An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".

Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



A Brief Summary of
What We Don't Know

Andrew P. Smith

Elliott Benjamin is the most recent author to contribute to the evolution discussion. His article, Evolution, Consciousness and Purpose, focuses on the really difficult questions:

  1. how did the material world arise?
  2. how did consciousness arise?

As he readily admits, everything at this point becomes speculation. But I think speculation is useful here, if it helps us draw a line between what science can apparently explain, and what it can't, at least not yet.

The Lanes' articles, and my Does Evolution Have a Direction?, were basically concerned with staking a claim for what science can explain: that given the existence of a material world, known evolutionary processes, though blind and lacking any ultimate purpose, are nonetheless capable of producing greater complexity. Evolutionary theory does not explain how the material world arose, and it does not explain, yet, how consciousness arose. But science's ignorance on these questions should not be conflated with an alleged inability to explain the emergence of the physical and biological world that we see today.

So what kind of answers have been proposed to questions about the origins of matter and consciousness? I think they can be classified into four major groups:

A) The scientific worldview

While science has no definite answers to either question, yet, its underlying assumption is that both will ultimately be explained by science. As Elliott notes, some physicists believe that matter could have been created out of essentially nothing by random quantum fluctuations. This would provide a scientific answer to 1). With respect to 2), most scientists believe that consciousness is a feature of only fairly complex brains, resulting from patterns of neural activity.

Both of these views have critics, of course. The major difficulty with science's answer to 1) is that even if quantum theory can explain how matter could have been created by nothing (and some, like Elliott, find this a bit hard to swallow), one is still left with the question of how the quantum laws that allow this possibility originated. As many physicists have noted, evolution could not have occurred much beyond simple hydrogen atoms if certain physical parameters of the universe had not been fine-tuned to a degree that seems far beyond the outcome of random chance (Davies 1984).

With regard to 2), consciousness seems so completely different from matter that no viable theory of how matter could support consciousness has yet been proposed. Indeed, a number of philosophers regard the problem as insoluble, at least in the current scientific framework (Nagel 1986; Chalmers 1996; McGinn 1999).

B) The mystical worldview

As espoused by Wilber and many others, in this view there is a higher form of consciousness that has always existed, which created the material world. Wilber has called the creation process involution, suggesting it might be rather like the process of an adult organism creating new organisms through specialized single cells. This world then proceeded to evolve, guided by this higher consciousness. Again, an obvious analogy is the development of a single cell into an adult organism. This partly results from contingent factors, as does evolution, but is also guided to a substantial degree by pre-existing information in the genome. So in Wilber's view, one could say that biological development provides a rough model for understanding evolution. Though ontogeny may not exactly recapitulate phylogeny, both begin and end at the same place, so one might expect that they would share at least some common markers along the route.

This view of our origins thus flips upside down the scientific view that matter preceded consciousness. I discussed some of its weaknesses in Does Evolution Have a Direction? I will just add here that, for most scientists, the notion that a higher consciousness has always existed is unsatisfactory, as this consciousness itself goes unexplained. If the origins of simple matter from nothing are difficult to accept, how can one accept the origins of a consciousness that apparently is far more complex than this matter? And if one avoids this question by postulating that consciousness always existed, why can't one say matter always existed? Really, what is it about consciousness that leads some very intelligent theorists to believe it could be eternal, while matter, it seems, could not be?

On a purely logical basis, then, the mystical view seems to offer no advantage over the scientific view. In fact, as far as I can see, it has been proposed largely because those who have experienced higher consciousness, overwhelmed by its profundity, have concluded that it can't possibly be explained as the outcome of purely material processes. As I have discussed in Does Evolution Have a Direction?, there is an alternative to understanding higher consciousness that does not involve reducing or accounting for it in processes in the individual human brain.

But the very nature of the experience is likely to continue persuading many that all explanations of our origins must begin with this consciousness. Those who support this view always have an ace up their sleeve. It's the notion that higher consciousness permits an understanding that is simply incomprehensible to ordinary consciousness.

C) Panpsychism

According to this view, everything—all forms of material existence—are to some extent conscious. Though this notion is usually associated with earlier, pre-scientific cultures, there are a number of modern-day philosophers who take it very seriously (Chalmers 1996; Seager 1999; Griffin 2001). In the modern view, it is usually expressed as a form of property dualism, in which matter and consciousness are two aspects of something more fundamental. That being the case, if one can account scientifically for the origins of the material universe—through quantum fluctuations, for example—then one also accounts for the origins of consciousness. Once the existence of both matter and consciousness have been established, evolution could then produce both matter and consciousness of greater complexity.

The major difficulty of panpsychism—apart from any associated with hitching itself to a materialist explanation of the origin of the universe—is understanding how even simple forms of matter could be conscious. What does it mean, for example, to say that an atom is conscious? What exactly is it conscious of? I have attempted to address this question a little in Smith (2009), but it is admittedly unlikely that many scientists will ever take panpsychism seriously. Our own experience of consciousness makes it difficult to appreciate how anything remotely like it could be a property of even simple forms of organisms, let alone simple forms of matter.

D) Biocentrism

This term was coined by cloning researcher Robert Lanza (2009), whose book by the same name argues that life and consciousness must have preceded the physical universe. However, as Lanza readily acknowledges, the view itself is not new. It has just accrued more scientific support in recent times, at least some believe. Henry Stapp, as quoted by Elliott Benjamin , eloquently summarizes the rationale of this view:

If we can push back to a time when only one or the other aspect prevailed, then it is certainly much easier to imagine a basically mental world creating for itself a physical substructure to attend to the minor details, than to imagine a purely physical world creating a mental superstructure.

A major difficulty with the biocentric view is the same associated with the mystical view: it does not explain the origin of consciousness itself. In the biocentric view, though, the problem is perhaps a little less intractable. The original consciousness could be much simpler, what Elliott calls an “archaic” consciousness. Given the existence of this, and the ability to create simple forms of physical matter, one could imagine further evolution to our current universe.

There seems to be an additional difficulty, however, in postulating the existence of consciousness or mentality independent of matter. While Stapp may find it easier to imagine consciousness creating matter than the reverse, the fact is we have no evidence (other than some extremely controversial studies, some of which were cited by Elliott) of disembodied consciousness—that existing in the absence of matter. As far as we know, all forms of consciousness are associated with a physical body. Conversely, though, we have ample evidence of matter existing in the absence of consciousness. Panpsychists, of course, would dispute this latter claim, but even if they are right (and there is no direct evidence for the panpsychist view). and it turns out that even very simple matter is conscious, it still does not make an argument for consciousness existing in the absence of matter.


These four worldviews, or classes of worldviews, form, I think, a framework within which we can debate highly contentious—and likely for a long time if not forever unprovable—claims about how consciousness and the material world originated. We could summarize them by saying that the universe originated with:

  • A: simple forms of matter;
  • B: the highest form of consciousness;
  • C: both simple forms of matter and simple forms of consciousness; and
  • D: with simple forms of consciousness.

The Lanes, I presume, are most sympathetic to A), the scientific worldview. Wilber opts for B), while Elliott seems to lean towards D). My personal preference is C), because it seems to me that it explains the most with the least outrageous assumptions. But all of these worldview make outrageous assumptions!  


Chalmers, D. (1996) The Conscious Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Davies, P. (1984) God and the New Physics (New York: Simon and Schuster)

Griffin, D. (1998) Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)

Lanza, R., Berman, B. (2009) Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe (New York: Ben Bella)

McGinn, C. (1999) The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic)

Nagel, T. (1986) The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Seager, W. (1999) Theories of Consciousness (New York: Routledge)

Smith, A.P. (2009) The Dimensions of Experience (Xlibris)  

Comment Form is loading comments...