This article develops the theme of my two previous ones, The Superorganism: a Challenge to Materialist Science, and Is the Earth a Superorganism? Please refer to these if background information is required. (In what follows, I’ll refer to them as article 1 and article 2.)
At this point in the argument I would like you to at least consider the possibility that the Earth is a superorganism. If that is true, then I am willing to contemplate the possibility, following the authors in article 2, that humanity is an integral part of the Earth, something like its brain, or its nervous system.
If that is true, then it is certainly not apparent at the moment. In human society there is nothing like the cooperation of ants or bees (article 1). Most humans experience themselves as separate individuals, whose primary motivation seems to be their own needs. We cannot trust all citizens to behave responsibly to others, and therefore need police forces. There is hostility between nations, and frequent wars – civil or otherwise. There are appalling acts of murder – mindless mass shootings, and politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In Britain we have a queen, just like an ant-colony, yet we have both Monarchists and Republicans, so some of the population are trying to get rid of the position of queen! There is ongoing conflict between bosses and workers, both of whom seem motivated by their own needs. So at best we could describe humanity as a severely dysfunctional superorganism, which perhaps fits with some of the material in article 2. There I referred to three authors:
James Lovelock, who said that the Earth does not yet think but that humanity has the potential to fulfil that function.
Arthur M. Young, who said that the individual ego is still the vehicle and not yet a cell in the social body, although he sees this as a future possibility.
George Trevelyan, who said that “We are passing out of an epoch in which we were mere observers, distinct, isolated and alienated from an infinite number of disparate things. The experience of solitude was necessary – a prelude to the imaginative vision of the kinship with all life, and of the fact that mankind is in reality one great family”.
It is interesting to note that this experience of separation and individuality has not always been, and is not everywhere the case, even though it may be difficult now for Westerners to think otherwise.
I’ll refer first to a series of lectures given by Professor Mark W. Muesse, Religions of the Axial Age (1). As he explains, this term was coined by philosopher Karl Jaspers, and it was called this because of its pivotal role in human history. This period is dated to 800-200 B.C.E., and Muesse notes that “pre-Axial humans’… sense of identity was more firmly rooted in their participation in the family, class, or tribe”. He talks about a “rise in the sense of individuality”, saying that “humans began to think of themselves as separate, autonomous individuals”, and that “selfhood promotes a feeling of isolation or, at least, differentiation from the rest of the human community and the rest of reality” (2).
Muesse mentions tribes there, and it seems true to say that various post-Axial tribes seem not to have experienced this transformation towards individuality. Anthropologist and explorer Bruce Parry has spent many years living with tribes, experiencing their way of life, and making documentary programmes for the BBC. In 2017 he produced and directed a film called Tawai – A Voice from the Forest, and he was interviewed about it on BBC radio5 live by Sarah Brett and Nihal Arthanayake (3). The film is about the Penan people of Malaysia, whose lives are centred around their relationship with each other and the environment. Tawai is the word they use to describe their inner feeling of connection to nature, and means something like a felt connection to landscape. Parry described them in these terms: operating from a different perspective, they don’t see themselves so individually as we do. When they express who they are, they see themselves as part of a group, and part of a group within a landscape. When you ask about their own individual desires, those individual desires still take care of the others and the place. Each of them has only one desire, a deep, deep desire for the future. They want this to keep going forever, for the future generations, for their children. Sarah Brett commented: “They are deeply connected to the environment, deeply connected to each other, they share everything. We’re told we’re interconnected, it seems we are more solitary”. Parry responded: “Many would agree. We connect in surface ways. We know it intuitively, but we’re still on this conveyor belt towards separation”.
Another example would be the Muisca tribe of the Andes. They were described in one episode of Living with the Gods, a series of programmes by Neil MacGregor (4), former director of the British Museum. He discusses them with Jago Cooper, also of the British Museum, the curator of the South American collection, who said that “The Muisca believed that humans are an integral part of the environment, and they all live within an ecology of different relationships”. “The aim of religion for the Muisca was to create balance… and when the balance of life came out of kilter, an offering could be made in order to right that imbalance, and create an equlibrium”. Neil MacGregor commented: “In this society value was tied up with ensuring peaceful equilibrium in the landscape and in the cosmos”.
The great mythologist Joseph Campbell sums up such ideas about the Axial Age and tribal life in these words: “It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, this selfhood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations” (5).
So, if these commentators have got it right, then human societies were once perceived as part of something greater than themselves and, even after the Axial Age, still perceived by various tribes as part of nature, thus the superorganism of the Earth. How are we therefore to understand this drive towards separation, individualism? If it was not some kind of evolutionary (in the Darwinian sense) mistake, it was presumably a stage in the process of the spiritual evolution of consciousness, the purpose of which would seem to be the strengthening of the ego, a deeper involvement with the material level. To what end?
Muesse says that accompanying the “rise in the sense of individuality” was “a greater consciousness of the human being as a moral agent, accountable for his or her own actions”. There was “a dramatic change in the very function of religion in human life. During this era, the purpose of religion shifted from what theologian John Hick calls cosmic maintenance to personal transformation”. “By cosmic maintenance, we mean that religion functions chiefly as a ritual means for human beings to collaborate with the divine powers to assist in keeping the world in good working order” (6). (It is interesting to note that this latter seems to be exactly the position of various tribes, including the Muisca.)
Peter Russell (from article 2) says: “The spearhead of evolution is now self-reflective consciousness. If evolution is indeed to push on to yet higher levels of integration, the most crucial changes are going to take place in the realm of human consciousness, and consciousness of the self in particular. In effect the evolutionary process has now become internalised within each of us” (7).
In similar vein, George Trevelyan (also from article 2) says: “Mankind has evolved to an unprecedented degree of ego-centered self-consciousness, with all its desolating sense of aloneness and separation. …he may transcend that state…”, and “evolution has become conscious of itself” (8).
If this is true, then we have two purposes for this drive towards individualism. Following Muesse, becoming a more conscious, moral being would also imply a greater sense of free will and personal responsibility for actions. A shift in emphasis to personal transformation also means, following Russell and Trevelyan, that each individual can assume conscious responsibility for their own psychological and spiritual evolution, and then the evolution of the planet, thus making it possible to accelerate that process. So it is reasonable to say that the drive towards separation was an important, and necessary step, although there was an apparently unavoidable but regrettable consequence, the loss of a sense of connection with one’s fellow humans, and with the environment (the Earth). If this stage in the evolution of consciousness has now taken humanity to a critical point, this would suggest that it has now run its course, and that to continue in this direction would lead to a dead end. It would therefore be time to move on to the next evolutionary phase – a conscious, voluntary surrendering to the superorganism of the Earth, which is perhaps what the drive towards individualism was preparing us for.
The next question is therefore, what can we do now to move forward? What I have written so far (in this and the preceding two articles) suggests that the Earth is not yet a conscious being. This seems to be true, much more like a living but sleeping organism. This is how I understand James Lovelock’s idea of the Earth as self-regulating (article 2). It can be compared to a human whose bodily functions while asleep carry on as normal – breathing, blood circulation, digestion etc. None of these require consciousness, although they are all obvious indications of life. Note also that babies sleep for much longer than adults, so a possible analogy would be to consider the Earth at the stage of a human baby or infant.
Would the awakening of the Earth as a conscious being require a dramatic leap, a sudden transformation? Perhaps, but not necessarily, since the process may be much more gradual, in small increments, a process of natural growth, which would be true if the baby analogy is correct. It might also be a combination of the two. It is therefore a possibility that the Earth is already partially conscious. Fortunately, it does not really matter which of these options is true, since the human response is each case should probably be the same – everyone needs to become more conscious, more awake. Part of this process might be to try to expand awareness and see things from the point of view of the planet, not from the point of view of the individual. Here is a simple example. Observing nature from a separatist standpoint it is easy to come to the conclusion of “red in tooth and claw”, which seems to have led to Darwinian-type ideas of survival of the fittest. This may appear completely differently when viewed from a planetary perspective, from the point of view of Gaia; cycles of life and death may be part of an overall process of interconnectedness – after all, we human superorganisms survive on a day-to-day basis, even though many cells in our bodies are constantly dying and being replaced, without our even noticing. This would suggest cooperation as a driving force in evolution, rather than a struggle for survival. The scientific term for this is symbiosis, perhaps the most passionate advocate of which was the late Professor Lynn Margoulis, a harsh critic of neo-Darwinism, and associate of James Lovelock.
Here, George Trevelyan aims even higher than the planetary perspective: “Looking down from a spiritual dimension, we can experience and appreciate the marvellous harmony of earth life. We can discern the incredible complexity of the pattern and how, in all its diversity, it is a working unity, delicately poised in its constant movement” (9).
What are the problems currently facing us as a species? I quoted Sarah Brett above, saying “We’re told we’re interconnected, it seems we are more solitary”, and Bruce Parry’s response: “Many would agree. We connect in surface ways. We know it intuitively, but we’re still on this conveyor belt towards separation”. This is the major problem – the vast majority of humans do not in their everyday lives experience themselves as part of something greater (although we once did). This is also one of the major themes of Peter Russell (10), who in 1982 was saying the same thing. He has a marvellous phrase to describe the human’s experience of separateness – he calls it the “skin-encapsulated ego”. Asking the question of how we wake up, he says:
“It is no good knowing intellectually that we are inseparable from the rest of the Universe, if reality is still perceived dualistically, as me ‘in here’ and the rest of the world ‘out there’ ”.
“For humanity to accomplish a profound shift in attitude, the skin-encapsulated model of the self needs to be augmented by the realization that the individual is an integral part of Nature, no more isolated from the environment than a cell in the body is isolated from the human organism. The word ‘realization’ is crucial. Many people already have the intellectual knowledge that we are inseparable from the rest of Nature, yet it is becoming increasingly clear that this understanding is insufficient to bring about a truly radical change in the way we treat one another or the planet”.
“We need to realize our essential oneness with Nature, not just with our intellect and reason, but with our feelings and with our souls. It must become an undeniable part of our reality” (11).
How do we achieve this? Elsewhere in the Brett/Parry interview (3) referred to above, the question was raised, is consciousness just the brain/mind, or is it tapping into something universal? Modern materialist science says the former, even considering consciousness to be a by-product of the brain, and spiritual teachings say the latter. In order to make Russell’s leap forward, it is therefore important to challenge constantly the assumptions of materialist science.
As an aside to my main theme, therefore, I’ll spend some time arguing for the reality of the spiritual understanding of consciousness. (See also my blogposts The Folly of Modern Neuroscience, and Is the Self an Illusion? ) Out-of-body and near-death experiences (OOBs and NDEs) suggest that consciousness is more than just the brain. People who undergo such experiences tend to have a very different attitude to life and death. Such experiences, however, are for obvious reasons not easily accessible. More readily available are extrasensory perception experiences (ESP), including telepathy and clairvoyance, one category being remote viewing. (In article 1, I noted that, in the phenomenon of ant superorganisms, we have something which, at the very least, appears to be non-physical communication, even if the trigger for this is pheromones. It is also true that many so-called “primitive” tribes communicate telepathically. This suggests that ESP may be one route to help bring into being the human superorganism.) Materialist scientists and others of the same mindset try to deny their reality, and there is no point in arguing with such people directly. There are good reasons to believe in them, however, an obvious one being to have such experiences oneself. I once attended a course in ESP experimentation, and was very impressed, so much so that it was a significant factor in a dramatic shift away from my previous materialist viewpoint.
An organisation which was also very impressed was the CIA, which invested heavily in a classified remote viewing project (called Stargate) from the 1970s onwards, which seems to have been inspired by a single experience with Uri Geller. Here is a brief summary (12). The CIA had been tipped off by the intelligence agency of a very powerful ally (presumably Israel) that Geller was doing things for them which they could not understand. He was therefore invited to the USA, arriving in 1972. The institution involved was the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the scientists were Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff, who at the time had involvement with the CIA as physicists, developing lasers as listening devices from distant places. Geller claimed to have remote viewing ability. Targ and Puthoff thought the CIA might be interested, and so contacted by telephone a high-ranking officer, Kit Green (who was interviewed on camera). He was sceptical, but spoke to Geller, and they agreed to try out an experiment over the phone. Green said that he would put something on his desk, and asked Geller to say what it was. He chose a book, a collection of medical illustrations of the nervous system, opening it up to a particular page. Geller had a notebook, and made a drawing of a pan of scrambled eggs, but noted that the word “architecture” was also coming in strong. The illustration was actually a cross-section of the human brain, looking reasonably like some scrambled eggs, but more significant was the fact that Green had written in his own hand “architecture of a viral infection” next to the illustration. Puthoff said that there were no cues over the telephone, and that it was a genuine result. On the basis of this experience, Green authorised sufficient funds to enlarge Targ and Puthoff’s programme to include remote viewing. Puthoff said that over the years maybe $20 million dollars was spent on the remote viewing project: “We ended up having several dozen remote viewers”. Targ said: “We were supported by the CIA, defence intelligence agency, the army intelligence, NASA”, and that the SRI “came up with an almost unanimous verdict that he (Geller) was legitimate”.
It is reasonable to assume that, since the CIA and these other agencies would not have invested such funds into the project over a period of 20 years if it were not worthwhile – they could have withdrawn at any time – they were convinced of the reality of remote viewing (13).
If remote viewing and other forms of ESP, obtaining information without the use of the five senses, are real, then it is obvious that consciousness is not a by-product of brain processes. We have therefore to come to a different understanding of the nature of consciousness. In earlier articles I have referred to two books by Edward Kelly and co-authors called Irreducible Mind (14) and Beyond Physicalism (15), both of which are extremely relevant to this current topic. They adopt what is called the transmission model, based upon the ideas of the highly significant psychologist William James, and the less well-known but equally significant Frederic Myers (16). In a nutshell, the idea is that consciousness pre-exists the brain, which is an organ serving as a filter, or reducing-valve which limits it (a consequence of which is to induce the experience of separation that I have identified as a problem in this article). Michael Grosso (one of Kelly’s co-authors) elaborates: “Our individual minds are surface growths that appear separate and distinct but whose roots lie in a deeper psychic underground; there we are mutually entangled and part of a more extended mental system”. He also talks about the notion of a psychophysical threshold. If this is lowered then “the contents of the subliminal mind become more accessible; this can come about by deliberate shamanic or mystical practice or by chance blows to the head, or near-death experiences. In the normal struggle to adapt to the physical world, consciousness is confined and colored by contingent, body-mediated experience; we therefore mostly live our lives oblivious to any hint of our deep interior selves” (17).
Since writing these previous articles, I have come across an interesting passage by Joseph Campbell. He mentions in the same context Aldous Huxley, the Cambridge philosopher C. D. Broad, and the philosopher Henri Bergson (thus adding some more heavyweight names in support of this idea), and then goes on to quote Huxley quoting Broad: “The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful”.
Campbell then comments: “According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet… Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve. In others temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate ‘spiritual exercises,’ or through hypnosis, or by means of drugs. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows, not indeed the perception ‘of everything that is happening everywhere in the universe’ (for the by-pass does not abolish the reducing valve, which still excludes the total content of Mind at Large), but something more than, and above all something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality” (18). So here we have a clear explanation of what is preventing humanity from experiencing itself as a superorganism; currently the reducing-valves brains of most people are preventing them from experiencing Mind at Large. The psychophysical threshold seems to represent a kind of rigorous border-check when entering another country, the border between the material world and the psyche. We need a passport, since we are not all lucky enough to be born with the by-pass referred to by Campbell. We do not want to have to experience chance blows to the head, or near-death experiences. We are therefore left with shamanic or mystical practice, thus spiritual exercises, or Campbell’s mention of hypnosis or drugs. A programme of spiritual exercises can take a long time, and may not be a practical solution, given most peoples’ busy lifestyles. I’m not sure how effective hypnosis is, but it’s an interesting suggestion. It does seem, however, that psychedelic drugs are a relatively easy means of gaining access to Mind at Large.
This leads me on to the life and work of Stanislav Grof. For those not familiar with the name, I’ll give brief details. He began as a psychiatrist in Marxist Czechoslovakia, where he became aware of LSD, and began to experiment with it, in a necessarily secret programme, as a therapeutic aid, with extraordinary results. (He was not the only one, but was to my mind the most significant of the early pioneers of such work.) Apart from helping patients to resolve personal issues, at later stages in the process, interestingly often after the reliving of the birth trauma, they had transpersonal experiences, including encounters with non-physical entities (including “gods”), and identification with other forms of consciousness, for example plants and stones, even cosmic consciousness. He later moved to the USA and continued his work there. When LSD use was made illegal, he developed an alternative method of achieving these altered states through something he calls Holotropic Breathing (19). His experiences led him to be a convert to the Perennial Philosophy, and he was also instrumental in setting up the concept of Transpersonal Psychology. He is one of the major inspirations for the ideas I have been advocating in all my previous articles.
I don’t know whether this is scientifically true, but it certainly appears that LSD enables consciousness to bypass the reducing-valve of the brain, thus creating a passport to cross the psychophysical threshold. Fanatical materialist scientists like Victor Stenger deny this, wondering whether such visions suggest “anything beyond the simple scrambling of signals in the brain by physical or chemical trauma”. He says that “most researchers today agree that the profound insights of the ‘drug trip’ are a delusion brought about by the drug-induced chemical trauma to the nervous system”. (These researchers are unnamed. I suppose it depends on who you read.) “Thinking is physical…. Contradicting the claim that hallucinogens provide a pathway to other worlds is the very fact that they induce hallucinations, which is evidence in support of the physical nature of mind”. “If thinking were supernatural, then it should be insensitive to drugs or other physical effects such as fatigue, ageing, disease, or death. But the evidence is clear and unequivocal: thinking is affected by the same types of physical traumas that affect all other body functions” (20). I would argue that he has an overly simplistic conception of the brain and consciousness. In recent times we have the important analogy of the personal computer. There is both the physical hardware, and the software programmes. They are of completely different natures, yet each is meaningless without the other; they come as an integrated whole. In the same way consciousness and the brain come as an integrated whole, consciousness being superimposed into the brain in a way which is, of course, very difficult for both the public and scientists to understand. The circumstantial (and therefore not scientifically testable) evidence, however, suggests that this is the case.
There are therefore two relatively easily accessible types of experience which allow consciousness to experience itself as something more than a skin-encapsulated ego, potentially the human superorganism: ESP and psychedelic drugs. The problem is that in current society the latter is illegal. As Grof has shown, it is possible to achieve the same results by alternative methods, but it would be far simpler to allow the use of such drugs in a safe environment. That is why I advocate the introduction of a State-controlled programme of LSD use for therapeutic purposes, and for the exploration of the psyche (see section 5 Health of my article Headline Policies). I also advocate the introduction of ESP experiments into the education system (click here).
Russell, Peter: The Awakening Earth, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
Trevelyan, George: A Vision of the Aquarian Age: the Emerging Spiritual Worldview, originally 1977, my edition, Gateway Books, 1994
(1) The Teaching Company, Great Courses, 2007
(2) Lecture 1, quotes taken from the guidebook accompanying the course, p6
(3) Afternoon Edition, September 18th 2017
(4) BBC radio4, November 7th 2017, episode 12 of 30, called Gifts to the Gods
(5) Myths to Live By, Souvenir Press, 1973, p61
(6) guidebook, pp6-7
(7) Russell, p97
(8) Trevelyan, p20, p100
(9) Trevelyan, p102
(10) Quoted above, and one of my main inspirations for article 2, and the author of the book most relevant to this article, The Awakening Earth (see bibliography)
(11) Russell, pp130-131
(12) source, The Secret Life of Uri Geller, BBC2, July 21st 2013
(13) For more information about this project, including details of successful experiments, see Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, HarperOne, 2009, p101f . Targ and Puthoff have gone on to become prolific authors on the subject of ESP; see, for examples Mind-Reach, Delacorte Press, 1977, and Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2005, and Mind at Large, originally 1979, also Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2002. There is even an example of remote viewing used for military purposes in the Old Testament! See the Second Book of Kings chapter 6.
(14) Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
(15) Rowman & Littlefield, 2015
(16) see Beyond Physicalism, chapter 3 (17) Beyond Physicalism, p83-84
(18) Campbell, p263f, referring to Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, Harper & Row, 1954, pp22-24
(19) He describes his work in Realms of the Human Unconscious, and LSD Psychotherapy. He also tells his story on a fascinating series of audiocassettes The Transpersonal Vision.
(20) Physics and Psychics, Prometheus Books, 1990, p110