Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Evolutionary Diversity and Self-organizing systems

[Editor: this post was written in response to an online retreat by David Loy for Tricycle magazine, going through his thesis in “The New Bodhisattva Path”. I wanted to reproduce it here before I lost it completely. I love David Loy’s work and find great merit in most of what he teaches. However, I disagree with him on his “trajectory of evolution” in which he proses that human consciousness is some kind of evolutionary pinnacle, and that all things ultimately consists of a universal “one-ness”. Here I argue that a ‘de minimus’ consciousness or quantum awareness is all that is necessary for the universe to display intelligence; that human consciousness evolved in response to planetary conditions, not conditions in the universe as a whole; and that the foundation and trajectory of evolution is diversity, not one-ness.]

The tensions between David’s concept of “evolutionary consciousness” and Tom’s counter of “anatman” are palpable in the arguments here, but I wonder if the problem is not ‘atman’ vs. ‘anatman’, but rather, defining the concept of evolutionary consciousness as self-organizing “one-ness” or unitary “self”. Defining the universe as a “self’ or a “one-ness” whether scientifically-phenomenologically, or spiritually-cosmologically, seems to erase the paramount property of evolution, which is DIVERSITY, uniqueness. This diversity, uniqueness, evolves in response to unique ’causes and conditions.’ There have been and still are countless billions of species that have evolved on this planet, and that doesn’t include the possibility of countless billions of species evolving on countless billions of other planets. Even at the quantum level of emerging particles, results from the Hadron Collider show that space spews forth an unending array of new and never-before seen particles. There is diversity not just at higher levels of evolution, but at the very foundation of the universe.

The universe is indeed a self-organizing system, but it is not a self-organizing “one-ness”, “unity” or “self”. It is not self-organizing according to some design, plan or unifying intelligence. It is a self-organizing system of infinite diversity, and each unique characteristic becomes the ’cause or condition’ for an infinite array of other unique characteristics.

I have trouble accepting the universe as evolving towards a ‘consciousness’ that is some kind of cosmic “one-ness”, when what we see is a nearly limitless and mind-blowing diversity manifesting everywhere. Diversity, the evolution of unique species, is completely tied to specific ’causes and conditions’ which give rise to species that are uniquely adapted to their particular systems and environments. But those systems and environments are always undergoing constant change, which requires species to constantly adapt or die out. The extinction of some species creates the ’causes and conditions’ for new species to evolve.

This seems to me to be the core meaning of “emptiness”, that it is an infinately-changing ground or condition out of which infinite diversity arises. Each of us has very specific, individual consciousness which is a product of our unique ’causes and conditions’, and is ever-changing. If we have “selves”, (and there’s plenty of evidence that ‘selfness’ is neurologically hardwired in brain) those “selves” are biologically and culturally conditioned, but we can also change our own minds and develop new awareness, i.e. ‘awaken.’

I contend that the universe is not an evolving “self”. It does not need to be or become “self-aware”, or to arrive at some cosmic self-awareness. However, we know from quantum physics that particles seem to “know” about each other. The quantum principle of non-locality, “action at a distance”, says that if we measure a characteristic of a particle in one part of the universe, a particle in another part of the universe will respond in kind to that measurement. Particles seem to be linked; they can effect each other even when separated from one end of the universe to another. This is also based on “causes and conditions”, one being the fact that particles are linked, the second that we are measuring them. My contention is that this ‘de minimus’ or “bare essential” form of “awareness” is all the “consciousness” that is needed for the universe to create and support an infinite diversity of forms.

Non-locality or “spooky action at a distance” is one example of the understanding that EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED, but not that everything is the SAME. Things don’t have to be the same in order to be connected. Indeed the quantum particle example shows that when you measure one characteristic of one particle, say its direction of “spin”, the other particle responds by spinning in the opposite direction: DIFFERENT BUT CONNECTED and mutually affecting.

Human consciousness is a particular form of consciousness that evolved to help as adapt to unique conditions on this planet. It enables us to live and survive in predatory groups, and makes us highly adaptive to just about everything the planet can throw at us. The only thing we are not sure that we can survive is our own cleverness, as we often use our high level of intelligence to destroy ourselves as a species.

Human consciousness evolved on this planet; we have no evidence that something similar evolved somewhere else, or that it is part of some progression toward a universal consciousness. What we need to evolve and what we are in the process of evolving is the very human understanding that we won’t survive as a species much longer without each other. We have to understand that EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and mutually affecting, especially is this fragile and tightly interwoven eco-system known as the Holocene.

There is no “self” that is eternal, unchanging, or “ultimate”, aka “atman.” There are only tenuous, contingent, barely-holding-together but uniquely conditioned “selves” that have evolved to adapt to a unique set of circumstances, and that barely exist for but a nano-second in terms of the history of the universe—aka “anatman.” What “awakens” is this flimsy self to its vaporous, momentary, contingent existence, that it is utterly dependent on and nothing more than the result of causes and conditions that are constantly changing and essentially “groundless.”

Furthermore, there is no SEPARATE self. This unique but flimsy “self” is interdependently connected to and shaped by countless other “selves”. Our minds are deeply conditioned by and connected to countless other minds on this planet. This is what Gregory Bateson described in his book “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.” So the Buddhas’ admonition to work with one’s mind means, necessarily, that we must also work with our minds in the context of working with other minds. Thus, working with “one’s own mind” in isolation will fail to bring about individual liberation because minds, though different, are interdependent and mutually affecting. Thus the Bodhisattva idea of “I vow to liberate all beings” becomes not just an ideal but a necessary condition for one’s own liberation.

The hardest thing for people to get, still, is pratityasamutpada, which is that EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED, SELF-ORGANIZING and MUTUALLY AFFECTING.

Yes, every ‘object’ is composed of parts, and every part can be broken down, infinitely, into still more parts, but that doesn’t mean that the “parts” aren’t real or don’t really exist. ‘Emergence’ is ’emptiness’ in reverse: wholes are constructed out of parts, but the wholes are “more than the sum of the parts.” Wholes are not only more than the sum of parts, they are DIFFERENT FROM the sum of the parts, exhibiting new forms and functions that the parts do not have. Just as every part can be deconstructed into still smaller parts, infinitely, every “whole” is part of a still larger “whole”, infinitely. Every whole is a part, every part is a whole, depending on how you [de]construct it. Yet every one of these interdependent parts/wholes have existence, BECAUSE they are all connected and SELF-ORGANIZING.

I question whether there is a ‘universal self’ or consciousness that we are part of. I see no evidence that there is a linear progression from the supposed “non-consciousness” of cosmic gasses and rocks towards a “more evolved consciousness” of the human species. All forms of consciousness are possible and exist at the same time. Evolution is the continuous creation of diversity, based on prior and present causes and conditions. And this continuous evolution of diversity is ceaseless, as far as we know.

As for eternalism, the only thing that seems to be eternal is what Einstein’s articulated as the maxim that “energy is neither created nor destroyed, it merely changes form.” That appears to be an eternalist condition, but I don’t know if any science or philosophy has refuted that claim. What exists, which appears to be a primordial form of energy, has always existed and will always exist; it merely changes form. Space appears to have eternal existence; even the Buddhists would admit to that. What appears to exist, eternally, is this ever-and-infintely-changing space out of which all this diversity arises. Buddhism teaches that shunyata, is a ‘mark of existence’, not a mark of ‘NON-existence.’ Thus what appears to exist eternally is existence. Such would be the nature of existence, by definition, that it always exists, and not in relation to ‘non-existence’ which is by definition an oxymoron


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This entry was posted on 2015/04/15 by and tagged .


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