Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Apocalypse Now: the Rapture, the Singularity, or Collapse?

Though the millennium has passed, and we’re still here, an apocalyptic mood remains. Small wonder. We are in a global recession, the worst since the Great Depression, multiple conflicts contradict the German left’s pronouncement that war is “obsolete”, and climate change threatens the world as we know it. Christian fundamentalists still speak of End Times and the Rapture, including some inside the late unlamented Bush administration. Radical Muslims are in continual jihad against Western civilization and its elder brother Abrahamic faith, a desperate battle which will not end until industrial civilization ends. And now the Mayan prophecy, computed on independent calendars, of the world’s end December 21, 2012 stares us in the face.

Another camp, following mathematician and sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, has translated the whole business of the singularity, occurring at the event horizon of the visible universe, into the human realm, as Stewart Brand explains in The Clock of the Long Now. The rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating, throwing off the constants figured in the first half of the 20th century. Similarly, the rate of technological explosion is accelerating, and our ancient primate and mammalian encoded genetic make-up struggles to cope. Vinge thinks this isn’t just sci-fi, but that our consciousness is rapidly approaching singularity, something like a Black Hole, which, once entered, will feel like being pulled like a piece of taffy, infinitely, or until we change states. If you resist it, you’re torn apart. “Society itself could be dismembered, as some people ride the breaking wave of ever-new technology over the event horizon into invisibility while others lag behind, feeling the immense gravitational pull of still–accelerating tech, while no longer able to see it” (Long Now, 21).

The consensus date for this techno-singularity is 2035. What happens beyond that point is “unknown and unknowable.” The crest of the wave of humanity disappearing into the singularity is the new age tech version of the Rapture. Inventor Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity Is Near, 2005) speaks confidently of these highly skilled techno-surfers as becoming asymptotic to God, who would thus be the chaotic attractor within the Black Hole.

This leaves us a long way from the blueprints in our archaic genetic makeup. I have long been troubled by loose talk about “conscious evolution,” something you can go study with Andrew Cohen, or pursue as a higher degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Classical biological evolution has never been “conscious”; it is driven by natural selection, and the qualities being selected for may be very different from the consequences to the species of the traits produced. I believe deeply, however, in immanence, that the Divine is present throughout the universe at every level, and that all outer evolutionary traits express an interiority that is purposeful. Call me an adherent of Intelligent Design if you will, but I am not talking about a grand Wizard/Puppeteer, staging this whole thing from some archimedean point outside the universe. Divine intelligence is a kind of entelechy working from within, expressed in outer forms which only make sense when one sees the pattern of the whole.

Allan Combs tries to make sense of the different ingredients in “evolution soup” in his book, The Radiance of Being. He distinguishes biological evolution from historical evolution, which has more to do with the progressive development and maturation of the psychospiritual dimension, including progressive structures of consciousness. This is not the place to go into the vast sweep of the historical development of hominid consciousness. But the last step envisioned by Combs’ two theorists of these structures, Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber, may have the potential to position us at the cusp of the moment of singularity. Gebser called it the Integral stage, when all structures of consciousness work together to re-member the “ever-present Origin.” As in Vedanta, unlike biological evolution, which is seemingly without a goal, the telos of spiritual evolution is to remember that each of us seemingly separate sentient beings is, and always has been, the Origin, God.

My understanding of conscious evolution, as opposed to evolution of consciousness, is that it involves individual consciousness. It occurs after the awakening of the soul to its higher goal of divine fulfilment, throughout the history of the truly human. But lately, in the last 15-20 years, some theorists have begun speaking as if this individual process actually was the laboratory for conscious evolution of the species. As Thomas Berry put it in the Great Work, we are at the juncture where it is necessary to reinvent the human at the species level.

The work of Rupert Sheldrake, among others, shows that Lamarck's ideas of the inheritance of acquired characteristics may not be as far-fetched as we once thought, opening the door to the possibility of something like conscious evolution at the species level. But it still feels to me like a category error: what is true for the individual is not at all the same as what occurs at the species level. In Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy distinguishes between the transformation of individual consciousness and self-reflexivity on the level of social systems. She wonders if our current global eco-crisis might engender the next step in systemic self-organization, a holonic shift in group consciousness. But if this were to occur, would we call it “conscious evolution” or an evolutinary response from within the Gaian system to preserve interspecies equilibrium?

Theorists of biological evolution point to periods of relatively rapid evolution, when genetic changes happened far more quickly than the traditional Darwinian process would predict. Combs speaks of “emergent evolution” in terms of transforming individual consciousness, rapid quantum-like shifts rather than the gradual development characteristic of “constructive” evolution. There seems to be a collective fantasy for this to happen globally, working at the species level. The leading wave goes into the Singularity, and the rest of us are left behind on an aging terrestrial wreck. This would be something like the triumph of homo sapiens over neanderthalis. In that instance, we proved to be more adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, and technology apparently played a part in it.

Pressured by the immense force of accelerating technological advancement, New Age techies literalize the process of historical evolution of consciousness, observed in homo sapiens on a fortunately-placed planet in a particular solar system in the Milky Way, making it a just-so narrative. For them it is not a matter of analogy or metaphor, an as if scenario. The leading edge, asymptotic to God, will simply disappear into the Singularity. This is the twenty-first century modulation of space colonization, which, however unworkable and morally repugnant, clung to a faint echo of possibility.

This new sci-fi fantasy has power because of our intuitive pull to the immense attractor within the Black Hole. But it remains sci-fi for me, nevertheless. Vinge and Kurzweil make the category error of imagining that spiritual development and technological development, as an extension of biological evolution, are one, occuring on the same ontological plane. It may feel as if the high-flying techies have disappeared, which is certainly the experience I've had trying to be mutually present with some of them. But to actually disappear is another thing altogether. This is true as well of the “gravitational pull of still-accelerating tech.” We would not experience this pull unless we assented to it as a spiritual reality. Archaic spiritual practices still remain valid, for instance those of truly gifted shamans. Those anchored in the Origin are not to be numbered just among the accelerating crest of the tech wave.

Instead of following this Singular crowd, how about looking at our whole enterprise from the perspective of that crusty old nineteeth century discipline of population biology? Placing conscious evolution within the physical constraints of biological evolution might well be instructive. Hence , our next post, which is on to the sobering prospect of population overshoot and collapse.

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