What a wonderfully absurd, unbelievable, preposterous place is the universe! And yet most of us take it for granted.
Some 13.7 billion years ago, give or take an eon or two that amazingly stupendous event, which we currently call the “Big Bang” occurred which commenced the evolutionary process that led to the world as we know it now.
And what an unbelievable process it is! Out of the Big Bang was created hydrogen – nothing else – just hydrogen, and that hydrogen left to its own devices, but working under the laws of physics has come up with the rest. Hydrogen agglomerating under the law of gravity underwent fusion in the formation of stars and from that all other elements were formed.
The molecular biologist and author, Darryl Reanney, said, “We are all made of star dust!” What a lovely thought! The calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, and the carbon in our tissues all emanated from the fusion processes in stars far removed from the earth.
Our knowledge of the evolution of the universe has undoubtedly expanded. In the early twentieth century we didn’t know if there were two galaxies in the universe, and now we know there are at least one hundred billion! But whilst our knowledge of the universe has expanded I am not sure our understanding of it has progressed greatly.
Whilst there are many lessons to be learnt, one of the greatest was about ego and humility. Up until the middle ages Mankind believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and that God had manufactured the universe for the particular benefit of Mankind. Science subsequently showed us that the earth was a rather nondescript planet revolving around a sun of no particular relevance in an outlying position in the universe. This was an affront to conventional religion and Christianity in particular, (who peddled the belief that Mankind was special, and the earth which God had created for the benefit of Mankind was at the centre of the Universe) has found this difficult to contend with.
As well those with fundamentalist religious beliefs who believe in the literal truth of the Bible find it hard to accept that the world can evolve without the guidance of an omnipotent God. It is interesting that those religious folk who are anti-evolution instance the development of the eye as something that could not have occurred without divine guidance. Yet evolutionary scientists are able to instance about twenty separate attempts of nature guided by evolutionary principles to create the eye. It seems that the universe has a deep propensity to want to observe itself.
But I go back to my proposition at the beginning – what alchemy exists in the universe to enable the creation of huge amounts of hydrogen which when left to the apparently inviolate laws of physics to then result in life, intelligence and spirituality?
Some philosophers say that the universe is predestined to move towards consciousness and self-awareness. Certainly the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard De Chardin believed that the universe was evolving to a predetermined outcome that he called the “Omega Point”.
Even before Teilhard the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, had asked a similar question:
“Has creation a final goal? And if so, why was it not reached at once? Why was the consummation not realised from the beginning? To these questions there is but one answer: Because God is Life, and not merely Being.”
Philosophers have postulated that consciousness arose from the universe’s deep propensity to want to understand itself. But all this could only be built from the platform of life. Once life arose in the Universe it had this innate desire to know and understand itself. This is a far cry from the physical complexification that the agglomeration of hydrogen atoms acting under the laws of physics would seem to have come to. Evolution seems to have had a spiritual element above and beyond (or perhaps complementary to) its physical progress.
The American theoretical biologist, Stuart Kauffman suggests that the principal essence of life was the birth of autonomous agency. He wrote:
“Some wellspring of creation, lithe in the scattered sunlight of an early planet whispered something to the gods who whispered back, and the mystery became alive. Agency was spawned. With it, the universe changes, for some new union of matter, energy, information, and something more could reach out and manipulate the universe …Agency may be coextensive with life.”
This notion leads some to argue that evolution is not merely a physical process where living organisms evolve and increase in complexity in order to enhance their survival capability, but it also expanding our consciousness and as a result our spirituality. And more than that, as the above quote alludes to, with this growing consciousness there is perhaps an opportunity for Humankind to eventually direct the progress of evolution in some way. This is what has come to be called (as per the title of my essay) “Conscious Evolution”.
Probably the first hint of such a possibility came from the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. More than a hundred years ago he coined the term “élan vital” which was the life force acting on the evolutionary process.
The English mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, in his contemplations on theology became interested in evolution. He sought to connect his concept of God with evolution because he believed that the science of evolution was indisputable and he could not believe in a deity that was at odds with science. He had the philosophy that if people in this day and age are going to believe in God, then they need a God that is believable.
The American philosopher Charles Hartshorne took up the baton from Whitehead. He was instrumental in developing the notion of “process theology”. Hartshorne believed that the motif of process means that all time, history and change are in a dynamic evolutionary process.
Of course as usual we get the simplistic convictions of the New Age movement that suggest if Humankind has agency in this process we are able to direct evolution to whatever end we desire. That assumption is of course wrong. The trajectory of evolution is always going to be circumscribed by the laws of physics. The path of evolution is always going to be so constrained. The overall direction of evolution is immutable, but with some indeterminacy at the edges. So there is some discretion about how that process might be carried forward.
So it seems to me that evolution will propel our physical construct, but just as importantly it makes a difference to our cultural and spiritual development.
Consciousness came to Humankind rather late in its development. Some say that consciousness only emerged in the last couple of millennia. It is easy to believe that as a consequence the nature of our consciousness now may well be different to what it was when it first emerged. That is to say that consciousness is subject to the evolutionary process just as the physical progress of the universe is subject to its inexorable impacts. And of course as a result our consciousness in the future may differ greatly from what we now experience.
If the evolutionary process is as malleable as some of these philosophers propose, we can only fervently hope that we and our ancestors have the wisdom to guide its progress such that the evolution of mankind enhances our capacity to love one another.