Is There a Hierarchical Consciousness? Individual, Social and Cosmic Consciousness

1. Introduction

In this contribution, the authors do not intend to give a positive or negative answer to the question of whether or not there is a hierarchical consciousness, but they want to suggest a methodology that can help in the process of assessing it. The methodology they suggest is the systems methodology, which is a methodology of enquiry with both scientific and philosophical foundations. The systems methodology provides general knowledge outcomes that can be applied for representing consciousness as an input/output process. With this model of representation, consciousness can be investigated as an ongoing process where both the external and internal contexts are part of the process and determine the outcome. At the level of human organisation, consciousness can be represented as a decision making process at both individual and institutional levels. Within a reductionist view of reality, a model of secularised consciousness can be provided. Instead, within a systems view of reality, a model of sapiential consciousness can be constructed, where wisdom components can be added and constitute a more integrated and transdisciplinary system involving science, philosophy and theology. With this model of sapiential consciousness in mind, it is easier to conceive of a hierarchical consciousness as a continuum pervading all levels of reality organisation.

2. Systems Methodology

The systems paradigm as an epistemology can help in representing a model of consciousness that is useful for yielding insights on its own very nature. The systems paradigm recognises four principles for explaining reality in its essence (both material and immaterial): hierarchy, emergence, communication and control. Hierarchy is able to explain reality as a system of systems, whose main characteristics are openness and connectedness. Emergence denotes an evolutionary state of reality which manifests itself as creativity, i.e. the occurrence of novelty (emergence) in its becoming. Communication is the principle that confirms the ontological need of connecting components in the unity of system. Control is the principle that sets constraints by a system against its sub-system components. The general framework for explaining reality according to a systems paradigm is to represent it as an unfolding, evolutionary, self-organising universe.

Reality appears as a continuing development process characterised by a series of nested levels of organisation of increasing complexity and autonomy. Autonomy manifests itself as the capacity to last in a state of dissipative structure governed by an autopoietic regime. A dissipative structure depends on its environment for "food" in the form of free energy and nutrients. According to Jantsch (1980), if consciousness is defined as a degree of autonomy a system gain in the dynamic relations with its environment, even the simplest autopoietic system such as chemical dissipative structure is a primitive form of consciousness.

3. Human consciousness according to biology

In biological terms, human consciousness is a product of evolution—a nested hierarchy of primary and higher-order consciousness. To these two types of nested consciousness corresponds two kinds of nervous system organisation that are important to understanding how consciousness evolved (Edelman, 1942). Primary consciousness evolved to take care of bodily functions in a way to establish correct performances of physiological processes in the life environment. Primary consciousness is unconscious action and it is also typical of the animal world. Higher-order consciousness was later developed through social and linguistic interactions on a base of primary consciousness.

As sustained by many philosophers and scientists nowadays (Searle 1990, Sperry 1995), we can explain the mental phenomena (especially consciousness) rejecting both the reductionist approach and the dualistic one. We can better explain the mind and its properties adopting an holistic epistemology in which the mind “emerges” out of the neurons and cannot in principle be found or predicted by analysing each one neuron or the interactions of their individual properties at any level. In other words: there are more levels of organisation that are at work beyond subatomic parts: mental phenomena—like consciousness—are caused by neurophysiological processes of the brain; but they are a higher-level feature of the entire neural system.

Consciousness, according to non-reductionists, is as real as the neurons are and it is an irreducible feature of reality. We assume that the mental is not a problem at all since it is merely another emergent feature of the brain. The mental, the biological, and the physical are all simply parts of one natural order and not a separate category of reality.

There is an interdependence between the parts and the whole: the brain physiology causes mental effects, and the mental phenomena in turn causally influence the physiology. In this perspective, whole and parts are both real; the properties of the parts are themselves in turn holistic properties of subsystems at a different level. The hierarchy of increasingly complex physical systems exhibits diverse emergent properties at different levels that include the mental properties of the brain-mind system as part of a monistic natural order. In this perspective, lower levels cannot capture the higher-level activity, while the higher-levels can affect the lower ones.

At this point, we can ask some questions: are human values (aesthetic, religious, ethical) a non-eliminable causal factor? Have subjective values real consequences in the brain? With an holistic perspective of mind, the question if subjective experiences have real power on the organic world has a positive answer. In other words: the brain causes mental effects, and the mental phenomena in turn causally influence the brain physiology.

This holism implies a range of independence of mental phenomena from the brain and its physiology. Self-consciousness represents the core of subjectivity which is suspended between the past and the future and manifests intentionality. Intentionality is an attitude of openness towards the external world and the base for inter-subjectivity. In this framework, consciousness represents a microcosm as a product of complexity. But why consciousness actually emerges at all remains as unexplainable as why being exists at all. This question of the existence of consciousness as the ultimate reality concerns the philosophical and theological domain: why man has a self-consciousness? What is its significance and its place in the universe? These are problems that overlap the field of science and concern the philosophical and theological domain.

4. Consciousness according to a systems view

In general, human consciousness of both individuals and institutions provides the ability to draw information from the context, to elaborate knowledge, to organise understanding, to make judgements and to decide to act for modifying the context of life. Consciousness is a relational function that could be also named "a decision making process", which begins with the learning from the environment and ends up with acting upon the environment. Consciousness is life and action is its driving force. The context of life is continuously modified by human action. Human beings intentionally construct their world through action and doing so they construct their consciousness. The meanings transferred to environment with the new constructed things and the new changes produce new information and consciousness. New experiential knowledge to feed consciousness is gained from the outcome of our action.


4.1Consciousness as a decision making process at different hierarchical levels.

As human beings, we show an existential need for knowing the context where we live in, in order to understand the role to play in it. While the former necessity is a common task of all living organisms, the latter one is unique to man because he is free to choose his role with an act of volition in compliance with his cultural background. The relation between the act of volition and the cultural background is a matter of internal moral coherence or responsibility for the actual consequences involved in the action after the decision is made.

In figure 1, a representation of consciousness as a human decision making process is made, where the most important components are included in a recursive cycle that links information and action of an individual or an institution in their context of occurrence. There is a strict analogy of behaviour between individuals and institutions and we can say that the process of consciousness is the same in both the two levels of organisation, the single individual and the institution as a society of individuals. Information and knowledge flow between and within the two levels and inform each other, although different channels of communication and control are involved (e.g nervous system at the individual level and mass-media channels at the institutional level). At the individual level, knowledge is the step in the process that moves from sensorial information and leads to meaningful understanding and informed action, thanks to the integrated functions of the brain, which elaborates the high-order consciousness typical of human beings (Edelmann, 1992). In the human society, institutions make decisions and manifest consciousness through a nested hierarchy of complex tools such as laws, involving natural and legal rights and duties stratified along the human history of civilisations. Conscious thought leads to deliberate choices and ethical behaviour. This ethical behaviour clearly depends on the capacity to foresee the results of activities and on the willingness to accept responsibility for the results (Mayr, 1997). The most powerful concepts that provide the pillars for elaborating knowledge and understanding are derived as input by social institutional activities, like science and philosophy, that are transmitted through specialised institutions (School, University, Church) and the ongoing mass media. It is evident that there is a direct involvement and responsibility of these institutions in training for citizenship and professionalism that inevitably mark the cultural character of a whole society and eventually make up a civilisation.

Figure 1 - Conceptualisation of consciousness as a human decision making process (components and properties)


4.2. Consciousness as a process of adaptation

The process of life with its indeterminate sequence of interconnected events or organismic phases requires, as a general rule, that each single organism (and species) be adapted to its context of occurrence. The relationship between organisms and environments results in a process of reciprocal harmonisation. Every form of life is a micro-process occurring in a context of life or environment where it manifests itself as an individual, i.e. a single entity endowed with peculiar structural and functional traits. Adaptation is therefore a necessary condition for each organism (and species) to exist. Adaptation could be considered as an ontological learning process or the process of conscious existence. From an organismic perspective, adaptations may be seen as organismic inventions (Sara, 1989) that improve evolutionary fitness, i.e. the possibility of survival and reproduction. From a system perspective, adaptations mean more specialisation, more integrated use of native resources, more coexistence and, eventually, more biodiversity and sustainability (Aarsen et al., 2006).

4.2.1. Consciousness as a learning process.

The essence of a process of adaptation is to produce the knowledge useful for assuring survival as an individual and a species. From this perspective, knowledge is an ontological property that assures a successful relationship between a living being and its context of life. In the case of human beings, where cultural evolution is nested upon and much faster than biological evolution, knowledge is produced through a self-conscious act that is known as the learning process. In his seminal account of experiential learning based on the work of Dewey, Lewin and Piaget, Kolb (19…) defines learning as the process whereby knowledge and meaning is created through the transformation of experience. He describes the characteristics of experiential learning in five points:

  1. Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes;
  2. Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience;
  3. Learning is an holistic process of adaptation to the world;
  4. Learning involves transactions between the person and the environment;
  5. Learning is the process of creating knowledge.

The first point states that learning is best conceived as a process or a cycle of interaction between the individual and the environment. A four-stage cycle is proposed involving four adaptive learning modes—concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. The structural foundations of the learning process are reported in fig.2, where knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it. In Kolb's terms:

the key to learning lies in the mutual interaction of the process of accommodation of concepts or schemas to experience in the world and the process of assimilation of events and experiences from the world into existing concepts and schemas…..Learning or intelligent adaptation results from a balanced tension between these two processes.

The central idea is that learning, and therefore knowing, requires both a grasp or figurative representation of experience and some transformation of that representation.

Figure 2. Structural foundations of the learning process (Kolb, 1984).


The second point states that knowledge is continuously derived and tested out in the experiences of the learner. It is just in the interplay between expectations and experience that learning occurs. Learning is a recursive process, whereby learning is re-learning.

The third point stresses that experiential learning is the central process of human adaptation to the social and physical environment:

To learn involves the integrated functioning of the total organism -thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving…. It occurs in all human settings, from schools to the workplace, from the research laboratory to the management board room…. It encompasses all life stages, from childhood to adolescence, to middle and old age

The fourth point unveils that behaviour is a function of the person and the environment:

B= f(P,E).

Behaviour results from the interplay between personal characteristics and the environmental influences.
Finally, the fifth point presents the statement that learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge is a transformation process, being continuously created and recreated:

Knowledge is the result of the transaction between social knowledge and personal knowledge. The former, as Dewey noted, is the civilised objective accumulation of previous human cultural experience, whereas the latter is the accumulation of the individual person's subjective life experiences Knowledge results from the transaction between these objective and subjective experiences in a process called learning.

4.2.2 Consciousness as action

To develop and use knowledge in order to modify the context of life for better conditions of human health is what we conceive of a meaningful trait of both cultural evolution and human identity. As a consequence of human activity, the context of life acquires new artefacts and underlies reconstructions in such a way that a process of coevolution between man and nature is always being developed. The notion of environmental impact just refers to the human capacity to modify the context of life with positive or negative consequences on the whole context or on some of its parts. Our context of life, or ecosystem, is a process underway that provides all ecological services that are necessary for its habitability. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain ecological integrity, i.e. the autopoietic quality of ecosystems, in order to maintain life sustainability.

Cultural evolution or consciousness development can be regarded as the most significant characteristics of human identity. Group ethics based on decision making is regarded as one of the most important adaptive shifts in humanisation (Mayr, 1997). According to Ramel (1992), the spectacular human development over the last ten thousand years can be entirely ascribed to a cultural and not a genetic evolution. Findings on the genomic rate of adaptive evolution show that there is little evidence of widespread adaptive evolution in our own species (Eyre-Walker, 2006). In cultural evolution, acquired experiences can be cumulative and transmitted orally or in symbolic forms from one generation to the next, constituting an evolutionary system infinitely faster, more selective and more efficient than genetic evolution. The storage and transmission of information has gone through dramatic development that has resulted in practically unlimited possibilities to store and sort information by means of telematic networks and computer techniques. In general, the social learning of culture is a continuous intraspecific thread that transcends individual death and enables cultural transfer through generations without any solution of continuity. Cultural transfer of information is therefore to be regarded as an emergent property of a structured population. Recently, research on exploring whether transmission of genes and cultural traits may interact has produced a new gene-culture coevolutionary theory (Feldman and Laland, 1996). This theory is based on the evidence that archaeological records document the fact that for at least the past two million years hominid species reliably inherited two kinds of information, one encoded by genes, the other by culture. The two transmission systems should not be treated independently, both because what an individual learns may depend on its genotype, and also because selection acting on the genetic system may be generated or modified by the spread of a cultural trait. Indeed, with the expansion of a cultural trait as knowledge of genetic information structure and functioning, humanity has now reached the point to potentially affect all kind of genotypes, including human one. Through the technology of the recombinant DNA, which enables interspecific transfer of genes, evolutionary trends of any species can be affected. All life planning is potentially dependent on man's decisions. In this frame, man's responsibility as co-creator is fully recognised. Cultural evolution is revealing itself more powerful than expected as an adaptive process and poses a challenge to the present human generations in terms of both the ecological integrity of all biospheres and human identity (Palumbi, 2001). It is really paradoxical that cultural evolution or consciousness development, as the most striking character of human identity, reveals itself as the most risky driving force to the future of human kind and all biospheres, whereby man must be afraid of himself.

5. Consciousness in the past vs. Today's Consciousness

In modern Western society, a secularised consciousness is currently being constructed with a dominant contribution of science and technology, respectively promoting knowledge and action instrumentally oriented towards a business-driven world. In this kind of secularised consciousness, a nested level of consciousness already present in Medieval time, i.e. sapiential consciousness, is almost completely dropped. From this point of view, the evolutionary process of human consciousness has undergone a profound phase of rearrangement, if not a regression. The civic sense of the holy and the sacred is not more present in human action, as we can judge from the behaviour of most public and private institutions. Connectedness with the sacred and the divine was instead the main driving force of sapiential consciousness in Medieval time.

5.1 Cosmic consciousness

As Capra (2002) states, the identification of mind, or cognition, or consciousness, with the process of life is a novel idea in science, but it is one of the deepest and most archaic instuition of humanity:

In ancient times, the rational human mind was seen as merely an aspect of the immaterial soul, or spirit. The basic distinction was not between body and mind, but between body and soul, or body and spirit. In the languages of ancient times, both soul and spirit are described with the metaphor of the breath of life.

Similarly, the concept of consciousness, as a special kind of cognitive process that emerges when cognition reaches a certain level of complexity within the scale of evolution, includes the entire process of life, therefore

describing cognition as the breath of life seems to be a perfect metaphor.

If consciousness is life's awareness, and life is a cosmic event, consciousness is also cosmic awareness. This simple syllogism can be represented as in figure 3., where the nested development of species (phylogenesis) and of each single individual life (ontogenesis) emerge from within the cosmic background on a spatial and temporal scale. At the same time, each single cycle of individual life includes the basic patterns of process and material organisation already selected and established in the past steps of evolution. In each ontogenetic process, not only phylogenesis is subsumed, but also cosmogenesis.

Figure 3. Contextualization of life development and consciousness.


With the modern separation of knowledge into different disciplinary fields, efficient and final causes of knowledge as defined by Aristotle have been excluded in conventional scientific enquiry. As a consequence, objective knowledge based only on the search of structural and formal causes has produced a secularised consciousness and an attitude towards conferring values and meaning through reification of any aspect of life. In a systems view, recovering efficient and final causes in an attempt to construct a coherent view of reality as a whole becomes an inherent need of epistemological enquiry.

In a systems view, all things (material and immaterial) are connected from the very beginning of existence. If you want to make an account of reality as a whole it is not allowed to "isolate" a thing from its context, i.e. to "de-contextualise" it. If you do that, you operate in a "virtual" dimension, without any connection with reality as a whole. You do an act of "abstraction" or "mental apartheid".

The systems map of the universe (figure 4) as constructed by Checkland (1993), one of the most authoritative leaders of the contemporary systems paradigm, provides a picture of the universe where transcendental systems (beyond knowledge) are basic components and call for a search for relationship and meaning.

Figure 4. The systems map of the universe (after Checkland, 1993).


In medieval times, before the splitting of human knowledge into disciplinary fields brought about by the enlightenment, the traditional epistemology based on the four causes of knowledge drawn by Aristotle had been more appropriate for providing a coherent frame of reference for the meaning of universe and the role of man in it. Bonaventure's doctrine of holiness is an outstanding example of wholeness theology, universal meaning and hierarchical consciousness. With the inclusion of God as origin and end of the universe, human consciousness could proceed to its fulfilment through three ascending steps: scientia (science), sanctitas (holiness) and sapientia (wisdom). Sapiential theology is not an alternative to scientific theology but its fulfilment (La Nave, 2005). In Bonaventure's masterpiece of theological reasoning, the Itinerarium mentis in Deum, the process of the mind's ascent to God is articulated with the holiness as a medium between science and wisdom and with the progressive transformation of understanding through philosophical, theological and mystical wisdom into a final step of consciousness evolution, which is actually union with God. Bonaventure speaks of the gift of wisdom precisely in terms of the move from knowledge to love. The principal division of the Itinerarium involves an ascent to God through a consideration of his vestiges that are outside of us, his vestige that is in us, and those things that are above us. These ways of investigation respectively correspond to philosophical, theological and mystical wisdom and represent the steps of consciousness evolution leading to the final stage of experiential cognition of God. The whole itinerary of human consciousness' ascent to God is regarded as a "hierarchy of regress" or the ability to be led back to God starting by the contemplation of anything in creation (La Nave, 2005).

5.2 Teilhard de Chardin’s contribution to the concept of cosmic consciousness

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is known worldwide for his synthesis of science and theology applied to evolutionary topics (Teilhard de Chardin 1955). He was a scientist and a mystic, but his books about the consequences of the evolutionary vision of the cosmos were starting points for research in theology and they were a source of inspiration for the Vatican II Council constitution Gaudium et Spes. The first result was the definition of a general law, that of complexity and consciousness, which is the general law describing the cosmic evolution. Cosmic evolution shows a continuing increase in psychic aspects which, depurated by some ambiguities, could be an useful tool to describe the moving towards of evolution. On the other side, it also shows threshold effects and emergence of proprieties. In this way new qualities are coming out during evolution which cannot be deduced by a reductionistic investigation alone, i.e. cannot be deduced by the investigations of its components (Galleni 2005). Nowadays the concept of finalism in cosmic evolution—the Teilhardian moving towards—is strictly criticized by atheist thinkers (Dawkins 2006), who see in the Darwinian mechanism of random mutations filtered by environmental interactions the cause of the (apparent) path of physical systems towards increasing complexity, in particular for living beings. Are they right? Is the last of Thomas Aquinas’ quinque viae definitely ruled out by some present day interpretation of Darwinian evolution and the ladder of complexity observed in the universe only an illusion due to an anthropomorphic view?

It seems that at the very fundamental level of physical laws a kind of finalism in the universe can be recognized. The fact is that a phase transition such as the one from inorganic world and life as so low a probability that it cannot be explained only in terms of a random fluctuation. So, the Darwinian mechanism is indeed effective, but not capable to fully explain the observed situation. On the other hand, both numerical simulations and theoretical biology studies strongly suggest that there must be very general physical laws driving systems towards generation of information and increasing complexity (Kauffman 2000).

Again we have apparently contrasting visions which could be integrated in a new synthesis.

Teilhard goes further in the investigation about complexity giving a definition of complexity, proposing a way to measure complexity itself and finally considering the Biosphere as the final complex object to be investigated. These approaches open many perspectives: the application of the system theory to the Biosphere, the concept of symbiosis related to the interaction among the Biosphere components (Leonardi 1950) and the concept of stability of the Biosphere system inside the general movement of evolution (Salmon 2005).

This is the first synthesis which could be ruled out by Teilhard de Chardin’s works and by the integration developed by later authors: evolution could be studied using the technique of complexity if we develop a theory related to the Biosphere considered as a whole evolving object. The result of this way of investigating is the discovery of a general movement towards complexity and consciousness. Evolution is characterized by a moving towards which takes place inside a general mechanism which allows the Biosphere to maintain its stability.

Stability and instability (Benci-Galleni 1998), continuity and discontinuity, tangential and radial energy are among the many forces which are working on evolution on a larger level than that of population biology where natural selection is acting. They are responsible for the general moving towards, of matter towards life and of life towards cerebralisation and consciousness in animals. There is a progressive increase of meaning and complexity which could be measured (Cordelli-Galleni 2003). Finally this moving towards passes a new threshold, that of thinking; the thinking creature is now present on the stage of evolution and a new system is emerging: that of the Noosphere (Galleni 2001), another step towards the realm of the communality of spirituality.

Most of the ideas expressed by Teilhard de Chardin in the early parts of Le phenomene humain seem to anticipate scientific developments that were to occur several decades later. Among them, a central role is played by the notion of emergent property, as applied to natural as well as artificial systems. Quite recently, the power of this notion has been widely investigated by S. Wolfram in his ambitious book 'A New Kind of Science' ( Largely inspired by the surprising, complex emergent properties of elementary cellular automata rules, in particular by Rule 30, producing excellent pseudo-randomness, and by Rule 110, exhibiting the emergence of elementary particle-like structures, Wolfram is one of the main physicists/computer scientists to advocate a computational theory of the physical universe, sometimes called 'digital physics'. According to this conjecture, all phenomena taking place in our natural universe would be nothing but the emergent properties of the behaviour of an elementary formal computing system, possibly consisting of a small set of graph rewrite rules applied to a growing network of unstructured nodes representing dynamic space.

In this paper, we point out how Wolfram's network-based computational models of fundamental physics seem to offer a remarkably faithful, punctual, and, most importantly, formalized—thus empirically verifiable--'implementation' of some basic ideas by Teilhard de Chardin about the fabric of the Universe, its properties, its evolution and its growing physical-biological complexity.

The connections among the part of the Noosphere must be done not by the diffusion of an unique model but, using Teilhard’s words, thanks to a connections between different cultures (Procacci_Galleni 2007): Leopold Sedar Senghor was an example of one of the politics who developed the ideas of Teilhard. He suggested that the evolution of the Noosphere will take place as a progressive integration of many and different centres of cultural evolution. Cultural differences are the forms of speciation or better of diversification of human species. They must cooperate and integrate but not be eliminated by the survival of the fittest! (Galleni-Scalfari 2006).

This ask for a different model of evolution of the Noosphere, not based on the diffusion of a single cultural model but on the integration of more models interacting inside a general common based chart of values which must be the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights of 1948 (Ristori, Galleni 2005).

The passage from understanding to wisdom—even if wisdom is an obsolete term in today's society—should be regarded as a hierarchical step in the process of consciousness construction for a world of peace - Peace with God the Creator, peace with all of creation (John Paul II 1990).



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