Spirituality: Gardening consciousness

This is the third of my recent pieces on my take on spirituality. The second looked at how my idea of spirituality works within my right-wingery; the first looked at how I frame the idea of spirituality more widely. This one, I hope, will explain a little more about how my definitions of spirituality and of personal consciousness, fit in with the wider human consciousness. So it is in part about how my idea of spirituality fits with Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere. 

I am a fan of Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Noosphere. He was trying to account for a sort of connectedness between all the individual consciousnesses of persons, and saw it is God’s work within evolution: God is drawing life toward Himself, and doing it by creating a species with special consciousness. I approach things a little differently. In my way of thinking about consciousness, I am wholly secular. So I figure that I have consciousness; this consciousness is very similar to that of all my fellow humans; and our ability to communicate amounts to a sort of mass consciousness. I suppose that one might take the analogy of one computer having computational power, but add the way the internet links them in interesting ways.

I am not a fan of “crowd” wisdom, but I am very struck by Hayek’s Catalaxy (insofar as I understand it), and I do believe in something one might call the human enterprise. I do see (insofar as I understand them) that philosophers like Wittgenstein are at important work when they talk about how one does not have a private consciousness because the “furniture”, or language or narratives or whatever, in which our consciousness works are common enterprises. We are clearly subject to the evolution of ideas held by other individuals and whole civilizations, for good and ill.

So TdC’s idea of a Noosphere seems to me to have meaning, even at a level one might call technical or philosophical. But I find that I am interested in, or moved by, the idea that there is, potentially, special value (and perhaps special danger) in one’s individual consciousness. Because it is part of a wider enterprise, one might have a special responsibility to maintain its quality. This, of course, in addition to any private merit in looking after it.

When we come to the idea of an “examined life”, we are discussing by what accountancy a person might assess himself. I have said already, and repeat here, that this can – obviously – be a moral accountancy: it can assess whether one did good or harm. When I argue that one can and should add a spiritual dimension to this accountancy, I feel there is good sense and value in asserting that one can usefully assess the degree to which one is keeping one’s consciousness in good shape.

I do see that this is an odd and maybe a useless idea. But as I live with it, I find it quite strong and getting stronger, so far. I see all sorts of objections to it. One is that one’s consciousness is not a garden whose planting and tending is one’s hands. Nor is it a broadcast: whatever it is, for good or ill, it cannot be seen by others (so what would it matter if it were good or bad?). Besides, if we say that an “examined life” is not merely about a moral accountancy, and the idea of spirituality has merit as a not specifically-moral addition to it, then why muddy the waters by making spirituality a matter of obligation to others, even in the woolliest sense of contributing nicely to mass consciousness, if such a thing exists?

Well, yes, I see all that. Still, I think consciousness is the greatest of the gifts that evolution has bestowed on humans, and one of the best things about it is that it doesn’t obviously have an adaptive value. It looks like a pure, non-instrumental gift, or anyway a facet or feature, of our lives. (I should refine that: at some level, intelligence might well be adaptive; but self-consciousness of the kind we humans have, doesn’t seem to.) Anyway, adaptive or not, keeping consciousness in good shape seems like a usefully respectful effort. We ought to look after our eyes and educate our intelligences and watch our speech. Why not consider working with our consciousness? And why not call that process, spirituality? Spirituality may have a wholly private value, or a social and moral value, or both.

Anyway, I think the central purpose of spiritualty might be expressed quite simply: let’s not waste consciousness.

That’s as far as I have got so far. I hope it’s useful.

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Publication date

26 May 2014


Mind & body