Emergentism | Chapter 4: Interpreting the Universe, Part II
The Meaning of Time
God is evolving, along with knowledge, goodness, and power. With time, God is becoming realized. Simply put, time is the locus of theophany.
But what does this mean?
A “theophany” is a “manifestation of God.” When God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, that was a theophany. When Zeus revealed himself to Semele, or Krishna to Arjuna, that was a theophany. A theophany is the revelation of Divinity in the world, usually in a display of glory and power.
This concept, drawn from myth, is actually not such a bad way of conceiving what science has shown to be unfolding in the Universe. Rather than some sudden flash of light, though, this theophany has been underway for billions of years. It is the theophany of evolution and the flowering of emergences. And, because God is both the Universe and the consciousness waking up to it, this theophany is an awakening to Self. Or, put another way, what the Abrahamic religions call “theophany” leads to what the Eastern traditions call “insight.”
The “arrow of time” is thus the natural flow of the Universe towards its telos. Like a river flowing downstream, existence flows toward God. Just as the spiraling gyre arises spontaneously to facilitate flow, so the Universe organically self-organizes towards its maximally complex form: Divinity.
The theophany of God in time culminates in a hypothetical future point of maximal complexity, consciousness, goodness, and power. This is the optimistic eschatology (“ideas about the end”) of Emergentism. Complexity, we have seen, deepens consciousness, and the deeper the consciousness, the deeper the ethical regard for the conditions of reality, as well as the means to ameliorate it.
We see this process unfolding in the Universe and can trace its trajectory forward, just as Edwin Hubble saw the process of an expanding Universe and traced it backward to the original Singularity. The future Singularity is thus the complementary unity to the past’s. If the Singularity at the Big Bang was the Alpha Point of existence, the final one is the Omega Point.
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Of course, we are still some ways off from approaching the conditions of Omega. Maximal God-like awareness and capacity won’t be emerging tomorrow; it is the long-term prospect of the Universe. In the short-term, we can expect evolution to continue along the pattern it has established. New, more immediate emergences are on the horizon, bringing us closer to Omega.
Indeed, we appear poised for a major evolutionary advance along these lines quite soon—one that many thinkers see already emerging within the new digital infrastructure. This has led futurists and transhumanists like Google’s Ray Kurzweil to predict a coming ”technological singularity,” when humans will gain transcendence by merging with digital technology. Such conceptions are actually not so misplaced. As Gregg Henriques notes:
Each dimension that has evolved following Matter’s emergence from Energy at the Big Bang has been associated with the evolution of a novel information processing system. The dimension of Life emerged via genetic information processing, Mind via neuronal information processing, and Culture via symbolic information processing. It is thus reasonable to suggest that the dimension of complexity that follows Culture will arise in the context of a new system of information processing. Just as this formulation suggests, Kurzweil (2005) argued we are at the cusp of a phase transition and a new human epoch because of the Information Age and the associated emergence of electronic computational technologies and the Internet (i.e., a connected, novel information processing system).
From genetic memory, to pathetic (“emotive” in Greek) memory, to memetic memory, to synthetic memory…
Is binary code the cutting-edge language of growing Self-knowledge?
Is RAM the embryonic memory-house of a proto-divine Brain?
In many ways, it is hard not to be led to such conclusions, when computers have been the key to unlocking the insights of complexity mathematics, and artificial intelligence (AI) is every day making exponential leaps in information processing, solving knotty problems humans never could have and using active inference at exponential levels. In fact, the very algorithms that drive AI are based on the same evolutionary logic of variation and selective retention that has driven all the previous information processing emergences…
Nevertheless, though we seem poised for an evolutionary leap into the dimension of AI-augmented reality, which stands to fundamentally reshape human society as we know it, we should not confuse this next emergence with the Omega Point, which is both more distant and far more spiritually significant.
The realization of God consciousness will be tied to God-like powers, yes; but power without conscience is tyranny, not transcendence. Even if the “technological singularity” is anything of the sort, if it is not tied to an equal degree of spiritual insight then it will be a hollow shell, and thus not long for the world. As Henriques puts the problem:
Novel information processing capacities are not enough. In addition to new computational systems, we need a way to assimilate and integrate human knowledge into a global system of understanding. Indeed, many have argued that one of humanity’s greatest threats is the possibility that we will create technologies that far outstretch our wisdom to control them. To counteract this problem, great technologies must be fused with a deeper understanding of human nature.
Ensuring that this deeper understanding exists to match the capacities of our emergent powers is absolutely vital if new emergences like AI-augmented consciousness are to be sustainable.
Progress creates problems, as we have seen; probing reality down to the atom brought us incredible knowledge—as well as weapons of mass destruction. Technological advance without a corresponding advance of wisdom creates a house of cards. If we build up the top floor without shoring up the foundations, the house collapses. In this case, the foundations are the very lower emergences: Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture. Wisdom consists in effectively integrating all of these levels (an idea we shall return to when we consider Emergentist spiritual practices in Chapter 8).
Continued evolution getting us closer to Omega depends on such wisdom. Our collective sensemaking must be updated in such a way that we become more conscious of the emergent levels we are built upon—the parts to our whole. Otherwise, the disconnect between our simplicity and the complexifying world will reach a breaking point, and things will regress rather than progress, break down rather than break through.
Our worldviews must complexify to keep up with the complexifying world. If Religion 2.0 has an analogue to the missionary zeal of Religion 1.0, it is in this. The believers of old mythic religion felt the need to prepare everyone for the eschatological Second Coming; those committed to the Emergentist vision must feel the need to prepare everyone for our continuing collective realization of deepened consciousness, sowing the seeds of wisdom lest we end up with merely a technological singularity devoid of insight, self-reflection, or compassion.
The Emergentist’s singularity is not the transhumanist’s naïve search for transcendence through machinery; it is a comprehensive (r)evolution of consciousness. If we set ourselves the wrong telos and do not course correct, or let unconscious forces lead us barreling towards Godlike powers before we are ready (like Phaethon, who was ill-prepared to handle the Sun God’s chariot), then our misguided aim could wind up as not just our teleological but our eschatological End.
The Heaven we aim for could easily become a Hell of our own making. Ensuring it does not will require a transformation of our thinking that can only occur at the level of our collective worldview.
The Meaning of Knowledge
Cosmic evolution is the process by which the Universe generates more and better knowledge about itself. By means of this process, Life emerged, then Mind, and then Culture. Culture processes and stores knowledge by means of language—a form of symbolic code that allows for conceptual learning in addition to experiential and genetic learning. Life’s code is genetic, Mind’s code is pathetic, and Culture’s code is memetic. All such codes are subject to evolutionary pressures from their environment, and so are continually being “updated.”
The updating of memetic code is called cultural evolution. Networks of memes come together to form memeplexes or metamemes, which are like conceptual ecosystems or, better, superorganisms. These memetic superorganisms evolve according to the pressures of their environment.
So, as we briefly discussed when considering Clare Graves’s Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory (p. 72), certain “life conditions” generate specific adaptive memetic responses, which we might think of as worldviews, metamemes, or cultural justification systems (I use all these terms interchangeably).
More complex environments will yield more complex sorts of adaptive responses; the complexity of an organism matches its environment, and this is true of genetic as well as memetic organisms like worldviews.
When human Culture first emerged, it would have been at a level of complexity much nearer to that of other advanced Minded social animals like the great apes. Energy extraction methods and thus technology were both primitive, and symbolic concepts were nascent and undeveloped. Now flash forward to today, when energy extraction and technology production occur at industrial scales and levels of incredible sophistication, and more information is being generated than an individual human being could process in many thousands of lifetimes. Within the roughly 75,000 years separating these two timeframes, Culture has clearly evolved exponentially.
While it is impossible to know all the diverse worldviews that humanity has evolved over the course of this period, we do have insight into some major branches of cultural evolution. Just as an evolutionary biologist can trace the lineages of species and draw the genetic family free—both from ancient fossils as well as living specimens—so can cultural anthropologists and sociologists trace the emergence of worldviews, both from archeological and historical records as well as contemporary analogues or examples.
Doing so yields a taxonomy very much like Graves’s (p. 73). As human civilization increased its ability to extract free energy from the environment, driving the advancement of technology, it shifted from tribal to imperial to feudal to national to globalist infrastructures. With each new set of life conditions, new worldviews arose within these contexts: Animistic, Imperial, Traditional, Modern, Postmodern, and Metamodern.
As deepening complexity entails a deepening of consciousness, we can see this memetic evolution as tracking the evolution of consciousness itself. As the complexity of worldview increases, it becomes aware of phenomena earlier worldviews were blind to.
The Imperial worldview sees an individual where the Animistic worldview saw only a member of a tribe.
The Traditional worldview sees a moral order where the Imperial worldview saw only dominance.
The Modern worldview sees mechanistic causes where the Traditional worldview saw only mysterious powers.
The Postmodern worldview sees ecological suicide where the Modern worldview saw only limitless progress.
The Metamodern worldview sees an evolution of worldviews where the Postmodern worldview saw only relativism.
Each worldview advance reveals the blind spots and naïveté—you could say, the simplicity—of the earlier, less complex perspective. By this means, it is able to tend to the problems created by the previous worldview (which remain blind to those operating with the previous worldview) and generate solutions.
Worldview evolution is thus accretive; it builds upon the experiential knowledge of the previous worldview(s) and adds to it (just as we would expect from knowledge that can be stored over generations). In this way, it takes knowledge from the older worldviews and generates novel, higher-order wholes from it. Like a nautilus shell, it advances on itself, a layered spiral growing larger.
To say, then, that worldviews increase in what we tend to think of as depth is not just a metaphor. The emergence of each new worldview actually represents a genuine increase in memetic dimensionality.
Just as a cartoon character living in 2D cannot see the full 3D world in which they are embedded, so some worldviews are limited in recognizing crucial aspects of the bigger picture.
A religious traditionalist cannot comprehend how a modern materialist can live as though not being continually watched and judged by a personal, moralistic God. Nor can a modern materialist grasp what all this postmodern “environmental hysteria” is about that’s limiting economic growth and individual liberty.
More complex, higher-dimensional worldviews are simply seeing parts of the puzzle that simpler, lower-dimensional worldviews can’t cognize. Literally: It does not compute. But that is what we should expect from complex, adaptive, psycho-cultural information processing mechanisms, which is basically what worldviews are.
Moreover, knowledge proceeds, we have seen, by integrating parts into new wholes. This is precisely how increasing dimensions work. There are points (zeroth dimension, 0D), and points are the relative basis of lines (first dimension, 1D), and lines are the relative basis of squares (second dimension, 2D), and squares are the relative basis of cubes (third dimension, 3D), and so on. An increase in dimension is an increase in complexity, turning wholes into parts of new, higher-order wholes with greater dimensionality.
In considering the long timeframe between the start of human Culture and today (c. 75,000 years), we might think of it as a progressive development of higher and higher dimensional thinking.
Instead of being constrained to abstruse terms for the phases of psycho-cultural evolution, like Graves’s “B-O” and “C-P” and so forth, we can think more intuitively in terms of dimensions: 0D, 1D, 2D, 3D, 4D, 5D consciousness. So we get the “shapes” of consciousness (point, line, square, cube, hypercube, etc.).
Each memetic dimension of consciousness correlates to a distinct sense of self, cognitive skill capacity (information processing), and moral sensitivity (such as Lawrence Kohlberg demonstrated and Jürgen Habermas reiterated). The dimensions also correlate to societies at distinct levels of free energy extraction capacity and economic complexity, rendering them hierarchically powerful.
And, crucially, each dimension expresses its God-concept according to its own logic—a relationship to ultimate concern that James Fowler helped elucidate and which we shall develop further below. As “God” evolves through the worldviews of Culture, knowledge, goodness, and power increase:
0D consciousness, which corresponds to the single geometric point, is fitting for “animistic” or “undifferentiated” consciousness such as our earliest ancestors may have possessed around 75,000 years ago. Here the naïve holistic consciousness is maximally operative. There is not a fully distinct ‘I’ from the ‘it,’ so experience feels both subjective and objective. Inner and outer worlds are largely comingled. The sense of self might be related to the notion of the Incorporative or Impulsive self in Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory (CDT).
In terms of cognitive complexity, this shape of consciousness corresponds to Primary stage thinking in the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC). The God-concept of this shape is a sort of impersonal sacred force, the source of powerful magic distributed throughout the landscape (an idea referred to as “mana” in the anthropological literature). In Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development (SF), this orientation overlaps with the Undifferentiated and Magic/Projective stages. In Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development (MD), it is exemplified in the Punish/Obey logic.
Societies aggregated at this shape produce Animist cultural code, living close to the land, in small bands or tribes; energy is extracted from hunting, foraging, and horticulture.
1D consciousness emerges out of 0D consciousness and is characterized by a more pronounced evolution of the personal ego. There is something beyond the totality of the tribe—the ego separates and extends itself, represented by the line. There is now a very clear “self,” and that self seeks to assert itself (like the Imperial self of CDT).
Dominance, aggression, and self-aggrandizement follow. The ego thrives on honor and praise and actively armors itself against shame and humiliation.
Cognitive complexity increases to the Concrete stage (MHC). The God-concept of this shape of consciousness is “the gods”: an anthropomorphic, heroic pantheon of contesting deities. This correlates with Fowler’s Mythic-literal stage of faith (SF), while the moral logic shifts to Naïve hedonic (MD).
Societies aggregated at this shape tend to self-organize into Imperial cultures: petty chiefdoms ruled by egoic warrior-kings, with a strong cult of the hero. Increasingly complex infrastructures are powered by massive populations of enslaved peoples and plunder from a largely subsistence-level agricultural base, as well as a barter economy; animals and craft are also employed, increasing net energy consumption.
Collectively speaking, the shift out of this shape of consciousness to the next defined the so-called “Axial Age,” which occurred cross-culturally around 500 BCE.
2D consciousness gains a deepened interior sense of self as well as a taste for Abstract (MHC) thought that tames the crude, Concrete, amoral aggression from which it evolves. The ego exists in binding relationship to other egos: lines relating to other lines.
Now a strong moralistic mentality emerges. There is a distinct self, but it is subject to an all-encompassing, absolute moral order imposed from a transcendent source. One’s identity is defined by membership within this moral community. The sense of self is analogous to the Interpersonal self of CDT, defined by what conventional role one plays in the group, and the moral sensibility is a Social approval logic (MD).
Piety and righteousness replace agonistic struggle as the self becomes subservient to the group again. “The gods” have yielded to/been subsumed in the One True God, the righteous and universal Monarch of the Kingdom Above. Faith is of the Conventional kind (SF). Asceticism and renunciation are the zeal of the spiritually minded. All of those outside the moral community are deemed worshippers of false gods and will be allotted eternal judgment by the transcendent Judge.
Societies aggregated at this shape of consciousness produce Traditional code. Monied economies appear for the first time, more optimally utilizing energy resources, and trade networks complexify.
3D consciousness sees Abstract thought blossom into full-fledged Formal operational cognition (MHC), such as is vital for the development of rational science. Now one learns to see the relation of relationships. Perspective is discovered; 2D art becomes 3D (e.g., medieval vs. Renaissance painting).
The absolute God here yields to a more impersonal universal law. This idea of universals spreads to morality, where the novel concept of universal human rights emerges, and ancient prejudices and injustices are derided as parochial. The self is now the full human “individual,” equal among individuals, with a decisive subject/object differentiation. The self is of an Institutional nature (CDT), an ethical agent in a system of governance with Law & order/Social contract morality (MD).
The God-concept loses its contingent, mythical quality and the Ultimate is now conceived of in terms of material and mathematical necessity, as Reason and Principle. Religion in this shape is private and theoretical (Individual-reflective (SF)).
Societies aggregated at this shape produce Modern code. Owing to scientific advances, there is exponential increase in ability to extract new sources of free energy from the environment. In addition to simple bio-fuels comes coal, then oil, then natural gas, then nuclear power. Money economies explode into capitalist economies. Energy consumption skyrockets, along with societal freedom and complexity.
4D consciousness expands its scope to consider the systemic connections of the world; the contextual relativity of things is seen with greater clarity. One can see different perspectives occurring simultaneously; art reaches into 4D (e.g., Picasso).
Complexity rises to the Systematic level (MHC). The self, it is now seen, is actually a product of the system in which it arises. The self is what structures it (e.g., language, customs, etc.) (Inter-individual and up (CDT)). The critical eye of science, rendered self-conscious, turns to look at itself, and sees its own contingent social contextualization, calling into question its presumed “objectivity.” The supposedly “universal” conceptions of yesterday now appear quaintly parochial, as it becomes clear just how much more has remained outside the ken of 3D thinking. Marginal(ized) voices and perspectives come to the fore, to whom moral responsibility is further extended (from Social contract toward a Universal morality (MD)). The environment which capitalism has ravaged also becomes a focus and value in its own right. Untapped, sustainable energy sources are eyed, especially from the sun—energy at a cosmic scale. The recognition that “God” is a notion that varies relative to different cultures brings a faith at peace with paradox (Conjunctive)—or relativistic nihilism.
Societies aggregated at this shape produce Postmodern cultural code, characterized by multiculturalism, acute self-consciousness, irony, and deconstructionist discourse.
5D consciousness, the most recent shape of consciousness to emerge and still relatively inchoate, rises to a Meta-Systematic complexity level (MHC) and considers the laws that govern across systems. Maintaining the contextual self-awareness and relativity of 4D consciousness, it is able to see past relativism to a system of worldviews and thereby re-establish a version of axial normativity. It sees things like conceptual complexity, morals, and power as evolving characteristics of Culture, each with inherent value, yet also oriented towards certain “attractor” ideals. It considers systems as such, and thus employs the insights of complex systems science to consider how parts create wholes more than the sum of their parts, which are always in dynamic flux. The self is comprised of all the layers of “self” across all the shapes of consciousness as contextually demanded.
“God” is poetically mythologized as the one ultimate Universal Self evolving through all levels of reality, gaining knowledge, goodness, and power while developing towards its full telos of infinitely deepening God consciousness and Self-awareness (towards Universalizing faith (SF) and a Universal moral (MD)).
Societies aggregated at this level are only now emerging. They produce Metamodern code, characterized by “ironic sincerity” and “informed naivete.” Entirely novel sources of energy, such as fusion, come into view as this dimension of consciousness dawns, as well as potentials soon to be unlocked by AI.
Something like this progression seems to characterize the evolution of consciousness from our ancient ancestors of 75,000 years ago to today. Through this evolution of worldviews, God evolves—by means of Culture. Through this process, God has developed, from a diffuse magical force in animistic society, to a pantheon of egoic deities in imperial society, to a regal Judge in traditional society, to a purely rational ideal in modern society, to a diverse array of equally valid subjectivities in postmodern society, to the Subjectivity of the Universe itself as it awakens to its Self through an epic evolutionary journey of Self-transformation and discovery as we enter the metamodern planetary epoch.
What God shall become, where God shall go from here, is as beyond our 5D ken as any of the higher-dimensional worldviews are compared to the lower. But, for the moment, that is the leading-edge stage of development, and that is the one that meets the needs of our current environment niche, our current life conditions in the early 21st century.
As we stand poised on the advent of true AI and the encroachment of a deepening technological singularity, this 5D consciousness affords us just the insights we need at the moment, for it brings our attention and concern to the entire Stack of prior emergence: Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture. As we head into the next level—the emergence beyond Culture—we are faced with a perilous moment, when our technological prowess may outstrip our conscious insight. The dawn of 5D consciousness has only just arrived; if we do not learn the knowledge this level of evolution has revealed about the Universe, and truly integrate it into our understanding as we proceed, we are in danger of generating Godlike power without the Godlike consciousness that needs to accompany it if life and consciousness on Earth are to flourish.
And yet, we live in a world still reeling from a meaning crisis begun by the insights of 3D consciousness (where reductionist science emerged). What do we expect will happen if we put truly sublime power into the hands of nihilists and fundamentalists? Well, we are seeing the results every day. How do we expect such abilities to be used by those who think that this life is meaningless, operating on the assumption of “Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die!”?
We must increase our collective wisdom. We must shore up our foundations, paying due attention to the fullness of our Self: our material, biological, mental, and cultural substrates. We must have a sense of what all this is for: not short-term profit and pleasure, but a 14-billion-year epic of Universal awakening, a truly divine undertaking of cosmic meditation on its Self.
To properly grasp all this, we will need more people to update our Cultural code. We will need materials and media that speak to people about this profound new vision of reality, in forms that resonate with all shapes of consciousness. We will need frameworks that help to heal the meaning crisis. We will need a new religion.
(Notes for this chapter can be read online at https://www.brendangrahamdempsey.com/emergentism-notes)
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