics.
Once the rules and ordering principles for the generation of an organism is set, whose rules and principles are not yet known by science, then fixed meaning structures that will make-up the content of the organism can begin to accumulate, and these will be the genetic codes of the organisms physical memory. With such a physical-meaning memory system in place the organism will be able to propagate itself. But to remain adaptable to changing circumstances it will need new inputs from the landscape of adjacent possibles through mutations and other epigenetic causal factors. These new traits will be recorded into its physical memory system and then applied to the internal (self-organizing) and external (ecological) syntactic organizing principles that it began with, slightly modify them when possible, and thus completing the involution-evolution oscillation.
Last but not least, this involution-evolution dialectical oscillation can be seen in how the universe as a whole unfolds and evolves, which I have also discussed in essays like A Brief Kosmic History of Involution and Evolution. Here we begin with what some might call pure awareness, the Witness Self, “the eyes of non-dual Spirit”, or my personal favorite “the cosmo-erotic pulsation of Shiva-Shakti-Bliss”, literally the virtual particle-antiparticle pairs that are the quantum vacuum fluctuations (or dark energy), which mediate all regular matter interactions in the universe. It is important to realize that matter interacts and exists in the form it does only by virtue of mediation from these vacuum fluctuations.
What I would add is that the quantum vacuum provides the ordering and structuring principles for the existence of the universe.
In other words, matter is the epiphenomena of the vacuum fluctuations, which are the sub-quantum immaterial and informational ground of the universe. This much is already known by physics. What I would add is that the quantum vacuum provides the ordering and structuring principles for the existence of the universe, an implicate order whose configuration is the basis for generating the memory habits of matter, their properties and meaning to one another in standardized relational patterns of interaction, or what might be equivalently called “the soul of the cosmos”, the deep unconscious and habitual universe.
Alongside or rather existing in a layer of space-time above this akashic-causal field of cosmic memory generated out of the witnessing eyes of spirit, there exists an infinite field of future possibilities, an equivalent of the conscious signifying mind of the cosmos. These are the quantum field potentials of ordinary matter, and they are the final circuit through which energy flows before manifesting into concrete physical form as the body of matter. From here matter begins its return to its source in spirit, to the quantum vacuum fluctuations. But before it can arrive at its source, matter must check-in with its existing adjacent possibles, or the field potentials that exist alongside its present form, and then re-imprint its memory, and any changes in potentiality it has undergone, before the fluctuating virtual particles will receive them again as particle-objects for mediation and/or Witnessing with respect to other particle-objects. Whether all this is actually the case or not, no one really knows the whole story. But it is consistent with some of what is already known, and it is indeed a general outline of the process the cosmos undergoes according to the dynamic oscillation hypothesis of the great chain of (cosmic) being that I am proposing here.
It has been the hypothesis of this essay that the seed form of the cosmos is the great chain of non-dual spirit, causal soul, subtle mind, and gross body. This seed-system unfolds and evolves through a dialectical oscillation within and between these various states sequentially and in various different combinations, alternately unfolding-involving into the explicate order and enfolding-evolving into the implicate order in a manner not unlike the yin-yang or shiva-shakti dynamic. This dynamic process is replicated and repeated at different scales and levels of subsystems in fractal self-similarity throughout the universe. Our bodies, minds, cultures, and societies are merely subsystems of this larger cosmic dynamic.