Evolutionary Enlightenment and American Philosophy

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 23 Comments

Before continuing with our fascinating discussion I wanted, in the interest of transparency, to tell a little more about my interest in American Philosophy.

The last decades of the 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in progressive and evolution thinking in both academic as well as popular philosophy. The author Louis Menand in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Metaphysical Club attributes this resurgence of progressive, forward-looking thought to the ending of the cold war and links it back to the classic American philosophy of . Today this line of thinking can be found in the increasingly popular literature of Evolutionary Spirituality. Some of the most prominent contemporary proponents of this philosophy are the recently deceased Pragmatismbut enormously influential Fr. Thomas Berry, the cosmologist Brian Swimme, the futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, the author Ken Wilber and my own spiritual mentor Andrew Cohen.

I first encountered Andrew Cohen in November of 1992 when I saw him speak in Cambridge,Massachusetts. At the time he was teaching a somewhat westernized version of an Eastern Enlightenment tradition called Advaita Vedanta. I left his talk intrigued, but honestly feeling that I had not understood anything of what he was saying. I was inspired enough, however, to pick up a copy of his book Enlightenment is Secret and my imagination was soon captivated by the message that I was reading in it. As I understood it, Cohen’s message was devastatingly simple and profound; if you truly want to be free there is nothing in this world that can stop you! What Cohen was pointing to was the deep sense that most of us have of being victimized by the experience of life. We feel burdened by our emotional and psychological experience and often see our ability to make choices as being severely limited by circumstances, social roles and responsibilities, and our personal inadequacies. This sense of limitation, according to Cohen, was an illusion. It was, in fact, a stance, a position that we were freely choosing to adopt in relationship to the complexity of human life. And because it was a position that we were choosing to take, we could just as easily stop choosing it. That was the mysterious key to liberating the human spirit. I didn’t know it at the time, but this notion revolved around one of the central themes that had developed through the history of American Philosophy; the question of freewill and creative potential.

After reading and rereading Cohen’s book I finally had the chance to see him speak again. This time I was determined to walk away with at least some understanding of what he was saying so I resolved to ask him a question about what I was thinking. “I believe what you are writing and speaking about is true.” I stated, “But, where do I find the faith to follow that path and know that everything is going to turn out OK?” I asked. His answer was as devastating simple and direct as his teaching. “Who says everything is going to turn out OK?” he questioned in response and then continued. “If you knew that everything was going to turn out OK you wouldn’t need any faith.” He went on to speak about the nature of risk and human life, but I had already gotten the answer to my question and although it wasn’t necessarily the answer that I had wanted it was the answer that I was looking for. Again, I had no way of knowing it, but my question about faith and Cohen’s implied instance that human life was a risk was also a central theme in American Philosophy. It was, in fact, the central question that propelled the entire career of America’s great psychologist philosopher William James.

In the year’s since my early encounter with Andrew Cohen his teaching has grown and developed enormously. What began as a plea for personal liberation became increasingly couched in an evolutionary philosophy that always considered the liberation of the individual in the context of their power to affect the development of our world. Again this line of thought is in many ways the central organizing notion that unifies the great tradition of American Philosophy. Over the past few years I have read and studied some of the historical development of American thought and have been continually strengthened to learn that the teaching that Andrew Cohen calls Evolutionary Enlightenment is very directly connected to the development of philosophy in America.

Two of the main roots of American Philosophy rushed into this nation during the period of colonization from two streams of thinking that had burst into being during the age of reason. One of these came directly from the scientific revolution of the European Enlightenment that was painting a picture of a world governed not by god, but by natural law. At the same time the Protestant Reformation was removing power from a church that it saw as an unnecessary obstacle to and direct access to the divine. These two lines of thought found their way into the American mind where they were shaped by the utopian ideals and challenges of colonization. The American mind began to take shape in the decades during and after the war for independence and finally came into its own during the cultural and spiritual movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists of Concord. The next generation of thinkers were the first American professional philosophers and they created the greatest original American contribution to world philosophy; Pragmatism.

Pragmatism was an evolutionary philosophy that flourished during the early decades of the 20th century as modernism peaked in American culture. After the great depression and two world wars the progressive spirit of modernisms was called into question by many and Pragmatism and the progressive spirit from which it came was temporarily submerged beneath the post-modernist philosophies  and social movements of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. The resurgence of interest in Evolutionary Spirituality today is perhaps a second look at the evolutionary thinking at the heart of American philosophy and a chance to recreate Pragmatism in light of the many lessons learned through the 20th Century.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Christophe Colpart
Christophe Colpart
11 years ago

You’re right Jeff and I think that this new pragmatism put in practice by highly evolved and mature human beeings can spread in the world and create a new culture at a universal level.

Christophe.

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

When it come to “spiritual enlightenment” there are two (possibly more) alternatives: 1. “Enlightenment” is the individual’s opening up to the experience of an Absolute, Universal Truth, a uniting in conscious oneness with the entire universe, such experience sometimes termed Absolute Unitary Being. 2. Enlightenment is a phenomena occurring entirely within the brain. The suppression of sensory input and internal cogitation creates the internal “impression” that the body and the “self” are dissolving or being absorbed into Something Greater, Something Infinite. We interpret this loss of our usual “self”-awareness as an actual merging with ultimate space, time and consciousness. If… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Chuck R, I read your posts. Right on brother. Please help me follow along. Does #2 negate #1 when you add “Thus, these internal intimations of “absolute” reality or consciousness are an illusion, a misinterpretation.” ???

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Brian, Yes, in my opinion #2 negates #1. Many people would prefer it to be both ways. I spent most of my life as a mystic and had numerous mystical experiences. A chain of events which would take too long to describe here led me to completely re-examine my quite-firm-until-then beliefs concerning mystical experiences and inferences which conclude that they are what they seem to be – experiences of some sort of universal consciousness. As a result, I discarded all such beliefs and inferences. At first I was bereft (“losing one’s religion”, “dark night of the soul”, blah blah) but… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Perhaps “nonsensical question” might be more appropriate? “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” This to me is a meaningless question. It presumes that “angels” exist. I have never seen any acceptable proof for this presumption. (I do not, by the way, accept Biblical tales and other mythological stories as any sort of “proof”.) When you start from some sort of bad premise you will find yourself asking meaningless, nonsensical, pointless questions. When and if you arrive at answers to such questions, and then utilize these answers for further cogitation or “reasoning”, you will quickly go… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Chuck , I just read your two posts and love them; looking forward to read more. I love also that you introduce the notion of “meaningless questions” and I was inspired by the example of the Unicorn. I am a scientist and as such my credo is that questions have to get a resolution character. In the case of the Unicorn, well we don’t have many ways to answer the questions since the animal is mythical. In science once a question is well posed, the problem is almost completely solved. I believe this is True as well in spirituality. I… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Hi Catherine: I’ve read a number of your messages. It’s a pleasure to reply to you. [Look for my question to you at the end of this message.] “What is reality?” Is reality a “what”? Might not a spiritually-inclined person ask “Who” is reality? [Joke. Please take no offense.] I don’t know what reality is, I don’t expect that I shall ever know, if I ever thought I *did* (why can’t I italicize on this blog!; I really miss it) know I was deluding myself, and, finally, I do not see any reason why humans, as currently constituted, ever can… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

First shot. 1)What is the nature of reality?” I’ve pretty well sketched out my reasoning previously for this answer so I won’t repeat it. Reality is *much* like we perceive it so far. We will never perceive it exactly or completely. Our perceptions of external reality *must* be reasonably accurate. If they weren’t, we would not have survived as a species in a dangerous world. We’re here, thus we can perceive reality well enough to survive within it. 2). Is there directionality inherent in evolution?” I see no evidence for it. Everything I understand about evolution and natural selection argues… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Hey Chuck R…if you’ve read my comments you’ll see that I’ve been Jeff’s straight man, a bit obtuse about spiritual ascent. Now I come up to you feeling like an octagon meeting a near-perfect circle (ref *Flatland*). So I’ll ask you as Jeff & Elizabeth asked me, “If you’re so rational, why are you knocking around on this blog?”

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Chuck, I will just focus briefly on point 1. “what is Reality ?” to my surprise you hold a view which looks absolutely materialistic for me. You say Reality is what we perceive. mmmh ! although I am a scientists , a great change in my life was a few years ago when I got convinced that it is not a satisfactory answer. There are many ways to make the rational proof of it, but the most fantastic proof I found recently in Steiner’s “Philosophy of Freedom”. It basically comes to this : we don’t perceive “thinking” but only… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Catherine, You people are a tough crowd! I’m sure I’ll omit something I’ll later think important, but anyway… You may be surprised that I am “absolutely materialistic”, if indeed I am (“materialistic” is one of those fuzzy words for me) and I am likewise surprised you’re finding “fantastic proofs” in Rudolf Steiner. I read a number of his books in the late ’60’s when I first plunged into mysticism, and I marvel that a practicing scientist would find them useful. But then I spent over 35 years “traveling through” mysticism and have now emerged out the other side. In my… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Brian,

Your question: “If you’re so rational, why are you knocking around on this blog?”

To be uncharacteristically (for me, on this blog) brief:

I’m test-driving a new paradigm, taking it for a spin through traffic.

As Bob Dylan wrote (Talking WW3 Blues):
Good car to drive…after a war.

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Jeff: You wrote: “I realize that you have answered these questions or decided to stop asking them for yourself. The conversation I want to have is does that mean that it is meaningless for anyone to question them.” As I commented to Brian immediately above, what I’m really doing here is utilizing a new paradigm to see what answers it provides to a variety of questions. I can’t be certain, but I doubt that any of the apparent *answers* I’ve written in earlier comments were formulated before I read your postings. So it’s not really that I’ve answer all such… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Cool how Jeff and Chuck R intersected at this point after weaving back and forth though science and spirituality over their lives. I differ in that I never made it very far down the spiritual path, thank God!

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Brian:
You wrote: “I differ in that I never made it very far down the spiritual path, thank God!”

Amen, brother, amen. And Right On! as well.

PS: I read “Flatland” in the 5th grade. Probably the most significant thing I did that year, other than get repeatedly kicked out of class. No Circle, I.

liesbeth
liesbeth
11 years ago

Don’t you ever get bored of the smallness of your own mind? We never can be sure what is there, but I think that the basis of people looking into spirituality is the deep longing to wider the perspective, that there is more than what one possess (material, intellectual, relational). Being a just a bit more evolved animal that can do a bit more than following its basic drives. Don’t you think your mind just got lazy at a certain point from not knowing the answers and just became happy with narrowing it down to that which can be understood?… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Assuming this is directed to me because it directly follows my last comment and you didn’t address it to anyone in particular, my answer would be No. Your comments may be intended to address someone or something whose presence you consciously or unconsciously entertain in your own mind (e.g. memory of someone whom you didn’t like) but they don’t apply to me. Briefly, my current paradigm *includes* my previous paradigm (which – based on what you wrote – was much like yours), but explains numerous anomalies which the previous paradigm could not explain, despite some 35 years of exploration within… Read more »

liesbeth
liesbeth
11 years ago

No, Chuck, it was not specifically directed to you. Later, when I read it back, I saw it looked like that. It was actually a very personal response, a reaction to reading the last few post. When I was reading back your blogs, I saw this narrowness is not about you. I just thought of the longing to bring spirituality back to something to have peace with, just like when reading Steiner accepting the Astral body and the connection to Soul as the meaning of life. The moment one thinks to have peace about it, something happens like my colleagues… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Jeff, re: ” Is there directionality inherent in evolution?” Do you put any stock or credence in Ken Wilber’s assertion that the destiny of humanity is Enlightenment and the the omega point of human evolution is to be come so? If we think of evolution as an adaptation of species to survive more certainly, can we way that Enlightenment and attaining a collective higher consciousness that realizes peaceful coexistence rather than wars with the attendant use of WMD will be crucial in the survival of our species and indeed the entire planet? W/o this realization, I would say we can… Read more »