By IONS intern Adrian David Nelson
These days a lot of people talk about a ‘new paradigm.’ In the modern world there are paradigm shifts taking place everywhere, from ecology, economics and health, to physics and cosmology. For many, however, when we’re talking about the new paradigm, we’re talking about something bigger: an approaching shift in thinking that, when realized, will constitute a deep collective change in the way we see our place in the universe.
I recently attended the Architects of the New Paradigm conference in Northern California, where a diverse cast of speakers spoke truth to power on a range of issues, from new energy solutions to the disclosure of government secrets. I think, perhaps, of all these on-going ‘revolutions’ in our perception, the most profound and consequential of these rests with the nature of perception itself. That is, new theories and evidence arriving from modern research suggest that the heart of our experiencing self, the unique natural phenomenon we have called ‘consciousness’, is more than an incidental emergence in the human animal, it reflects something fundamental about the way reality is organized.
In science and philosophy a movement is now taking place -a growing openness toward deeper views of mind. There are many reasons why, including discoveries in physics, yet perhaps the driving factor has been a widening recognition of the difficulty of explaining consciousness in purely material terms. As a psychologist and journalist, I’ve followed this movement to places I never expected to find myself. For example, in delving into the research of scientists like Dean Radin, Robert Jahn, and Rupert Sheldrake, I learned that at least some categories of psychic phenomena actually occur – and under rigorously controlled conditions.
Over nearly three decades, experiments conducted by researchers at Princeton University revealed that when people direct their intention to a physical random system the outputs will often shift in line with their intentions. Outside any ordinary physical contact, the reported effect seems impossible to reconcile within any materialist understanding of the mind.(1)
Other research exploring this mysterious mind-matter interaction found that a network of random systems located all around the planet mysteriously respond to collective shifts in attention of entire populations. The Global Consciousness Project, led by psychologist Roger Nelson, found that when dramatic world events occur, and millions of minds respond with similar emotions; strange patterns of order emerge in the data. Where attention goes, order mysteriously flows.(2)
Perhaps equally surprising to me was that deeper views of consciousness are increasingly expressed by mainstream scientists and philosophers. Believe it or not, a leading theory of consciousness in mainstream neuroscience today, ‘integrated information theory’ is actually a form of ‘panpsychism’, in which the fundamental information underlying the physical world has both an objective and subjective pole. Consciousness, as the theory goes, is matter viewed from within.(3)
Today world-renowned philosophers, including David Chalmers, Freya Mathews, Thomas Nagel, and Galen Strawson tell us that Western science has profoundly overlooked the significance of consciousness, and that its origins lie not in us, but in a fundamental interior quality of the world. They argue that science’s external mapping of nature both implies and requires an interior, qualitative dimension that grounds it in reality. In other words, consciousness. The self-realizing, self-referential qualities unique to consciousness may also be necessary to explain why anything at all exists.
I found similar views expressed by mainstream physicists and cosmologists attempting to understand our larger cosmic situation. Paul Davies is among a number of thinkers who argue that the astonishing fine-tuning of the universe -which has permitted the evolution of complex observers, cannot be adequately explained by summary referral to a multiverse. In light of a catalogue of worries, including paradoxes, logical inconsistencies and infinite regressions, Davies argues that the universe may actually require the evolution of life and mind.(4) Perhaps, offers Davies, existence necessitates an ability to be ‘self-knowing’ and this entails the evolution of life. Another physicist, the celebrated father of ‘inflation theory’ Andrei Linde, has urged his colleagues to remain open-minded toward a fundamental place for consciousness in quantum mechanics. ‘Avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology’, he warns, ‘may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook.’(5) Linde is one of several respected physicists who have pointed out that the quantum wave function of the entire universe could not evolve in time without the introduction of a relative observer.
In considering such cosmic questions, the philosopher Thomas Nagel observes that our standard materialism neither explains nor anticipates the coming into existence of purposive, conscious beings like us. For Nagel, the mysterious mind-body problem has far reaching implications that transcend our more immediate attempts to understand the human mind, it invades our understanding of the entire universe. Nagel argues that the existence of consciousness hints to a cosmic imperative toward life and mind – as though the evolution of consciousness is implicit to the cosmic process. We are, he offers, the universe ‘gradually waking up.’(6)
So what does all this mean for us? Why is this growing openness to deeper views of consciousness, as I argue, among the most profound shifts now occurring for our species? The answer, I think, is that consciousness is ultimately who we really are. There is a profound and consequential distinction between the old materialist view, in which we are isolated fragments of illusory experience in a doomed and meaningless universe, and the now emerging view, in which we are each of us truly conscious participators in an on-going unfoldment of cosmic creativity. In my book, Origins of Consciousness, I call this modest though growing shift in thinking, the intrinsic consciousness movement.(7)
Our modern seeking is revealing a profound new picture of consciousness, not dissimilar to that described by mystics for millennia. We are learning that consciousness is real and intimately bound up with the world. In a universe in which consciousness is intrinsic to nature’s workings, we can see ourselves as invested into a larger matrix of meaning that transcends and includes our lives. The emerging view may not only shed light on some of the most enduring mysteries of modern science and philosophy, it offers, I think, a unifying and catalyzing vision, in which we and all life are truly ‘in this together’ - an integral part of a larger cosmic process. We, in our core identity, are the universe coming to know itself. That, for me, changes everything.