Breadcrumbs from the Owl of Minerva • 7 March 2008

Are some people deeper than others? More highly conscious?

Oh, don’t ask that question, Owl. It offends my egalitarian values. Personal development is equal opportunity! 

Um. Sorry.

The first objection any pluralist will have to the spiral dynamics story is that it is hierarchical. Later consciousness is bigger than earlier consciousnsess. Shit: there’s development (which smacks of colonial politics right there). Hierarchies mean power and power means authority and those two together mean domination. Which the powers of social science and the humanities intend to delegitimate and deconstruct in Mighty Supertwins style. Ready steady go!

Hey, I’m in. Except for on this topic. Stay with me: I'll just make a quick incision and then it will be over:

If consciousness evolves, there is this logical problem of everything seeming to flow necessarily toward one predetermined end-point, what the Greeks called a telos. What about chance and openness to changing the course of history? What about unforeseen catastrophe? What about human choice over the matter? The other big problem with teleological theories is that the reek of conservative post-war thought—the functionalist systems theory that saw society as a well-ordered mega-organism and said social action was all about roles and structure and nothing about agency and sensuous individual human creativity. Great picture of the 1950s, that, but the ‘60s changed all things thank god.

There are other problems too. All structural theories, including my beloved Bourdieu, are like that: you can’t lean on them too much or really take them seriously, because they generate inner contradictions and collapse. This stuff is interpretive, not explanatory. You wield it lightly if you understand it at all. Spiral dynamics is an uber-theory that academics cannot use because it's unfashionably large–a borg subsuming all the psychological, sociological, economic and anthropological time maps produced the past century. Do you think there’s some sense in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs? In Habermas’ picture of communicative sociality? Or did Aurobindo ever do it for you? All of these are theorists of the evolution of consciousness— smaller players absorbed in the bigger game of spiral dynamics as it’s understood today.

To clarify, spiral dynamics as we're talking here is a map of the evolution of societies. But what is really interesting and threatening is that it also contains maps for the evolution of individuals’ consciousness. Color-coded maps! Most people in this zone would dial in at green/pluralistic, but there are a few turquoise integralists running around without even knowing that this is what you are. And there’s tension because the ashtanga world also contains blue fundamentalism, purple superstition, and red primitive ego. But no matter where a person is at on this map, he still contains multitudes—the authoritarianism, superstition and pure ego, etc., that he personally passed through on his way to the present point of view. It’s not a class system because none of the stages are bad! They are what they are and if we think they're bad that's our problem. For me, It’s a pretty beautiful, subtle picture of wholeness and a validation of all the mentalities we personally experience even if we are consciously seeking to increase our own consciousness.

If the idea that consciousness has evolved seems improbable, well, what do you think of the idea that life itself has evolved? Uh huh. We don’t dispute that natural selection has reordered and expanded the content of life itself—made it more complex and, well, higher-functioning.

This doesn’t have to mean everything’s going to a predetermined destination. We do have some examples of what seem to be very highly-evolved states of consciousness that give hints (and don’t even tell me you don’t believe that shit is real, because most of you have briefly tasted from it, ashtangis); but as for end points, it could be bad or it could be good or it could be up to chance. (There’s the suspicion that some higher energy is in play, of course, but I'm not the Owl of Minerva so how can I say?) See what my friend JJ says at the end of the video I embedded below.

The only really audacious claim that spiral dynamics makes is that yes, some people are more highly conscious than others. And while all people are beautifully whole and perfect wherever we are… we happen to be at different places on the ladder we are all, if ineptly, probably  (hopefully?) climbing.

None of it is my idea (see esp. Ken Wilber, or William Irwin Thompson), though when I delve in to the map of consciousness and use it to interpret the beautifully diverse mentalities and worldviews of those around me, the system does blow my mind a bit. If you want to know where it would place you, read some recent Ken Wilber (the last I read was Integral Spirituality and it did the job fine, with an even bigger Integral philosophy encompassing spiral dynamics), or google. Integral people are all over the web, creating culture and doing some of the most subtle but audacious analysis of our world that I have encountered anywhere. It gets to me, because even though they don’t have the tools of the pluralist sociologists (exemplars of The Statistical Age), they have an arguably higher consciousness.