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Nov 28

Has Consciousness Evolved?

by Richard Smoley

surreal_face_05The idea that consciousness is evolving is one of the most important doctrines of the New Age. But is it true?

Over the long term, the answer seems obvious. Even the stupidest of humans is far more intelligent and sophisticated than a trilobite. Although materialists have skirted the conclusion that evolution has a direction – and that this direction is toward greater complexity – they have not managed to shoot it down.

The New Age idea of evolving consciousness is a little different. Many advocates of the new paradigm insist that human consciousness has gotten more sophisticated within historical times, and that it is destined to make another grand leap. It’s a harder case to argue.

It was H.P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, who first introduced the idea of evolving consciousness in the late nineteenth century. The basic theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin was already well known, but it had not been connected with consciousness in any important way.

In her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky made this connection. Indeed she went further. She held that not only humans and all organic life, but everything in the cosmos, down to the smallest atom, was perpetually evolving over the course of boundless eons toward a goal of unimaginable perfection.

Blavatsky was a bit more cautious about the evolution of human consciousness. While she propounded the allegedly ancient and secret doctrine of the Root Races, whereby humans would eventually develop supernatural capacities, she did not see this as coming any time soon. According to Blavatsky, the present, Fifth Root Race – encompassing practically all of humankind currently on earth – was going to be around for a while.

Nevertheless, Blavatsky set the stage, and it is interesting, though difficult, to try to figure out how much she influenced twentieth-century advocates of creative evolution such as Henri Bergson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The man who may be most responsible for the idea that human consciousness has evolved within historical times, and is making a transition to a new stage, is the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser. In his masterwork, The Ever-Present Origin, published in 1949, Gebser outlined a development of civilisation in five stages: the archaic; the magic; the mythical; the mental; and the integral. Gebser’s argument is hard to summarise, but he essentially said that the shifts between these phases meant a change in human consciousness, even in how we view spatial dimensions. The “mythical” stage, the age of classical antiquity, was conceptually “spaceless.” The new “integral” consciousness is, by contrast, “space-free” and “time-free.”

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