What is the purpose of the universe? Is the evolutionary process God’s merry-go-round, repeating in infinite cycles, or is it a deadly serious endeavor charting ever-new ground? Metaphysical sparks fly between the Guru and the Pandit as they tackle some of the biggest questions that philosophers have wrestled with for millennia.
Andrew Cohen: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it really means to consciously evolve—to deliberately and intentionally create and co-create the future. It gets clearer and clearer to me every day that it really is up to us—each and every one of us, individually and collectively—to create the future that we hope for in our highest moments. When we reach that point in our own development where we unequivocally have accepted the fact that no one else is going to save us—not a mythic God in the sky or “destiny” or a miracle—we realize that the next step in the evolutionary process really is in our own hands.
Ken Wilber: That’s right. There is a phrase that Julian Huxley really delighted in, which is that “man is evolution become conscious of itself.” And, in a sense, that’s certainly true, given our perspective that evolution is in part Spirit’s own Self-unfolding and Self-developing and Self-growth.
Cohen: It’s amazing how, when we really begin to let this in, it gives us a completely different perspective on who we are, who or what God is, and what our role is in the creative process. Often when I speak about this, I like to take people on a theological and philosophical fantasy ride back to before the beginning of time, just to invoke the enormity of the creative process and go beyond all our conditioned ways of thinking about this. Shall we take the plunge?
Cohen: Okay. Now this is, of course, purely theological speculation and fun. But if we dare to let ourselves think in rather audacious terms for a moment, we could say that at the very beginning, at the moment when the evolutionary process began, when the initial leap from formlessness to form took place, you and I must have been there. All matter, time, and space were a great singularity—compressed into one fine point. Think about it for a moment. Is there anywhere else that we could have been at the moment when the universe was born? That one point was the only place to be, and in fact, we were all there. We were there, but we were there as I. Before the universe was born, there was only One, and that One had not yet become the Many. So there was only You, and You were alone. So then, if we follow this inquiry to the next step, just for the fun of it, the question is: Why did the One become the Many? Why did something come from nothing? There must have been some form of an intention in that One without a second to take that leap. And since you were the only one, the only reasonable conclusion is that you made that choice to do this. To do what? To create the universe. As the creative principle, which is one way of defining God, you/we/I chose to take form as this whole unfolding process. And from a certain point of view, what else could there have been for us to do?
Wilber: Well, yes, if you want to get metaphysical about it, you can see that it is all part of the whole Kosmic game. If you were absolutely perfect Spirit, resting in formless emptiness, delighting in your own eternal bliss and omniscience, what would you do next? And the answer is—
Cohen: —exactly what I’m doing now: becoming the entire universe!
Wilber: That’s exactly right.
Cohen: But of course, it’s only possible for us to say this now that we’ve come this far in the process, and we’re able to have this evolutionarily enlightened cognition that leads us to be able to say that this intention—whatever an intention in the mind of God would look like, before form and life were created—must have been there from the very beginning. And we realize that the spiritual impulse that begins to awaken, that compels us to seek enlightenment, to consciously evolve, is that same original intention that must have been there from the very beginning but that somehow we have lost touch with for billions of years.
Wilber: Yes, because you can’t go through that whole process of evolution knowing that you are God. That’s just not going to work. So you would have to forget who you were; you’d have to get lost—convincingly get lost—or it’s not a game and it’s no fun at all! So you get lost, and then slowly you reawaken. That’s the way this particular game is going. And at some point, evolution is going to become self-conscious, and then it’s going to become superconscious. But it’s taken fourteen billion years to get to this point.
Cohen: In the mind of God, fourteen billion years probably isn’t that long anyway. It might seem like a long, deep sleep for us, but from God’s point of view, I think he, she, it, or we are just getting started anyway. If the universe is just beginning to awaken to itself, and we have no idea how big the universe really is or how many universes there are, then in a sense, the awakening is just barely beginning. So in the mind of God, maybe fourteen billion years was just a nap!
Wilber: Yes, absolutely. You know, this may all seem like metaphysical speculation, but this Kosmic game is actually, fundamentally, the single major philosophical topic right up through Hegel. It really only came to a crashing end with flatland scientific materialism. What Hegel and the German idealists, for example, were trying to ask was, starting from absolute Being, how do you get to wars and revolutions? Why on earth would that happen?
Wilber: Why is there something rather than nothing? What happened? How did Spirit lose itself? A lot of philosophers have played out this question in very intricate ways. Plotinus, for example, held that the One goes out of itself into the nous [thought or the Divine Mind]. From nous proceeds the world soul, and then that goes out of itself into psyche or individual mind, and finally, matter, at the lowest level of being. He called that whole process “efflux.” And then, he believed, the One returns to itself in what he called a “reflux.” I kind of like those terms: efflux and reflux. Others, like Sri Aurobindo, have used the terms “involution” and “evolution” for the same thing—the process by which Spirit first throws itself outward and gets lost in matter and then begins to slowly return to itself, finally awakening as Itself. Hegel, in eight hundred pages of detailed, dialectical reasoning, tried to show that Being goes out of itself into nothing, and then Being plus nothing together create Becoming, and then Becoming goes out of itself, and on and on and on and on through a process of involution. Then he has a little phrase, “and the jump to nature occurs,” which actually is the big bang. And evolution begins.
Now, the one difference I have with all these thinkers, whether it’s Aurobindo or Hegel or Plotinus or Plato, is that for almost all of them, evolution is seen as pretty precisely a rewinding of the videotape of involution, that everything is—
Cohen: —already there. It’s all already laid down. As I understand the notion of involution, it’s almost as if Spirit lays down a kind of Kosmic blueprint and then evolution just unfolds according to that already drawn-out map.
Wilber: Exactly. And that just won’t work.
Cohen: Yes. It’s the fact that these structures are not already laid down that makes the game a lot more exciting.
Wilber: It makes it much more exciting when you understand that there really is an authentic creativity in evolution.
Cohen: Right. And that’s what ups the stakes for you and me and anyone who realizes it. When we awaken to that fact and simultaneously recognize that we are that One who decided to do this from the beginning of everything, we begin to feel a tremendous sense of urgency and responsibility for the next step.
Wilber: That’s what makes it very, very interesting. And of course, if it happened once, it’s happened billions of times.
Cohen: Well, that’s an interesting statement—you mean that in terms of this cycle of involution and evolution, of expansion and contraction?
Wilber: Yes. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It doesn’t really make sense that it would only happen once.
Cohen: Why do you say that?
Wilber: I mean, for Spirit, it’s just an infinite cycle of hide and seek. If you do it just once, you would eventually get to a point where now you’re awake and everybody’s awake, and everything goes up in bhava samadhi and white light, and then what? Well, sooner or later, you’re going to play the game again. So it’s just sort of a continual efflux and reflux, involution and evolution.
Cohen: But doesn’t that cancel out the whole notion of development? If we say it’s an infinite cycle, then surely we’ve been here before.
Wilber: Not in the same way.