How They Have Been Seen
The way we think about mental activity and the way we think about the past may have more in common than we think.
When we focus on our mental life we tend to think of its substantive elements. That is, the particular thoughts, emotions, and perceptions that arise in our consciousness. When we think of the past, we think analogously. We focus on substantive events such as discoveries, wars, dynasties, and social movements.
Buddhist and phenomenological psychology encourage us to look at the river from which the substantive islands of thought, emotion, and images emerge. This river can be defined as the ground of consciousness.
What if we were to look for the ground of history? To do so we would need to postulate that a process underlies the substantive historic facts we are familiar with. That process would be seen as encompassing the whole of human history.
Judeo-Christian traditions conceive of history that way. All of history becomes the story of humans waiting for the coming and/or return of the Messiah. Events that occur are of importance insofar as they are related to helping hasten or retard the Messiah’s appearance.
Marxist-Leninists thought in similar terms. The process they saw underlying history is the development of an industrial working class. This part of humanity, led by a revolutionary vanguard, would then create a classless society. The Revolution is the Messiah. History consists of the important events leading up to the Revolution.
Hegel’s view of history held it to be the enactment of God’s purpose. He stated that purpose to be the growth of human freedom. I find this aspect of his perspective, linking the growth of freedom with the evolution of humanity, compatible with mine.
Learning and Freedom:
Their Braiding at the Core of Human Evolution
When we consider the direction of human history, two areas of change stand out. One is the increasing complexity and prevalence of science and technology. The second is the increasing spread of human rights and freedom.
It is interesting to note that there has been a rapid increase in the expansion of human rights in the past decade or so, along with an increase in the rate of scientific and technological advancement.
This is not a coincidence. The relationship between technological and scientific advancement and the increase of human rights and freedom is a deep and vital one. Indeed they are braided together like the trunk of a great wisteria.
Learning is What Makes Us Human
As a race we have been biologically hardwired to learn. If we were not so created we would still be cave dwellers. Learning is the key to the evolution of humanity, and in the long run there must be freedom in order for learning to continue. True, we have learned a great deal with little freedom. However, the explosion in scientific and technological advancement that began in the early nineteenth century necessitated a rise in the educational level of masses of humanity. Serfs and peasants became industrial workers who needed to learn how to operate and maintain complex machinery.
Later, the advent of mass production meant that mass literacy was needed in order for workers to be able not only to read instructions, but to read the advertisements encouraging them to buy the goods they produced.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, workers achieving literacy were also gaining the right to form labor unions and becoming a political force. Women in Britain were fighting for the right to vote, and anti-colonial movements were springing up in Africa and Asia. All these groups were struggling for the right to be treated as full human beings, capable and worthy of developing their potential.
Being Free to Learn
As we move into the new millennium it is clear that in order for humanity’s potential for learning to be fully actualized, great sections of the worlds population must gain the social, political, and economic rights which will make them free to learn.
Women are the most outstanding example of this process. Although during the last century women in much of the world have gained the right to pursue higher learning, there still remain many societies where they are severely hampered in their efforts to contribute to the cresting wave of intellectual and scientific knowledge that powers our continuing evolution.
All cultural, legal, and economic factors that prevent segments of the human race from fully participating in the learning process are devolutionary. Racism, Sexism, Classism, Ethno-Centrism, and all the other isms that place undeserved institutional barriers before one group of humans or another, can be seen in that light. Conversely, as mass education becomes the global norm and institutes of higher learning open their doors to those previously barred because of social and/or economic reasons, we can expect to see learning, science, and technology to grow even more rapidly.
Learning That Being Free, Frees Us to Learn.
Freedom is both a negative and positive concept. In an ideal society we would be free of both oppressive restrictions on our behavior, and free to engage in a variety of activities consonant with our abilities and interests. Surveying history, we see that it is necessary to remove oppressive restrictions in order to have the freedom to be ourselves and contribute to the greater whole. Societies are beginning to learn that we need freedom in order to more effectively learn and contribute to the evolution of our race.
The Ground of History
Theoretically, the ground of history can be seen as an underlying process moving through the ages.
For Hegel, that process was the increasing spread of human freedom as part of God’s plan. Spinoza saw God and the Universe as essentially the same, and humans being a part of the God/Universe. In a perspective that combines Hegelian and Spinozan elements, the God/ Universe can be seen as having a plan to evolve a self-contemplative organ. As George Wald, the Nobel-Prize winning scientist said in a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in 1962, “We are the Universe’s way of knowing itself”. In order for the Universe to evolve more effectively and safely, we humans, its self-contemplative component, must learn that spreading freedom is an essential part of increasing learning – and that increasing learning is the engine of evolution.
The question still remains, “Why did the Universe plan to evolve us?”
Species evolve specific characteristics in order to insure their survival. We have been evolved with the specific characteristic of being able to exponentially learn about the Universe. We can thus infer that the Universe evolved us as learning entities who could eventually learn how to insure its survival. We are thus, not only the way the Universe knows and is awed by itself, we are also evolving into the means by which the Universe can save itself as it nears its demise.
The exponential rate at which we are learning about the Universe – its genesis, scope, and possible future – coupled with our increasing ability to effect our own planet as a whole, must be seen in a longer time frame. The last few hundred years contained both the onset of the Age of Enlightenment and the tremendous growth of Science and Technology. Yet, they are the blink of an eye in terms of the length of time humans have existed on this planet. If (and the If is enormous) we do not destroy ourselves and continue to learn and evolve for tens of thousands of years to come, the powers available to us and/or our descendants, will be beyond earthshaking. With that perspective, the idea of our descendants saving the Universe appears less fanciful.
There is the cosmic Hindu myth of the God Shiva juggling the Universe. Each time he drops it an eon called a “kalpa” is completed, and the Universe dies. Each time he picks up the dropped Universe and begins juggling it anew, a kalpa begins and the Universe is reborn. We created this myth. A myth that may not only indicate our future, but also remind us of our past. For if we can imagine helping a new Universe emerge eons from now, we can equally imagine that this process occurred eons ago. Imagine that infinite kalpas have passed, each one seeing a Universe arise that has evolved in such a way so as to create intelligent life. Life created by that Universe in order to enable it to survive in some form or other.
This certainly puts a new twist on the Messiah story. Instead of thinking of a transcendental God creating humanity, leaving it to stew, and then promising to finally send down an emissary to save it, our new story has the Universe creating humanity as its Savior and Messiah. Rather than being saved by some outside force, we humans continue to evolve until we are able to save the force that first enabled us to exist – the Universe itself.
The saying that “looking for the Buddha is like looking for a water buffalo while riding on one” comes to mind. Or, to paraphrase the wise possum Pogo, “We have met the Messiah and It is Us”.
Linking the Ground of History to the Ground of Consciousness
The ground of history springs from the ground of human consciousness. It is the constant unfolding of new learning, emerging from the thoughts, visions, and dreams of our ancestors and contemporaries that makes human evolution possible. It is the cognitive freedom that we grant ourselves, struggle for, and aid others in achieving, that sustains and magnifies the learning essential for sustaining our evolution.
There was the one that first imagined using fire, and those that kept the fire going; the one that first used fire to melt iron ore, and all the smiths that came after; the one that invented steel; and the metallurgical engineers who enabled space vehicles to safely break free of Earths’ gravity. Now millions of us can see images of our green-blue planet floating in space. Now millions begin to see our place in our parent Universe.
We are all part of this marvelous evolutionary voyage. Our minds hold the ticket for the voyage. That ticket did not come cheaply. It was purchased not only by dint of our intelligence and imagination, but also through bloody struggles to increase the rights of all humans to use their intelligence and imagination in their own and everyone’s behalf.
That struggle remains unfinished, as evidenced by the numerous governments that stifle free inquiry and oppress their people, the widespread presence of poverty which interferes with effective learning, and the sexist institutions and practices that prevent millions upon millions of women throughout the world from contributing as much as they can to the evolution of our human race.
For us to fulfill our potential, and carry out the heroic tasks that the universe has bequeathed us, we must continue on the path of creating a world where all will be free to learn, free to develop themselves to the fullest, and free to help each other to learn and evolve.