Since the universe began, we have seen a pattern of small things grouping together into larger things that result in something new that is greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon has resulted, at every stage, in more complexity and more depth.
We saw atoms group into molecules, molecules group into cells, and cells group into organisms, each deeper and more complex than the previous. Then, some 13 billion years after the universe began, we saw the emergence of consciousness, as organisms spontaneously took a great leap in complexity. And at each level of evolution, the current level retains the capabilities of the previous levels and adds new ones.
While the human brain is roughly the same size and structure as it was 10,000 years ago, it has undergone internal changes that make it better at depths of planning, communication, problem solving, and other advanced functions. As a result, our consciousness has become more complex, both on an individual level and on a collective level.
At each stage of consciousness, humans try to explain the big mysteries about life, and at each stage this process results in a worldview. This worldview answers the most important questions: What is the nature of reality? What is the meaning of life? What is the difference between good and evil, right and wrong?
For a while, perhaps a long while, sometimes for a whole lifetime, this worldview governs our interactions with the world and others.
But sometimes, our worldview fails to explain our experience. If the disconnect between our perception of reality and what our worldview says about reality grows far enough apart, our worldview collapses and we go searching for a better one. Our new worldview expands on the previous one and grows in complexity to understand the world on a deeper level.
It is this progression of worldview, dissonance, collapse, and new worldview which explains the history of human consciousness. Each new worldview solves the problems of the previous one and creates new ones of its own.
These worldviews, or "stages of consciousness", apply on both an individual basis and a collective basis. That means that individuals go through each stage, in order, and society as a whole goes through each stage, in order.
What follows are the stages we have seen (and continue to see) so far.
At the beginning, humans were tribal. “This stage… Sees the world as mysterious, threatening, and controlled by spirits. Superstition and magical thinking dominate the mind.” (Mcintosh, Integral Consciousness, loc 655) Language was simple, mostly concerned with naming objects and actions. Our social organization was also simple, limited to immediate family and biological relatives.
Examples of tribal consciousness include the early Native Americans and nomadic tribes of Asia and the few native tribes of the Amazon today.
Being constantly surrounded by family and trusted relatives reduces fear and provides security, but it also allows for enough safety for individuals to take some risks. Over time, successful members of the tribe begin to feel constrained by the rigid rules of society, and the oppressive environment of the tribe gives way to a new and more complex level of consciousness.
As tribes become more numerous, they come in conflict with neighbors and inevitably some grow strong, absorbing neighboring tribes. With larger numbers and greater organization, war and conquest becomes the new way of doing business.
While undoubtedly aggressive, with individuals mostly concerned with gaining glory for themselves, societies working within the warrior consciousness also cultivate the virtues of determination, focus, and heroism. But the reigning moral standard is “might makes right”.
We see the warrior consciousness in the Vikings, Genghis Khan’s nomads, and Alexander’s conquest of Asia. Today, the warrior consciousness is active in parts of the world where warlords and street gangs fill the vacuum left by the absence of government, religion, or society, and to some degree in the remnants of the Scotch-Irish groups in the Appalachians and other cultures referred to as "honor cultures".
An important distinction between the tribal and warrior stages is the expansion of morality from considering only oneself and immediate family to considering the needs of a large group of people.
Ultimately, however, the warrior stage of consciousness is unstable without a foundation of something more substantial than conflict. As this stage begins to fall apart, order appears out of the chaos in the form of traditional consciousness.
Traditional consciousness arises out of the chaos and violence of the previous stage, providing shared, universal values throughout a large group of people at the expense of individual identity. We often refer to traditional consciousness cultures as “nations, religions, or ideologies”.
These cultures are held together much more tightly by the idea of sacrificing for a higher purpose, other than power. Conformity is ever present, hierarchy is everywhere, and members get their own sense of value from the approval of the group. Outsiders are often met with suspicion and prejudice.
This stage of consciousness encourages a view of the world based on good and bad, right and wrong, us versus them.
Once the warrior conditions that the traditional stage addresses are gone, the unhealthy aspects of this stage start to emerge, mostly by creating a perception that warrior conditions exist where they actually do not. Traditional cultures began to see “evils” everywhere, perhaps focusing on homosexuality or other minor cultural issues. Examples of the traditional stage going very wrong include the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Salem witch trials.
The antidote to traditional stage excesses is the modern stage.
The modern stage of consciousness was a response to the worst aspects of the traditional stage excesses, for example, in the dark ages. We often refer to the start of the modern stage as the European Renaissance, Enlightenment, or the Protestant Reformation.
Suddenly, and after hundreds of years of group identity and conformity, we see the birth of modern philosophy in Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, both proclaiming that humans are individuals capable of thinking and reasoning for themselves. Indeed, Descartes is famous for his expression “Cogito, ergo sum”, or “I think, therefore I am”. Another philosopher of the era, Friedrich Nietzsche, made the observation that “God is dead”, referring to the idea that humanity doesn’t need God to tell them what is good or true because they can figure it out for themselves.
From this idea that individuals can think for themselves, we get the rise of science, the discovery of capitalism as an economic system, and ideas of natural rights like freedom of speech. These ideas unleashed an era of incredible optimism and liberation. Science was explaining nature and allowing us to use it to our benefit, capitalism was freeing people from serfdom and feudalism, and the move towards political independence for the individual sparked the American Revolution and the French Revolution, among others.
In this stage is the beginning of civil rights, based on “classical liberal” principles. Slavery begins to be eradicated, women are given equal rights with men, and the general principle of “equality of opportunity” is pervasive. It is agreed that everyone should be treated equally, and as an individual.
Modernism brought us economics and capitalism, two concepts which are substantially responsible for raising most of the world out of poverty. For the first time in human history, people could leave the place of their birth and "seek their fortune" through hard work and their own abilities.
People in modernist societies are sensitive to status, and they strive to compete with others over perceived fixed resources. The increased complexity of the brain leads to the ability to see concepts from the outside, as well as to see the world from the perspective of another.
As modernism took its place as the leading stage of consciousness, we again see that it has addressed the problems with the previous stage and now moves on to creating its own problems.
Modernism rejects the claim that truth comes from God or the emperor and instead claims that nothing is true that can’t be proven by science. This idea is called scientism or materialism, and it was prevalent throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The consequences were catastrophic, giving us eugenics (the idea that humans can be engineered), communism (the idea that the economy can be engineered), and environmental degradation as humans adapted nature to their own means.
With the rejection of religion and any other non-reason based morality system in previous stages, modernists claimed to be able to discover morality from reason. However, David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher denied this was possible with his “is-ought” problem: the idea that one cannot decide what ought to be by looking at how the world is. The horrors of the 20th century certainly call into question the ability of modernism to produce any clear framework of morality.
Modernism, in its excess, leads to "there is no God and nothing matters" materialism, social darwinism, and resource exhaustion. It leads to soulless masses struggling to out earn and out consume the neighbors. It's belief that meritocracy is the ultimate goal ignores the fact that hierarchies can be gamed. Its belief in pure free will and "revealed preferences" leads to perverse conclusions like "everyone is doing what they would most prefer to do, otherwise they would be doing something else".
As the excesses of modernism were becoming impossible to ignore, a new stage of consciousness came online.
As is the case with all previous stages, the emergence of postmodernism was a response to the excesses of the previous stage.
By the 1960s, it was becoming increasingly hard to ignore the facts that pure capitalism fails to properly deal with its own problems, individual rights fail to account for historical injustices, science fails to explain the entirety of human experience, and truth and history seems to be “written by the victors”. Besides these conceptual problems, the world was recovering from the disaster of the “isms” of the 20th century, themselves the products of modernist consciousness.
Out of this collective feeling that the end of the world, by war or nuclear annihilation, was imminent came several philosophers offering critiques of modernist principles. These philosophers included Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty.
These postmodern philosophers made several claims that can be summarized into three key statements:
- There is no ultimate version of truth, meaning, or morality. Each person’s view is based on their own life experiences, and everyone’s experiences are equally valid, creating the phrase “my truth” instead of “the truth” and concepts of relative morality.
- People exist primarily as members of groups, which are all created by society, and not as individuals.
- The history of the world is simply a history of power dynamics. Instead of the “grand narratives” of history, we have only the powerful using language to further oppress groups of people.
These principles sparked a movement in the 1960s centered around social justice and environmentalism. And this movement was a good thing for the world.
It was indeed a valid criticism that capitalism had become exploitative to those at the bottom of the pyramid and inequality was a huge problem by the late 20th century. It was also valid to say that to the minorities who had been exploited for centuries, declaring equality and claiming that “we’re even” was overly simplistic. How people feel is important, even though modernism didn’t account for it.
The problem with the postmodern consciousness is that it is made up of criticisms, but not solutions - it is “deconstructive”, not “constructive”. As postmodern ideas declared everything a power struggle, humanity lost the ability to learn from history, as history is just a set of made up narratives by the oppressors. And what is truth, anyway, but someone’s opinion or attempt to get power over others?
As we began to look at society through the lens of groups instead of individuals, the political sphere became a multitude of groups competing for claims to oppression.
By discarding the individual rights basis of the modernist stage, the new goal was not equality as understood by the modernists (equality of opportunity), the new goal was equality of outcome. If society contains 50% women, then 50% of the powerful positions should be taken by women. If society is 20% black, black people should make up 20% of the powerful positions of society. The modernist idea that individuals make different decisions and therefore life will have different outcomes is no longer seen as valid.
As the benefits of being labeled an oppressed group became apparent, the number of groups began to multiply. It is interesting to note that the number of groups to which people can be assigned is effectively infinite (as Jordan Peterson often notes), and so the most specific group to which one can belong is a group of one: the individual rights of modernism is paradoxically the end stage of following the postmodern critique of modernism.
Rorty acknowledged the effects that postmodern ideas would have on the political sphere. He conceded that fully embracing postmodernism would mean that there is no right and wrong and there is no way to judge the actions of other people, and therefore politics just becomes an ongoing conversation, a negotiation. He saw this as a positive outcome. However, looking at the politics of the early 21st century, it certainly seems reasonable to question his assumptions. This “conversation” seems to have resulted in more and more polarized groups of people yelling increasingly loudly at each other.
This focus on groups instead of the individual created room for many marginalized groups, but by design left no room for the one group universally considered the ultimate oppressors: white males. While the postmodern justification for this is obvious: white males have been dominant for so long that it’s time to give other people a turn, the result has been the rise of the alt-right and white nationalist groups attempting to claim their own race based group.
The descent of postmodern society into a hopeless future filled with nothing but groups fighting for power, in an environment without a foundation of truth or morality, has made the need for something better and more hopeful increasingly important.
In a future post, I will talk about how these stages map onto today's political parties and how most of the political friction we see today is a direct result of these clashing stages.
Find out more about integral theory here: https://jeremytunnell.com/2018/09/23/resources-for-learning-about-integral-theory-spiral-dynamics/