Evolution and the Great Chain of Being

December 13, 2012 — 5 Comments

It has always fascinated me that the manifest world that we can know via our senses exploded from lack of a better word from Nothing.  After all, the assertion that something can come from nothing seems absurd at first glance.  However, if you consider Nothingness as “No-thing-ness” i.e. One without a second — then perhaps we can make some sense out of this first moment in time.  The Buddhists refer to this Nothingness as Emptiness, but what is it empty of?

If we accept the Buddhist’s term of Emptiness for discussion purposes and then try to explain what it is empty of — then maybe we will have a useful starting point to look at what arose, how it might have come about and where it is going.  This is the fundamental assumption of this post.  As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name is still a rose,” what’s important is the underlying reality, not the specific word or symbol that is pointing to that reality.  I think different traditions use different words, but the concept seems to be eerily the same and yet ineffable.

In this context, I would like to point out that one thing Emptiness is empty of is space and time.  If we are looking at something prior to the Big Bang, it is prior to the emergence of the space-time continuum, prior to matter and prior to the cosmos in the sense of universe.

Clearly, Emptiness is a sort of infinite potentiality that has not differentiated itself from any type of ground.  This sounds suspiciously like what the various world’s wisdom traditions would label a Ground of Being – a fundamental Oneness upon which things stand out against the background.  In fact, existence implies “ex stasis” to stand out from a Ground of Being i.e. to differentiate from this underlying Oneness taking on qualia and opening up the possibility for categories and comparisons.

The world of manifestation, the world that science could measure with the senses and extensions of the senses came out of this Nothingness, which while empty of qualia such as space (extension) and time was nevertheless full of potential.  Prior to the Big Bang, it was certainly nothing and everything.  If not, how could a universe of matter emerge from it?  Instead of Emptiness, we could have chosen the term Fullness, but both would be equally inadequate in different ways.

The point I am making here is that the Ground of Being can’t be contained within a boundary or line.  Therefore, it is outside of categorical thought and comparisons, but yet we can intuit it as many cultures have across the world and throughout history.  Whatever it is, this ground seems to want to emerge into existence and unfold.  That is to say, it is this underlying ground that evolves in increasing levels of complexity, consciousness and wider embraces.  You can label it many different ways, but Spirit-in-Action seems to be equivalent to what many call evolution.  Pure undifferentiated Being merely abides, but really these are two sides of one paradoxical coin.

This is actually the argument I am making here.  That somehow, enfolded into what for lack of a better word we call Nothingness or Emptiness is the potential to become.    Further, it seems at each level of organization, new wholes emerge which are greater than the sum of the parts.  These new properties in this sense can be called emergent qualia.  Probably, the best example of such a progression is quarks, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms and man (self-reflective consciousness).

Another more general progression that shows up in the world’s wisdom traditions is matter, life, mind, soul and spirit.  This is the Great Chain of Being found within every major religious tradition.  Is this parallel a mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Life is more than the sum of the properties of molecules and mind is certainly more than the sum of properties of living cells, especially when you consider agency or will.

The problem, however, that leaps to mind is how can we know this?  I would suggest in the same way we know a “thought” or our own “consciousness.”  Certainly, we can’t look at a thought under a microscope or our consciousness via a telescope or other extension of the senses.  I believe this is because these are realities outside of space, but yet every scientific theory started as a thought and was formed in consciousness.  So, how do we know consciousness?  My conclusion is through direct experience, through union with that reality with no mediation of thought.  We have a simple feeling of Being.  Yet, I am more sure of my consciousness existing than the chair I’m sitting in.  In fact, how atoms exist or better, do they exist at all in the way we imagine is less clear to me than my own consciousness.  At least, since I studied quantum theory!

Without getting into a formal discussion of epistemology or theories of knowledge, I am asserting that I can and do know my own consciousness far more intimately than the physical universe although I can’t locate it in space or measure it with any instrument.  Further, I also propose that a scientific reductionist is making a very unscientific statement when they say that anything that can’t be known by the scientific method is unknowable.  That is a metaphysical statement, not a scientific one.  We privilege science so much, we often don’t take the time to reflect upon the fact that this assertion can not be proven by the scientific method.  Therefore, it is outside the domain of science.

So, for the purposes of this article I am assuming this Emptiness that exists prior to the universe is pure Spirit – undefinable, but NOT unknowable.  This pure ocean of Being must in addition to being pure potential, must have some type of intention to become, I call this the evolutionary spark.  It is an impetus for this One to differentiate and transcend itself in deeper layers enfolding (in-folding), which is to say depth while at the same time, embracing a wider span i.e. community.  Ultimately, this evolutionary process gave rise to our self-reflective consciousness, which has sufficient depth to contemplate the evolutionary process itself.

Like a wave coming out of the ocean, each of us is unique, yet an expression of the whole.  We are not really separate from the vast Ocean of Being, but rather a particular expression of it governed by organizing principles that differentiate us from the vast ground it arises from.  In fact, as something differentiates, it acquires more depth which is to say more consciousness.  In other words, more of this Being is wrapped or enfolded into a phenomena’s depth.  As it deepens the phenomenon also embraces or encompasses more of the Kosmos within itself.  Here I use this word, in the older Greek sense to denote not only the physical universe, but the nonphysical aspects of it.

If we extrapolate this line of thinking then an individual of infinite depth, would also have infinite embrace.  Certainly, Christians believe that is what Jesus represents.  In fact, this gives new meaning to the gospel quotation of “the kingdom of heaven is within you.”  In Christian and other traditions, this is often understood as an embrace of love where the divine that is outside of space (and time) is equally present at all points of space.  In other words, it is fully present everywhere, not a piece of it because it wholly outside of space and time!  This is what is meant by omnipresent.

In Hindu mythology, this reality is expressed through a different metaphor,  the jeweled net of Indra.  Here, at every point in the net, which represents the manifest world, there is a jewel that reflects the whole.  A more modern, but perhaps more crude metaphor might be a hologram.  However, it is interesting that this concept shows up in a variety of cultures, traditions and times.  Could this be revealing a universal truth?

While we can’t be absolutely sure of anything, it’s certainly interesting to consider this line of thought as a real possibility.  Is this any less fantastic that somehow the universe exploded from nothing in the sense of a vacuum and consciousness evolved out of inert matter by pure random forces through ascending levels of complexity over a LIMITED time frame – about 15 billion years.   Within a finite time frame, our current knowledge of evolution can’t explain the jumps in the evolutionary process to where we are at today.

While from one point of view a purely physics-based explanation is somewhat plausible, it contradicts the pull of our own hearts toward something greater than ourselves (meaning), the testimony of seekers of various wisdom traditions across cultures and it doesn’t explain many important phenomena such as love or consciousness.  In fact, as this point in time we can’t even pin down the physical universe at least as evidenced by having two great scientific theories that are not reconciled – namely, general relativity and quantum theory.

The quest for meaning is close to everyone’s heart, why?  Could that which you are seeking be the cause of you seeking in the first place?  Is God, Being, Emptiness or whatever label you care to put on it so close that you can’t see it.  If it is pure subject then it can’t be an object to consciousness, which would need to subsumes it.  This is like the eye not being able to see the eye.  Could your simple felt sense of Being offer you a clue as to Original Face prior to the Big Bang (a famous Zen koan or paradoxical statement meant to evoke a deeper understanding).  I would contend that yes, if you don’t privilege reason beyond other ways of knowing and you are willing to look at your unexamined assumptions about reality.

5 responses to Evolution and the Great Chain of Being


    Massive cognitive structures based on logic (otherwise known as ideologies or, on a higher level, world-views) are such a small part of reality, and yet we tend to privilege them as identical with “truth,” because we have been trained to think of truth in terms of airtight systems of thought. The scientific worldview, from this perspective, is the most airtight and consistent view, if you accept the assumption that truth itself equates to such a thing. But what is truth? Even those who design elaborate theories and ideologies to “understand” the truth are starting from the assumption that truth exists beyond the mind in some way. If this is true, it follows that the mind is an inadequate vessel for the truth in a certain sense. A famous Zen teaching is for a monk to continuously pour tea into a cup allowing it to overflow. This is analogous to the experience of truth. Truth is, first and foremost, an experience. In this way, we can never grasp it fully, but we can allow it to fill our cup in a myriad of different ways. With the perspective that our cup holds limited tea but that the tea itself is endless, we open up new avenues of cognitive flexibility that allow us to look at ideologies in a whole new way, realizing the truth that they all reveal when we cast away our notion that they ARE truth manifest in its entirety. They are truth manifest, but so is everything else that exists. The question is, what does this aspect of reality have to teach us?


      I think you raised some good points. With respect to truth, I would tend to say it’s more of a “state” of consciousness than a system of concepts. Also, since the universe is evolving, it implies truth is dynamic. I think the mistake science makes is equating their static models of reality with reality. The models approximate reality and have high predictive value, but the models don’t make an identity. After all, mathematics is man made, a product of the human mind and therefore, limited in terms of what could be caught in that particular net.

      Regarding the analogy of the cup and tea, I think the structures of consciousness are limited, but they evolve as well. For example, early man could do what we call concrete operations, but not formal operations. There is also no reason to believe that other capacities won’t evolve beyond formal operations. Certainly, Ken Wilber posits vision-logic as one of these. I believe there are more even now.

      The most interesting thing that I find when I contemplate these kinds of things is that there is evidence that it is possible to go beyond the self-structure and experience the transpersonal. Certainly, people like Jesus, Buddha and even Emerson have demonstrated this capacity. While the population as a whole is not there, I think people can have a temporary change in state that allows for higher perception and that some in the population can even stabilize these into permanent traits. This implies that new structures of consciousness are emerging.

      Thanks for making these points. It’s always great to get people’s impressions directly. It adds to the shared pool of meaning.


    When we meditate, set an intention. With the intention set, we prepare for the internal unfolding of meaning. Might I suggest, that the manifest unfolding of higher forms of consciousness in the Kosmos, is not only a temporal process but evidence of an Intention set within the Ground of Being prior to any manifestation. Does enlightenment follow simply because we forget ourselves for a moment and allow our mind to become empty? To paraphrase the words of scripture in the beginning was the void, and God said let there be…. And elsewere: “in the beginning was the Word [the thought that expresses the intention].”


      I know what you are saying. Please feel free to elaborate. It’s difficult to verbalize. In a sense there is a climber of the ladder, but in another sense when the climber gets so high, it falls off the ladder. However, there has to be clear intention and conscious recollection prior to letting it go.


    What I am saying is that Emptiness is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Mindfulness is also required. As it is written, [Have] this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but EMPTIED HIMSELF, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

    Peace be with you.

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