Evolutionary Spirituality and American Philosophy

It is perhaps not surprising that all of the popular contemporary forms of evolutionary spirituality are engaged with the same ethical question that Peirce, James and Dewey attempted to answer. Does the reality of evolution affect the way human beings should live? This question arises naturally with the introduction of an evolutionary worldview that sees the universe as one continuous event, with human beings both growing out of that event and also affecting its further development. Many of those who are so enamored with doctrines of evolutionary spirituality might be surprised to find the ideas they cherish so closely mirrored in the evolutionary metaphysics conceived of by the early Pragmatists a century ago.

For instance, Ken Wilber in his writings describes the evolution of the interior and the exterior of the universe as always occurring simultaneously; where the interior of the universe is consciousness, and the exterior is the physical world of the senses. The universe evolves with the emergence of successive new forms, for example atoms become molecules, which become cells, which become organisms. With every newly emergent external form that arises in the universe Wilber insists that there must be a corresponding new depth of consciousness being plumbed. Wilber reintroduced the Greek spelling of Kosmos, using a “K” in his writings because he felt that the word “Cosmos,” as it was generally used, was limited to only the physical part of the universe, and left out the interior dimension of consciousness. Wilber’s conception of an integrated and unified Kosmos that evolves simultaneously internally and externally is clearly aligned with the work of the early Pragmatists. 19

Another example where this inner and outer continuity resurfaces in contemporary evolutionary spirituality is in Andrew Cohen’s conception of Evolutionary Enlightenment. Cohen initially upheld the unity of inner and outer in his teaching by insisting that what we believe to be true is always most clearly expressed through how we act. Cohen began his career teaching a traditional form of Eastern Spirituality, but broke with that tradition on pragmatic grounds. Cohen insisted, in opposition to his own teacher, the Indian sage HWL Poonja, that if the Eastern notion of enlightenment was to mean anything, it could not be merely an inner experience of peace, bliss and detachment. Enlightenment, whatever it was internally, had to manifest as enlightened action in the world. Cohen, like Emerson and James before him, held that the human ability to choose and act was the defining characteristic of being human. He describes the human being as a “choosing faculty,” and maintains that the choice to evolve is the best way to define goodness in an evolving universe; and that inertia is the best description of evil.

Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose book, Conscious Evolution, is one of the seminal works in the modern movement of evolutionary spirituality, also describes an integrated evolution towards greater unity reminiscent of the earlier works of Peirce, James and Dewey. Her vision of our evolutionary future involves a global merging of individual human beings into a greater societal whole. In her book she writes:

We see the earth herself as a whole system. We are being integrated into one interactive, interfeeling body by the same force of evolution that drew atom to atom and cell to cell. Every tendency in us toward greater wholeness, unity and connectedness is reinforced by nature’s tendency toward holism. Integration is inherent in the process of evolution.

If we examine the writings of other modern leaders in the evolutionary spirituality movement we will find many elements of classical American philosophy that have found new expressions. Why is it that the tradition of American Philosophy appears to garner so little recognition from those inspired by these ideas? One reason might be that the very utilitarian streak that characterizes American Philosophy also makes most Americans disinterested in philosophical history. I believe another reason for this lack of recognition has to do with the cultural shifts that removed Pragmatism from the public eye in the middle decades of the twentieth century. After this dormant period, the philosophy of Pragmatism began to resurface in academic circles in the 1980s and it seems that the progressive mood that led to this resurgence of academic interest in Pragmatism might also be generating the surge of popular interest in evolutionary spirituality today.