Consciousness Evolving: Can Enlightenment Save the Planet?

A review of What is Enlightenment? magazine (now EnlightenNext magazine).

Enlightenment guru Andrew Cohen’s magazine, What Is Enlightenment?, offers a route to planetary salvation based in the evolution of “higher consciousness.”  But an analysis of Cohen’s dualist philosophy suggests we’d be better off sticking with mainstream science to avoid global catastrophe.

To stay current with the New Age movement and its underlying philosophy, it’s useful to conduct an occasional analysis of its popular literature. What’s the current state of play among those who are decidedly unskeptical in their modes of understanding themselves and the world? What sorts of assumptions now drive the New Age agenda as it competes with naturalistic worldviews for adherents? The following is a critique of one of the movement’s flagship publications, What Is Enlightenment? (WIE), a glossy, lavishly produced quarterly magazine under the direction of enlightenment guru Andrew Cohen (note that Cohen and his cohorts strongly object to the label "New Age," so that for the remainder of this article I will use their favored term, "evolutionary enlightenment," to describe Cohen's philosophy, and "New Age" to describe the larger context). WIE presents itself as hip, cutting edge and scientifically literate, with an ostensible commitment to intellectual inquiry that seems at odds with the fuzziness typical of most New Age beliefs. But a closer look reveals that its investment in science and critical thinking is highly selective and superficial. Beneath the facade of intellectual respectability we find a philosophical looseness that undercuts its largely well-intentioned objectives.

The guiding mission of WIE is ethically ambitious: to reveal a transcendent truth that will simultaneously enlighten each of us and save the planet. WIE claims that there is, in life and especially in humanity, the teleological drive to achieve a qualitatively new form of being, which, by transforming us, will play a crucial role in our salvation. The individual quest for ultimate meaning offered by enlightenment is thus linked to the collective project of heading off global ecological disaster.

But what could this be, this categorically new way of being? As it turns out, it’s not entirely clear. Precise roadmaps to enlightenment and global sustainability don’t yet exist, at least not any we can agree on. But in seeing how WIE struggles to articulate its salvationist agenda, we can nevertheless learn something that may help in such grand undertakings. The magazine’s motives are unimpeachable; it’s the metaphysics and cognitive commitments that need rethinking. A naturalistic, science-based approach to insure our long-term flourishing on the planet will take us much further.

Postmodern narcissism

As described in the February-April 2004 issue, the enlightenment quest takes place within a deeply flawed society. The West is infected with a postmodern malaise of the spirit, typified by narcissism, relativism, rampant individualism, and the lack of any clear moral purpose. The traditional ethical certainties once supplied by religion are no longer plausible, at least not to the thinking elites, among whom are presumably the readers of WIE, a publication supported by socially responsible advertisers (e.g., World Wildlife Fund, Seeds of Life, The Nature Conservancy, Heifer International). We are now free, autonomous, and liberated to choose our own paths to meaning, and we certainly don’t want to return to religious fundamentalist absolutes, given their obvious drawbacks. But there’s a problem: since there are no longer any unquestioned foundations for values, we don’t quite know what or how to choose. Here’s a taste of the postmodern dilemma as quoted from a few of the articles, and note the similarities:

So here we are in postmodern America, up to our necks in a culture of narcissism, devoid of an authentic moral framework for making value distinctions.” (Andrew Cohen, “The Guru and the Pandit, p. 41)

And so we stand back with no moral compass, no judgments, no discriminating wisdom, and basically the whole show goes to hell because of that. (Ken Wilber, “The Guru and the Pandit,” p. 42)

And without being grounded in some vision or value that brings us together for the sake of something larger than ourselves, our moral sense can be co-opted by narcissism. Ethics gets confused with personal fulfillment. What’s right is what’s good for me. (Elizabeth A. Debold, “Shifting Moral Ground: The Dilemma of Ethics in an Out-of-Control World,” p. 65)

There are similar worries voiced by other authors in this issue, and indeed, there is considerable uniformity of vision here, both in the diagnosis of the problem and, as we shall see, in the proposed solution. The writers are obviously conversant with the philosophy of editor-in-chief Andrew Cohen and his intellectual sparring mate Ken Wilber, one of the best known and most prolific authors of the evolutionary enlightenment movement. But even if this makes their pieces somewhat predictable, it’s that much easier to discern Cohen and Wilber’s mission: to save the world from ourselves through achieving higher consciousness.

Planetary peril

It turns out, according to WIE, that our postmodern, rudderless culture is just half the problem. The other half is the approaching ecological and social catastrophe as foretold, for instance, by Duane Elgin (“The Gathering World Storm and the Urgency of Our Awakening”, p. 31). Elgin lists five major threats to our collective well-being that could produce “an unyielding, global, whole system crisis”: climate destabilization, increasing poverty, growing urban population concentrations, resource depletion, and species extinction. As he puts it “We no longer have the luxury of centuries for a gradual awakening. A world storm is gathering and we have only a decade or two in which to begin to genuinely mobilize our collective capacity for reflective consciousness” (original emphasis).[1]

The motivational ploy used by WEI, and a rather good one at that, is to use the planetary crisis as a spur to morally right action. As Elizabeth Debold puts it, “Recognizing the desperate urgency of our global situation can move us out of the ironic world of self-centered isolation” (“Shifting Moral Ground,” p. 59). If there was ever a project worthy of self-transcendence and resolute commitment, it’s the project of seeing beyond one’s strictly personal concerns in order to contribute to the well-being of others, now and in generations to come. The ultimate personal quest, that of spiritual enlightenment, is thus joined to the ultimate social project of global sustainability, creating a powerful motivational nexus that might spring us loose from complacency.

Evolutionary enlightenment

Having defined the problems, both personal and collective, what is the solution, according to WIE? How do we move beyond the “ironic world of self-centered isolation” and save the planet? The answer, according to Cohen, Wilber, and others in this issue, is to recognize that humanity is embarked on an evolutionary journey toward enlightenment, and that achieving our trans-personal destiny entails a moral revolution that will make the fate of the earth our highest priority. Debold says

The power of our postmodern moment is that, despite the fact that we have been squandering our extraordinary capacity to think and reflect by being so self-focused, we are beginning to glimpse the tremendous evolutionary potential of human consciousness….A world at the breaking point calls on each of us to stretch, to reach for the mind-boggling possibility that human consciousness could give birth to a new morality that will show us the way to literally transform the world” (“Shifting Moral Ground, p. 59, emphasis added).

There is something inherently progressive, it seems, in the evolution of human sentience as WIE understands it. Debold quotes Indian sage Sri Aurobindo on the basic teleological assumption: “There is in the cosmos, in the collectivity, in the individual a rooted instinct or belief in its own perfectibility, a constant drive towards and ever increasing and more adequate harmonious self-development nearer to the secret truth of things” (p. 59). This belief, or something close to it, is at the heart of Cohen and Wilber’s philosophy of evolutionary enlightenment, a belief endorsed in one form or another in nearly every article and book review in this issue. For example, in his review of Alan Coombs’ Radiance of Being, Pete Bampton says Coombs (a follower of Wilber) establishes “an overarching context of ever-evolving complexity and creativity as the raison d’etre of consciousness itself” (p. 94).

But at this point skeptics are entitled to ask what precisely is the “evolutionary potential of human consciousness”? What sort of consciousness do these folks have in mind, and in what ways does it evolve? Is this a process that happens willy-nilly, the result of Darwinian selective mechanisms or perhaps some intrinsic impetus (as Aurobindo would have it), or is it just evolution in a metaphorical sense, the idea that we might consciously and deliberately put our individual minds to developing better – more “evolved” – ways of being?

The picture offered is mixed. On the one hand, one gets the definite impression that WIE takes the evolution of consciousness to be an impersonal, ineluctable force for the good that will drive history in the way that dialectical materialism did for Marxists. We need only recognize the “universal trajectory of evolving consciousness” (p. 95) to align ourselves with the good and reject the bad in the quest for moral certainty. This is most explicitly stated by “integral philosopher” Yasuhiko Kimura, quoted by Debold: “What is good is a way of living, of thinking and acting, that is conducive to evolution… And what is bad is counter-evolutionary – that way of living, thinking and acting that causes evolutionary stagnation, truncation, or devolutionary reversal” (p. 58). Presumably, the Aurobindian evolution of consciousness is taking us somewhere we should want to go, so it would be wrong to stand in its way.

On the other hand, it’s also clear that in the minds of Cohen, Wilber, and their cohorts at WIE, the distinct possibility exists that we might botch the chance for planetary enlightenment. Our role as autonomous individuals is seen as crucial to the success of the enlightenment project, in which case the evolution of consciousness really isn’t an independent force, a Guiding Hand that we need merely obey. Cohen exhorts us that “…our own evolution as an awakening human being is a moral obligation rather than a luxury. And that obligation is to use our God-given power of personal choice to consistently catalyze ongoing transformation, not just our own sake, but for the sake of the evolution of consciousness itself” (“Guru and Pandit,” p. 46). It looks as though consciousness can’t achieve its apotheosis on its own – it needs our help, and the choice is up to us.

This second take on evolutionary enlightenment has considerably more plausibility than the first, since there is no evidence, at least of the scientific variety, that human consciousness is literally evolving on its own toward some goal or end-state. Consciousness, understood as the phenomenal, subjective sense of being aware of one’s self and surroundings – perceptions, feelings, thoughts, emotions, etc. – is fully a function of the human brain, according to cognitive neuroscience.[2] The brain and the body are of course the products of Darwinian evolution (natural selection) over many millennia, but there is no clearly discernable course of future biological evolution that we can count on to change brain-based human consciousness in any direction, positive or negative. The Aurobindian vision of an innate evolutionary drive toward the perfection of our nature makes a nice metaphor for moral development, but we shouldn’t take it literally, at least not if we stick with science as our guide to evolution and its mechanisms. So we have to choose wisely to insure our salvation, not wait for evolution to happen.

Dualism vs. science

The tension between these two pictures – the imagined teleology of evolving consciousness vs. the need for informed human choices – takes a considerable toll, and it ultimately clouds the vision of WIE and weakens its potential as a force for change. For just about everyone writing in this issue feels the need to defend the Aurobindian notion of progressive transformation against the empirically rigorous, scientific view of evolution, which reveals no necessary drive towards perfection. They very much want it to be the case that there exists, within nature, a telos for humanity that pushes us towards an unquestionable good: collective planetary enlightenment. Unfortunately for those desiring such built-in goals (not all of us do), science simply doesn’t provide them – it can’t deliver the teleological goods.[3] In which case, so much the worse for mainstream science, according to WIE.

Case in point: Pete Bampton writes that Allan Combs “conveys how the domains of science and spirit are converging to release the concept of ‘evolution’ from the hold of the outdated Darwinian model of adaptation in the physical universe” (p. 94). But Darwinism is certainly not outdated, although it has been updated considerably.[4] The notion of adaptation via selection on variation, whether this be biological or cultural selection, is central to evolutionary explanations, and to declare this core concept dead is to abandon science for spiritual speculation. If, as Bampton writes, evolution “reveals itself to be the movement of the self-organizing and self-creating intelligence inherent in all that is alive” (94), then one wants to know precisely how this self-organization occurs. For Bampton, such details aren’t important, but for skeptics they are crucial to establish explanatory credibility.

As much as WIE and others promoting evolutionary enlightenment want to claim scientific respectability, they also fear science’s encroachment on phenomena of psyche and spirit that have until recently been beyond empirical explanation. They are, finally, dualistic in their root conception of human nature, which they suppose has its physical, material aspect, and a non-material, spiritual aspect which must be vigorously guarded against creeping reductionism. Carter Phipps, in his review of Walter Truett Anderson’s The Next Enlightenment, asks:

As Western scientists begin to pull enlightenment out of its religious box and poke and prod its material dimensions with the instruments of modernity, can they avoid reducing enlightenment to the material? … As we define the psychological contours of enlightenment experiences, can we avoid reducing the higher reaches of human development to fit within the boundaries of Western psychological theory? In other words, as we brave the waters of this new spirituality, how do we avoid the always dangerous trap of reductionism that has long been the shadow side of science, psychology, and in fact the entire Western rational tradition going all the way back to the French Revolution? (p. 92)

The categorically spiritual, non-physical realm – the very domain of WIE and the broader New Age movement – is threatened with being explained away by an aggressive neuroscience, so it’s no wonder that WIE must declare and defend a trans-empirical and (calling a spade a spade) supernatural reality that grounds evolutionary enlightenment. What this reality is, precisely, can’t be specified, since if it were, that would connect it to the natural world as described by science, and thus reveal it as an aspect of the natural. So the “transcendent dimension” of the enlightenment project must always outrun explanation if it is to remain categorically immaterial, which means truly explanatory, unifying science must be kept at bay.

But here’s the rub. If you can’t explain and describe the basis for your enlightenment – its mechanism of operation – then you are effectively hamstrung in its implementation. The frustrating vagueness of appeals to the “evolution of consciousness,” which is the necessary consequence of abjuring explanatory science, prevents the concrete specification of the new spirituality and its realization, a realization essential, we are told, for our very survival on this planet. Insisting that the transcendence of enlightenment somehow transcends our physical nature leaves us with little guidance on how evolving consciousness might engage with the all too material world so much in need of saving. Wanting enlightenment to be otherworldly, unfortunately, relegates it to irrelevance when the rubber hits the road.

Explanatory transparency

Although the February-April 2004 issue hints at WIE’s leanings toward fringe and pseudo-science, the following May-July issue on “collective intelligence” makes them explicit.[5] In “The Science of Collective Consciousness,” pp. 78-9, Robert Kenny of the Fetzer Institute endorses parapsychology, ESP, telepathy (what Ken Wilber calls “tele-prehension”), remote viewing, distance healing, and Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphogenetic fields” – all phenomena that have found little support in mainstream science but which proponents of evolutionary enlightenment cite to appear scientifically au courant. Their common denominator is the ability of something categorically mental to influence, by means and mechanisms unspecified, other mental or physical events on the “receiving” end, e.g., the output of random number generators, physical and psychological health, and even crime and accident rates. For example, discussing the purported effect of the O.J. Simpson verdict on random number generators via a “field of collective consciousness,” Kenny says that “millions of minds, when united with a specific focus, can have a powerful effect on the material world, mysteriously influencing normally random physical systems toward higher degrees of order.”

The key word here is “mysteriously.” In order to maintain the irreducibly non-physical element of consciousness, the dubious science behind evolutionary enlightenment can never specify too closely what the mechanisms are that propel consciousness higher. To do so would destroy the essential mystery, the required transcendence of the “merely” physical, which is clearly one of the major draws of WIE's approach. Holding to mystery, of course, means that Cohen and his cohorts have abandoned real science, as much as they would like to claim its mantle of authority. After all, successful science as it’s actually practiced makes the mechanisms of influence transparent in whatever field we’re exploring. Only by reducing mystery to mechanism does science give us knowledge, and thus power and control, so we can’t appeal to unanalyzable influences and still claim to be doing science.[6],[7] Nor can one claim to have a well-founded program for evolutionary enlightenment and planetary salvation if its very basis remains mysterious. WIE is thus caught between the romantic desire to transcend materiality, a desire necessarily inimical to science, and the desire for real-world efficacy that can only be achieved by a tough-minded empiricism that shows parapsychology and its cousins to be wishful thinking.

To be tough-minded by demanding explanatory transparency is not to lose the urge to transcend our personal and cultural narcissism, or to feel any less strongly the need for planetary healing and sustainability. We can be tender-hearted in our deepest motives and inclinations while being ruthless in discarding unwarranted or untestable hypotheses. Trafficking in illusions, after all, only slows us down in the pursuit of the good. This points to the irony of the enlightenment project as conceived by WIE: by connecting the laudable goals of global peace, well-being, and humane moral consensus with an anti-science dualism, they might be retarding, not accelerating, progress toward those ends.

Naturalizing enlightenment

My recommendation, therefore, is for Cohen et al to naturalize their enlightenment project by understanding moral progress, both individually and socially, not as the mysterious working out of some inherent progressive tendency in consciousness or “collective intelligence,” but as hard-won, culturally transmitted, incremental improvements in practical ethics that widen the moral circle. This sort of widening, I’m glad to say, is supported by Cohen and Wilber in their dialogues, in which they recommend we expand our personal perspective from egocentric to ethnocentric to “worldcentric” (WIE May-July 2004, p. 47).[8] But from a scientific standpoint, their metaphysical basis for such progress is suspect. We don’t have to believe (and we’re better off not believing) in the “subtle realm” as opposed to the physical realm, the relative world as opposed to the Absolute, or other varieties of spiritual/material dualism. Trading in our narcissistic, ironic, postmodern egoism in favor of altruistic concern for the planet doesn’t require us, impossibly, to transcend our physicality for a higher plane. Rather it requires the rather difficult work of figuring out how, given human nature and current political and economic realities, our behavior can be at least partially shaped by long-term, global concerns in addition to short-term, local, and narrowly selfish motives.[9]

The fundamental difference between the naturalism I’m recommending, which understands human nature and human consciousness as fully included in the physical world, and mystic dualism, is in their respective cognitive commitments. Do we decide questions about the ultimate constituents of the universe on the basis of mainstream science which seeks testable, reliable intersubjective knowledge about what exists, or do we decide using a combination of personal experience, spiritual tradition, and metaphysical system-building all of which are only loosely constrained (if at all) by empirical evidence? The first shows the actual causal connections and underlying unity across all phenomena, in particular between homo sapiens and Earth, and so potentially gives us the knowledge and tools to intervene intelligently to avert social and ecological disaster. The second, although it offers a comforting teleological scenario of vaguely defined evolutionary progress, separates consciousness, choice, and intentionality (the “higher” planes) from the “merely” physical plane of the body and environment, and so prevents a detailed understanding of what conditions might foster intelligent action.

One needn’t choose between these commitments based on which is most inspiring, since tough-minded science reveals a world which is at least the equal of any religious or mystical revelation in its wonder, beauty, and complexity.[10] According to science, the “merely” physical brain gives rise to all our amazing capacities for awareness, empathy, rationality, and choice, so we need not resort to the paranormal to discover true marvels in this world. In fact, the most amazing thing about our higher capacities is that they don’t require a supernatural basis. This is the concrete marvel of being fully physical creatures.

But despite these wonders, naturalism might be at a motivational disadvantage to Aurobindian metaphysics since it cannot discern in this world, as a fundamental characteristic, a necessary progressive tendency toward higher consciousness, however we might define it. We don’t get to jump on board the train to salvation, and this is surely a disappointment to those who seek an easy route to ultimate purpose and meaning. The only response the naturalist has to this seeming deficiency is to suggest that it’s better, both practically and morally, to face the difficult empirical truth of our situation than to remain stuck in a comforting illusion. As WIE recognizes, the world really is going to hell, but the responsible thing to do is to assess the situation accurately with the best cognitive tools at our disposal, and then take appropriate action. To accept, uncritically, that consciousness is evolving toward some solution to global conflict and that we need only ride its wave, is to sacrifice efficacy to the desire for transcendence.

Common ground

This may seem a harsh assessment, but keep in mind that I’m not in the least impugning the largely honorable and humanistic motives of WIE, as I hope I made clear at the outset. What separates naturalists and supernaturalists is not differing visions of the good, since we largely share the same set of human needs and desires, even the desire to transcend our narrow selves for something greater. We all want to live meaningful, productive lives in which we contribute to the well-being of others, now and in the future. We all have an appetite for wonder, and many of us are driven by the same insatiable desire to know, to the best of our ability, what our situation truly is, to answer the questions posed by Gauguin in the title of his enigmatic painting: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

So it’s not a question of motives and goals that separates the naturalist from the supernaturalist, but the question of what constitutes knowledge, and therefore differing conceptions of what ultimately exists. The empiricist suggests to the mystic: your thirst for transcendence, unbalanced by critical thinking, leads you to discount that very mode of knowing, science, which best leads to a unified, non-dual view of things, that actually shows your true connection to the world. Don’t discount the marvels of the physical – it is in this material world that authentic enlightenment is found! Here and now is the basis for effective action: in this body, in this physical environment. Such a suggestion is offered not from a morally superior vantage point, but in the acknowledgement of our shared ethical commitments, our shared desires for meaningful, life-enhancing work, and our shared goals of planetary peace and sustainability.

In a very moving, insightful article in Skeptical Inquirer, former New Age author-turned-skeptic Karla McLaren examines the gulf between New Age, “metaphysical” culture, in which WEI 's evolutionary enlightenment participates, and the culture of science, skepticism, and critical thinking.[11] She poses the important question of how this gulf might be bridged: how can naturalistic empiricists get spiritualists and seekers to critically evaluate their beliefs in scientifically untenable phenomena, such as the Aurobindian evolution of consciousness? She calls, quite properly, for a respectful dialogue based in awareness of our human commonalities, such that no one is subjected to attacks that denigrate intelligence, or that accuse of willful blindness to the facts. WIE suggests that it’s open to such dialogue by its very name, which after all poses a question: what is enlightenment? By daring to question their commitment to a scientifically suspect dualism, those now embarked on the quest for higher consciousness might find a better, truer enlightenment here in the natural world.

© TWC May, 2005


[1] Elgin’s warnings are echoed in Jared Diamond’s latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

[2] For a comprehensive materialist theory of consciousness, see philosopher Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, and relatedly see “Killing the observer,” Journal of Consciousness Studies.

[3] In a public debate with Robert Wright on his book Non Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which suggests that evolution might be intrinsically directional, Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett remarked (to the best of my recollection): “It might be nice to suppose evolution is taking us somewhere, but I think we have to take our Darwinism straight.”

[4] See, for instance, Dennett’s books Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves for many examples of how Darwin’s central insight can be fruitfully applied to explaining higher level human capacities (e.g., for rationality and morality) and phenomena outside biological evolution.

[5] More recently, the June-August 2005 issue on consciousness and the self confirms WIE’s commitment to fringe science and the paranormal; see Craig Hamilton’s article “Is God All in Your Head?,” especially part 3: The quest for a new paradigm.

[6] In this respect New Age lip service to science parallels the claims of those promoting intelligent design. They claim to be doing science, but propose no actual theory or mechanism for how the designer does his work.

[7] Note that the sort of mystery-reducing reductionism inherent in good science is not the strong, eliminative sort of reductionism that supposes that explanations of behavior at the level of physics, biology and behavioral neuroscience might supplant explanations at higher, agent/personal levels. See the reductionism section on the Common Misconceptions page.

[8] Similarly, the Dalai Lama suggests that the recognition of global interdependence can expand the focus of our concerns, and thus provide the basis for moral progress (WIE February-April 2004, p. 19).

[9] Regarding the issue of engineering attitudes for long-term sustainability, see  the page Avoiding collapse: determinism, explanation, and the creation of political will, on Jared Diamond's book Collapse.

[11] See “Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures,” Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2004, 3 28, pp. 47-52, at

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