Consciousness and Society – An Ethic of Interconnectedness

Three kinds of progress are significant for culture: progress in knowledge and technology; progress in the socialisation of man; progress in spirituality. The last is the most important. Technical progress, extension of knowledge, does indeed represent progress, but not in fundamentals. The essential thing is that we become more finely and deeply human.

Albert Schweitzer is remembered not only for his medical missionary work in tropical Africa, but also for his gifts as an organist and for his philosophical and theological work. His key ethical principle is ‘reverence for life’ (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben), an insight that came to him one afternoon on the river. We are familiar enough with his first category of progress in knowledge and technology, but, as he points out, social progress is more important and progress in spirituality is the most fundamental level. Here he uses the resonant phrase of becoming ‘more finely and deeply human’, which I take to represent a refinement of consciousness that is reflected in ethically informed action. This means closing the gap between knowledge and wisdom, ensuring that technological and spiritual progress go hand in hand.

Aldous Huxley expressed a similar concern but more strongly in his book ‘Ends and Means’, published during the Second World War in 1941: ‘in the world in which we find ourselves, technological advance is rapid. But without progress in charity, technological advance is useless. Indeed it is worse than useless. Technological progress has merely provided us with a more efficient means for going backwards.’ In a Machiavellian world based on power politics, acquisition and use of biological or depleted uranium weapons is a case in point.

A Science of Interconnectedness

Before coming more specifically to what I mean by an ethic of interconnectedness, it is useful to highlight the development of a science of interconnectedness in physics, biology and psychology, disciplines that have until recently been dominated by atomistic conceptions of isolated particles, genes or individuals which put an emphasis on separation rather than unity. This sense of isolation in an indifferent cosmos has led to widespread alienation and loss of meaning. On the other hand, more holistic concepts in science stress participation and belonging as ways of overcoming this sense of alienation. And Arthur Koestler has provided the useful idea of a ‘holon’, which is at once a whole and a part: cells are individual but form elements of organs; organs are in turn individual but forms part of the body, just as the body is part of the earth and the individual a part of society. And the earth is part of the solar system, which is in turn part of the Milky Way galaxy and so on.

Physicist John Archibald Wheeler has asserted that ‘the universe does not exist “out there”, independent of us. We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening. We are not only observers. We are participators. In some strange sense this is a participatory universe.’ The inseparability of observer from the observed has been a standard element in quantum theory since the 1930s even if many physicists do not share the view that consciousness actually ‘collapses the wave function’. The physicist and philosopher David Bohm elaborated a new view whereby unity is prior to separation with his ideas of the ‘implicate’ and ‘explicate’ orders (literally enfolded and unfolded orders). For him, reality is ‘undivided wholeness in flowing movement’ (his best known book is Wholeness and the Implicate Order), so wholeness is primary and partness or separation is secondary and derived from this.

Ecology and biology have built on the systems view of the world introduced in the 1940s by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. His key insight is the distinction between open (organic) and closed (mechanistic) systems where the former interact and exchange with the environment in a dynamic way. Life forms and habitats (ecosystems) are both complex open systems. As Fritjof Capra observes, the very principles of ecology are applied in holistic biology: ‘interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and, as a consequence, sustainability’. The metaphor of the ‘web of life’ says it all, beautifully expressing both unity and interconnectedness. Other concepts from biology include symbiosis – co-operation between organisms for mutual benefit – and synergy, where individual elements within a system work together for the good of the whole. Then Jim Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis questions the sharp distinction between organism and environment, arguing that organisms regulate the composition of the atmosphere for their own benefit – this is mutuality in action.

In psychology, Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious posits a unity beneath the surface while mystics from all traditions describe an intuitive sense of unity beyond the senses. This mystical or transpersonal insight is also reflected in the near-death experience (NDE) and underlies the experience of life review, where people experience events as if they were another person involved in the same episode. In other words the event is not relived from their own vantage point but as if you are another. In this sense, each event has as many aspects as there are experiencers.

Metaphysics and Ethics

In his book The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Sir Isaiah Berlin asserts that ‘ ethical thought consists of the systematic examination of the relations of human beings to each other, the conceptions, interests and ideals from which human ways of treating each other spring, and the systems of value on which such ends of life are based.’ These ideas of relation and value rest in turn on a person’s world view or metaphysic, thus intrinsically linking metaphysics with ethics. Christian eschatology (or the Last Things) consists of death, judgement, heaven and hell. If death is the end, then there can be no relationship between one’s conduct in this life and one’s fate in the next. However, to the extent that an afterlife is posited, then the question arises.

I believe that we can gain some insights into this matter from the NDE life review. As already mentioned, this seems to enable people to experience events from another person’s angle. This would only be logically possible if there is an underlying unity and connectedness of consciousness, which is also experienced in mystical states. So unity of consciousness implies an ethic of interconnectedness. The experience of the life review takes place within an atmosphere of love emanating from what is usually sensed as a ‘being of light’ who also embodies the spiritual qualities of peace, joy and compassion. The Bhagavad Gita puts it like this: ‘The yogi sees himself in the heart of all beings and he sees all beings in his heart. This is the vision of the Yogi of harmony, a vision which is ever one. And when he sees me [Krishna] in all and he sees all in me, then I never leave him and he never leaves me. He who is in the oneness of love, loves me in whatever he sees, wherever this man may live, in truth this man lives in me.’ The yogi understands the unity of life and consciousness that ‘we are one another’ and it becomes natural to apply the Golden Rule of doing as you would be done by. For me, the NDE life review is a demonstration of the unity of consciousness and hence of the necessity of an ethic of interconnectedness that is also found in the New Testament. Here Christ encourages us to see him in all people and act accordingly: ‘for inasmuch as you did it to the least of them, you did it to me’.  Love of God and your neighbour is the cornerstone of Christian ethics that is reflected in the NDE life review. It points towards a very considerable degree of personal moral responsibility.

The Evolution of Consciousness

It is a commonplace to argue that the focus of evolution has moved from physical to mental, moral or, more widely, cultural development. The idea of an evolution of consciousness has been put forward for over 100 years and is sometimes related to a scheme that includes reincarnation, as with Rudolf Steiner. Oswald Spengler followed Hegel in applying a cyclical analysis to the rise and fall of cultures, and his book The Decline of the West struck a somewhat disconcerting chord when it was published during the First World War in 1917. It represented an internal crisis of confidence in the Western project. Arnold Toynbee followed this up with his massive 12-volume Study of History published between 1934 and 1961.

Toynbee was also concerned with the genesis of civilisations, which he attributed to the activities of the ‘creative minority’ within an existing society. Fritjof Capra builds on this idea in his book The Turning Point, arguing that the holistic (and transpersonal) movement represents just this creative minority that is the seed of a new culture. The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin offers a model involving an alternation between what he calls sensate (materialistic) and ideational (spiritually-based) cultures, arguing that our current sensate culture is giving way to a spiritual renaissance, a hope and aspiration also shared by Toynbee. More recently, systems theorist Ervin Laszlo has offered his own idea of a ‘macroshift’ from ‘logos’ to ‘holos’, citing the same kind of data referred to above that point to an emerging science of interconnectedness. Yet another model is offered by Spiral Dynamics, with its characterisation of phases of conscious development moving from blue (conservative) through orange (scientific and technological materialism) to more integrated levels beyond the green of the ecologically sensitive self.

The Bulgarian sage Beinsa Douno (Peter Deunov, 1864-1944) offers his own model of the evolution of consciousness on the basis of a grand scheme of involution (moving from the One to the many, or oneness to differentiation) and the reverse process of evolution from separation towards unity. He distinguishes five stages:

  • Primitive collective consciousness (Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s participation mystique or Owen Barfield’s original participation)
  • Individual consciousness (towards differentiation, separation)
  • Collective consciousness (socialism, communism)
  • Cosmic consciousness (the conscious mystical sense of unity)
  • Divine consciousness (even wider and deeper)

Current societies alternate between forms of individual and collective consciousness, while in the transpersonal movement there is growing acknowledgement of the significance of cosmic consciousness (also R.M. Bucke’s phrase) as a new phase of development.

Beinsa Douno provides two other parallel schemes of evolution. The first is what he calls Four Degrees of Human Culture:

  • Violence – force, domination, power
  • Law – threat, control (external)
  • Justice – universal, excludes privilege
  • Love – life for the whole

The reader can see here that the end point of Douno’s thinking points towards what he calls a Culture of Love beyond violence, law and justice. Love internalises the universal principle of justice with its principle of dedication to the life of the whole. Likewise, his analysis of four systems runs:

  • Clericalism, corresponding to the prevalence of outer ceremony
  • Militarism, corresponding to the use of force
  • Capitalism, corresponding to exploitation

The shortcoming of all these systems, in his view, is that they all employ the same methods of violence, constraint, control and fear. Only with the application of love – the fourth system – are these contradictions overcome and is a virtuous circle established.

Underlying the philosophy of Beinsa Douno are three fundamental principles:

  • Love, bringing warmth to the heart
  • Wisdom, bringing light to the mind
  • Truth, bringing strength and freedom to the will

In addition, two further principles – justice or equity and virtue – make up the symbolism of the pentagram, which is also danced in Douno’s paneurhythmy (literally, universal harmony of movement) for which he also composed the music. The movements of paneurhythmy are replete with symbolism that combines the masculine and feminine principles represented by wisdom and love.

Dennis Kucinich and the Politics of Interconnectedness (

Some readers will be aware of the remarkable forward-looking campaign by Rep. Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic Presidential nomination, which he took all the way to the Convention. Kucinich has been an implacable opponent of the war in Iraq, observing that dichotomous thinking leads to war and a vicious circle of escalating violence. He sees the role of the US president as overcoming divisions through reconciliation and healing, remembering that the motto of the United States – E Pluribus Unum – can be applied on a planetary scale on the basis of the following principles: faith, optimism, hope, renewal, justice, non-violence, co-operation, mutuality, courage, integration, transformation.

Returning to the origins of the US, Kucinich observes: ‘ Whether we look at the first motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one), which is a spiritual principle, or in the latter motto “In God We Trust,” we have to recognise the Founders were immersed in contemplation of a world beyond our experience, one of spirit, of mysticism, one which saw the potential of the country as unfolding in a multidimensional way, both through the work of our hands and the work of our hearts.’

Kucinich calls for an evolutionary politics ‘of creativity, of vision, of heart, of compassion, of joy; to create a new nation and a new world using the power of love, of community, of participation, to transform our politics, and yes, to transform ourselves’, adding ‘ Let us remake America by reconnecting with a higher purpose to bring peace within and without, to come into harmony with nature, to confirm and to secure the basic rights of our brothers and sisters.’

His proposal for a Department of Peace has received over 40 votes of support in Congress and has been adopted as policy by a number of local Democratic parties. And in 2004, he received the Gandhi Peace Prize for his efforts. Dennis explains: ‘ Americans have proven over and over again we’re a nation that can rise to the challenges of our times, because our people have that capacity. And so, the concept of a Department of Peace is the vehicle by which we express our belief that we have the capacity to evolve as a people, that someday we could look back at this moment and understand that we took the steps along the way to make war archaic. War is not inevitable. Peace is inevitable!’

In a lecture on evolutionary politics, he commented that ‘we are in a period of chaos, which is driven by fear, by control, by power, by secrecy, mistrust, fragmentation, isolation, and by policies which use the lexicon of unilateralism and of preemption.’ However, the power of consciousness is to call forth the new: ‘ The world is multidimensional. The new vision is an holistic one that understands the power of intention and the power of co-operation, of mutuality, of trust, of seeing the world as one. That vision then becomes our outer reality. Ours is the ability, through our consciousness, to create peace, to create love. The organ of transformation is the human heart because there is nothing – no weapon ever made – that is more powerful than a human heart.’ This is an inspiring and visionary message that echoes Beinsa Douno’s Culture of Love and is way ahead of our current thinking while giving it a sense of direction.

Ethical Mysticism – Creating the Future

It is our duty to remain optimists. The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store.

Sir Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, p. xiii

I believe that this remark by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper contains a profound moral truth. Pessimists paralyse the efficacy of their own actions in a self-fulfilling loop that entails a passive lack of creative impulse. Moreover, as Kucinich points out in the previous section, if positive intention is a key component of activism, then it becomes a tool to be employed.

Albert Schweitzer’s ethic of reverence for life is a powerful formula in the way he defines it: ‘just as white light consists of coloured rays, so reverence for life contains all the components of ethics: love, kindliness, sympathy, empathy, peacefulness, power to forgive’. He adds: ‘whenever my life devotes itself in any way to life, my finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one, and I enjoy a feeling of refreshment which prevents me from pining away in the desert of life’. This is an actual definition of ethical mysticism – the feeling of union with the infinite arising from selfless service. And this is entirely consistent with acting on the Golden Rule which exemplifies the ethic of interconnectedness already explained. In this way there is an expansion of both consciousness and ethics.

The basic dichotomy of the future is the choice between a path of fear and a path of love. The path of fear is a vicious circle that brings power, control, mistrust and alienation. While the path of love is a virtuous circle of participation, trust and belonging. This second path can only be followed through conscious inner intent, while the triumph of fear relies on ignorance and passivity. Let us act with conscious loving intent.

It is our duty to remain optimists. The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store.

Sir Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, p. xiii


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