China and the Search for a Global Consciousness

Will humanity develop a global, “integral” consciousness? If so, how would it develop? How would the Chinese with their unique world view see a global consciousness? Interest in consciousness went mainstream during the “consciousness-raising” experiments of the hippies in the 1960s. They were followed by the New Age and Integral Movements that emerged in the 1970s. Today, consciousness is studied in fields ranging from AI to neuroscience and quantum theory. But the cultural dimension of consciousness is routinely overlooked.

Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber, two highly influential thinkers, played a key role in shaping the discussion about consciousness in the West during the past 60 years. Gebser developed a model that claims to explain how consciousness developed through the ages and how we are currently moving toward a new consciousness. Wilber borrowed and expanded upon Gebser’s model and developed his groundbreaking Integral Theory.

The word consciousness became part of our daily vocabulary only in the late 19th and early 20th century, following the work of Freud and Jung and the Western exposure to Hindu thought. Discussions about consciousness are usually traced to Descartes, who spoke of conscientia. An 18th-century French encyclopedia defined consciousness as “the opinion or internal feeling that we ourselves have from what we do.” John Locke spoke of “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” To this day, despite many years of debates by philosophers and scientists, consciousness remains hard to define.

In 1961, Jean Gebser, a German interdisciplinary philosopher, published The Ever-Present Origin, one of the most ambitious studies of consciousness ever undertaken. Gebser reached back deep into human history and claimed to have identified five stages or “structures” of consciousness: archaic (pre-history and pre-animist), magic, mythical, mental, and integral structure. Each of these structures contains the “origin” (ostensibly the source of Creation as well as consciousness) in latent form. After five “mutations,” consciousness reaches its highest level, the Integral Structure.

Gebser is not specific about historical dates or geographical areas in which the first three structures developed. They existed throughout the world in a similar form. But he situates the manifestations of the first emergence of the Mental Structure in Europe. He arrives at this conclusion by associating the five structures of consciousness to the development of (linear) perspective. In the 16th century, Renaissance artists invented the vanishing point, enabling them to depict the illusion of three-dimensional space on the two-dimensions picture plane.

Gebser associated the development of linear perspective with the emerging awareness of space, a feature of the mental structure. He retroactively designated the preceding structures of consciousness as pre-perspectival and unperspectival. He writes:

“Scarcely five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, an unmistakable reorganization of our consciousness occurred: the discovery of perspective which opened up the three-dimensionality of space. This discovery is so closely linked with the entire intellectual attitude of the modern epoch that we have felt obliged to call this age the age of perspectivity and characterize the age immediately preceding it as the ‘unperspectival’ age.”

Starting in the 1860s, French artists (later known as the Impressionists) started to reject linear perspective, a trend Gebser interprets as an emerging awareness of time. He puts this in a larger context by not only pointing at Cezanne, Van Gogh, and the Cubists, but also at Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Theory. The corollary in his model is a transition from the mental to the integral structure. Gebser explains it as follows:

“These definitions, by recognizing a fundamental characteristic of these eras, lead to the further appropriate definition of the age of the dawning new consciousness as the “aperspectival” age, a definition supported not only by the results of modern physics, but also by developments in the visual arts and literature, where the incorporation of time as a fourth dimension into previously spatial conceptions has formed the initial basis for manifesting the ‘new.’”

Gebser, who spent time in Paris at the height of the Cubist epoch and visited Picasso in his studio, goes to great length to back up his claim that the Cubists incorporated time in their works. As we will see below, this is a highly contentious argument, even if he was right in arguing that modernist art led to a more participative experience that dissolves the distinction between object and observer.

Modernism

Anyone reading The Ever-Present Origin can sense the intensity of a man who wants to share an important insight with the world. But those who have studied East Asia art and architecture will recognize a fundamental flaw in the way Gebser frames his insight with his perspectival metaphor. Gebser was unaware that the Chinese, some 1000 years ago, had developed their own pictorial projection system that anticipates his notion of the “aperspectival.”

The Chinese projection system, dengjiao toushi, (or “equal angle see-through”), originated in Chinese architecture and came to be known in the West as axonometry. The Chinese projection system was to Chinese artists and architects what linear perspective was to European artists and architects. Moreover, the Chinese were aware of both space and time at least 2000 years ago, which they referred to as Yu-Zhou. Axonometry is based on the conceptual synthesis of Yu (space) and Zhou (time). The projection system was essential to the development of the classic Chinese handscroll painting, the only pictorial format in the world that aesthetically integrates space and time.

Gebser’s unfamiliarity with axonometry leads him to give a highly questionable account of the Modernist Revolution. He overlooks the fact that the impetus for the Modernist Revolution came from the East, more specifically from Japan. In the 1860s, French artists discovered the Japanese woodblock print, a non-optical art that was instrumental in dislodging the optical tradition in European art that first developed in Greece. Virtually all modernist pioneers — Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir — collected Japanese prints and moved away from optical representation.

Van Gogh typifies this departure from optical representation. Like the Japanese print, his paintings were no longer depictions of optical reality; they became a reality an sich, just like the Japanese print. Gebser overlooks this optical factor in European art. The rejection of linear perspective was a consequence of, not the impetus for, the Modernist Revolution.

This oversight leads Gebser to give an inaccurate — if conventional — account of Cubism. He points at Cezanne’s violations of linear perspective as the source of Cubism, and claims that Picasso, by incorporating different views of an object in a single form, introduced the factor of time in his painting. He equates this development in Cubism with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the emergent awareness of the so-called Fourth Dimension, which he, in turn, equates with the aperspectival.

Gebser echoes art historians who have made similar claims about Cubism, which do not hold up to (aesthetic) scrutiny. The notion of time in a painting is a conceptual and aesthetic incongruity. Cinema, theater, and music involve time, as does the appreciation of sculpture in the round. But a painting is an image, a gestaltung. Claiming to depict time in a painting makes sense only when we equate time with movement, a notion that characterized the work of the Italian Futurists.

Gebser could have known that Einstein rebuked art theorists who linked the Cubists with his work in theoretical physics. “This so-called art has nothing in common with the Theory of Relativity,” he told an interviewer. Futurist painter Gini Severini, in his biography, acknowledged that the modernists merely repeated what they heard in café’s and that no one really understood the scientific theories. Frank Lloyd Wright berated the modernists for failing to acknowledge the role of the Japanese print in liberating European art from its optical straight-jacket. “It [the Japanese print] intrinsically lies at the root of all this so-called modernism. Strangely unnoticed, uncredited.”

In the 1920s it would become clear that Cubism had been a waystation to the climax of the Modernist Revolution. Artists and architects from modernist movements like De Stijl in Holland, the Bauhaus in Germany, and the Suprematists in the Soviet Union discovered axonometry as the non-optical alternative to linear perspective. Axonometry became emblematic of modern architecture and has since become an essential tool for artists and architects the world over.

English mathematician and science-fiction writer Charles Howard Hinton, who popularized the notion of the Fourth Dimension in the 1880s, used a tesseract to illustrate the concept. The tesseract was in fact an axonometry projection. Coming to terms with the Fourth Dimension, said Hinton, requires “the casting out the self” in perception, a notion not far removed from Geber’s aperpectival. Axonometry has the attributes Gebser ascribed to aperspectivity of the Integral Structure.

Culture and Consciousness

Gebser frequently tells us what he means with “consciousness” but it remains an elusive concept. “Consciousness is the ability to survey those interconnections which constitutes us,” he writes, adding that it is “a function which reacts to the visible course of events in reality.” Most mystics would disagree with the latter and argue that consciousness, especially a higher consciousness, makes us perceive that which is not visible. And while he straddles the fields of philosophy, psychology, history, and spirituality, Gebser was unaware that the word consciousness has a cultural dimension.

In China, the equivalent word for consciousness is xin. The word is written as a compound character that means “heart-mind.” It conveys the idea that a proper consciousness balances our humanity and our intellect.

Xin has an ethical, Confucian connotation; it does not develop naturally but must be cultivated. In the Book of Rites we read: “Only after the xin has been properly settled, the body can be cultivated. The cultivation of the body makes then the regulation of the family possible, which preconditions a good government. A good government … is a precondition for world peace.”

India’s Vedanta culture arguably has the longest tradition in studying the human mind. The yogic tradition claims to have identified 16 different dimensions of mind that are grouped into four main categories: buddhi (intellect), manas (memory, both mental and physical), ahankara (identity, sometimes referred to as ego), and chitta (cosmic consciousness, i.e. the mind has become a mirror of the universe).

The human intellect, which probably evolved from instinct, is crucial to survival. It is used to dissect and analyze things, avoid danger and seize opportunities. The intellect relies on memory, our database of stored knowledge and accumulated experiences. The intellect would be useless without access to a database. Identity is shaped by our social and cultural environment and determines how the intellect is applied. Fanaticism and extremism occur when we identify strongly with a religion, a cause, or a nationality. (Some scholars will argue that inherited factors plan a role, but given the propensity of fanaticism across religions, environment plays a significant role.)

In his Ever-Present Origin, Gebser acknowledges that he takes an Occidental stance but expresses the hope that his view complements the ideas of thinkers like Sri Aurobindo, the influential Indian teacher who developed Integral Yoga. (Gebser became aware of Aurobindo’s use of the term integral only after he had developed his own theory.) Aurobindo was strongly influenced by European thought, including the work of Plato and Hegel.

Like Gebser, Aurobindo used the word consciousness assuming a consensus about its meaning. Like Gebser, he frequently stretched the meaning of the word far beyond its conventional usage. He wrote: “Consciousness is a fundamental thing, it is the fundamental thing in existence — it is the energy, the action, the movement of consciousness that creates the universe and all that is in it — not only the macrocosm, but the microcosm is nothing but consciousness arranging itself.” Like Gebser, Aurobindo implies that consciousness existed before humans — that it was inherent in the universe, rather than assuming the universe created the conditions in which consciousness could develop.

Ken Wilber

In 1977, Ken Wilber published his widely acclaimed book The Spectrum of Consciousness, the first systematic attempt to integrate the psychological systems of the West with the contemplative traditions of the East. His book initiated a revolution in transpersonal psychology and became a starting point for all those trying to integrate psychology and spirituality. Wilber’s book was an eye-opener for many, not unlike Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics had been an eye-opener by offering a new way of looking at the world.

In subsequent books, Wilber develops models that are derived from Gebser’s five structures, but he takes a developmental approach. Gebser argued that the structures of consciousness “mutated” in “discontinuous steps.” Because they mutate, they retain parts of the earlier structures. Wilber argued for an evolutionary, continuous developmental process. Gebser stresses the need for a new consciousness and points at signs of its emergence, Wilber offers a systematic approach that can be used to reach a higher consciousness.

The Integral Movement for self-development unleashed by Wilber has its distractors. They acknowledge its value but argue Integral has become self-referential and even elitist. Using the Integral template AQAL, Wilber identified nine color-code stages of consciousness, from the Instinctive to the Integral and beyond, which has unfolded in humanity in three stages or levels: pre-rational, rational, and transrational. The model distinguishes higher-level integral thinkers from lower-level non-integral thinkers.

As the theory evolved from a synthesis of eastern spirituality and western psychology, the latter was increasingly dominant. And its self-referential use of concepts, terms, and notions opened it up to the scrutiny of critics. Among them is Joseph Dillard, psychotherapist, author, and developer of Integral Deep Listening (IDL). Referring to Integral vocabulary Dillard says,

“I try to avoid the use of terms that are over-determined: unconscious/subconscious, consciousness, spirit/spirituality, and ego. Instead of ego I use waking self — our current state of awareness, whether awake, dreaming, or in some altered state. I avoid using the word consciousness because it implies ontology: someone or something that is conscious. Starting with the assumption of ontology gets me off on the wrong foot from the start.”

Dillard has questioned the priorities of the New Age and Integral Movements. He argues that the period between the 1960s and the 1990s was heavily impregnated with New Age assumptions, which were heavily influenced by Hindu concepts of enlightenment as transcendence of the conditioned self. It resulted in a fixation on self and an emphasis on transcendence over inclusion/integration. Dillard: “This is foolish because excellence at the expense of balance creates collapse. It is much more important to be healthy and balanced at any stage of development than it is to be brilliant and unbalanced.”

Ethics

Wilber and Gebser have a similar stance on ethics. For Gebser, ethics is a remnant of the previous mental (rational) structure that will be subsumed by the Integral. “The condition of today’s world,” he writes, “cannot be transformed by technocratic rationality, since both technocracy and rationality are apparently [sic] nearing their apex; nor can it be transcended by preaching or admonishing a return to ethics and morality, or in fact, by any form of return to the past.”

Similarly, Wilber’s model implies that self-development will subsume ethics, even though in his later work he included morals as one of the core “lines” of development. Other lines include cognitive, aesthetic, spiritual, kinesthetic, affective, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, karmic, etc. Wilber has identified some 24–25 lines. People can be highly developed cognitively (cerebrally smart) and morally undeveloped, for example, by committing wartime atrocities.

Gebser’s aperspectival notion and Wilber’s integral approach can trigger the mind to explore new ways of looking at the world and the self. But their models can’t be applied to China without extensive footnotes.

As we saw earlier, the Chinese integrated space and time aesthetically 1000 years ago. Space in the Chinese context means orientation, more specifically visible or invisible “boundaries” that define space. They conceived time as a “cosmic moment” that was determined by cosmological cycles. When the Chinese build new capital cities, geomancers (Feng Shui experts, or “Masters of Time), determined the optimum (terrestrial) orientation for the city, and the optimum cosmic moment to commence construction”. The rationale was typically Chinese: So in Heaven, so on Earth.

Chinese geomantic compass to integrate space and time

Once the Chinese concluded that the cosmos and Earth rely on the interaction of polar opposites, they classified every conceivable phenomenon with the generic types of yang or yin — Heaven-earth, positive-negative, growth-decay, male-female, active-passive, something-nothing, and space and time. They codified these generic types in the Eight Trigram, discrete gradations of yin and yang, and paired them in all combinations to create 64 further gradations. These 64 so-called hexagrams are at the heart of the I Ching.

The entire yin-yang superstructure of Chinese culture is predicated on a simple and uniquely Chinese premise: If we identify the two-fold structure of nature in all its manifestations, we can integrate ourselves in the binary universe with the minimum amount of friction. Confucius took his cue from this premise when he appropriated the Eight Trigrams.

The original Eight Trigrams used to compose the I Ching were nature-centric. They were symbolic for the interaction of the natural phenomena (heaven, earth, water, wind, mountain, etc.) that shape and change the terrestrial environment. Confucius used the Eight Trigrams to develop his social construct. He added the family unit as an attribute to the Eight Trigrams — father, mother, and six children. This made Confucianism hierarchical, balanced and situational all at once. A man is yang to his wife but yin to his employer. A woman is yang to her son, but yin to her parents. Relationships are balanced by prerogatives (yang) and obligation (yin).

This hierarchical equilibrium has been embedded in all aspects of Chinese culture for nearly 3000 years and remains to this day. 70 years of communism and 200 years of foreign intervention has affected but not undermined the Confucian superstructure. China imported Western science and technology and social modes, but not its psychology or ethics. For much of recorded history up to the Industrial Revolution, China was the largest economic power in the world, and its re-emergence as a leading nation is a return to historical norms — at least for the decades to come.

Prerogatives and Obligations, Yin and Yang

Barring unforeseeable circumstances, China is likely to make its presence felt around the world, rivaling or exceeding Western influence. It will come with a touch of Confucian sensibilities. The Chinese scholar Tu-Weiming, who calls for Confucian values to be included in our inter-civilizational discourse, looked at the excessive Western focus on rights through a Confucian lens. Noting that an important spiritual exercise in the practice of Confucian self-cultivation is “to extend our sympathetic feelings so that they encompass an ever-expanding network of human and non-human relatedness,” he makes the following point:

“If I insist upon the importance of human rights, I respect your rights, you respect mine, and yet I am… I am a billionaire, you are homeless, I have no obligation whatsoever to help you, from that human rights discourse. Some other values will have to be entered into the picture, such as justice, equality, fairness. Not just legality, but civility, not just rights, but responsibility, not just the dignity of an individual, but also social solidarity, not just rationality, but sympathy, empathy, and compassion.”

China is widely expected to become the world’s leading economy in a decade or so. In the past four decades, the country lifted some 800 million people out of poverty, nearly the combined population of the US and the EU. It built dozens of airports and harbors, and rolled out a high-speed railway network that links 700 cities and dwarfs Japan’s bullet train network. Hardly a day goes by without China setting another record or reaching another milestone as the world’s largest producer, consumer, or exporter of yet another product or technology.

China has now taken the lead in Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The entire country is being wired with fiber optics, largely skipping the era of copper wires. China’s telecom giants have built close to a million transmission towers for the country’s 5G network — more than the rest of the world combined. High-speed wireless networks are used for logistics systems, drones, and telemedicine, as well as for networked cars, taxis, trucks, and buses.

Widespread domestic deployment of AI and other Industry 4.0 technology could give China a lead in setting global standards. Chinese AI guru Kai-Fu Lee expects that AI will eliminate most routine jobs that do not require human compassion and free up people for jobs that require compassion — elderly caretakers, tour guides, social workers, spiritual trainers, etc. Kai-Fu Lee claims: “AI will liberate us from routine work. It will push us into thinking about what makes us human.”

Ku-Fai Lee’s pragmatic and human-centric view of AI reflects Chinese sensibilities. Concerns about AI are virtually non-existent in China. The Chinese government has made AI mandatory in education. It wants to take AI out of its ivory tower and prepare students for a world in which AI is part of daily life. The Chinese government has even prepared AI textbooks for kindergartens. Chinese AI will reflect a Confucian consciousness.

China is expanding its physical and virtual infrastructure globally. The country committed a trillion dollars to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the massive infrastructure project connecting China with more than 60% of the global population from Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The West tends to look at the BRI as an example of Chinese “economic expansionism,” while China considers it an expansion of its domestic infrastructure aimed at “creating a prosperous community with a shared future for humankind.”

The Chinese view infrastructure as the first prerequisite for developing a prosperous society. In “Communism with Chinese characteristics,” railroads, highways, harbors, and airports don’t have to be profit centers; they have to enable people to generate wealth. American economist Michael Hudson, professor at the School of Marxist Studies in Beijing, says:

“The way that neoliberalism works, it divides the economy into parts, and it makes every part trying to make a gain, and if you do that, then you don’t have any infrastructure that’s lowering the cost for the other parts. You have every part fighting for itself. You don’t look at it in terms of a system the way China’s looking at it. That’s the great advantage of Marxism, you’ll look at the system, not just the parts.”

China, says Hudson, built the BRI because it is part of its geopolitical attempt to create what it needs to be prosperous and have a prosperous region. These are self-reinforcing mutual gain.

“That’s what the West doesn’t get — mutual gain? Are we talking anthropology? What do you mean mutual? This is capitalism! So, the West doesn’t understand what the original aim of the Belt and Road was, and it wasn’t to make a profitable railroad to enable people to buy and sell railway stocks. And it wasn’t to make toll roads to sell off to Goldman Sachs. We’re dealing with two different economic systems, and it’s very hard for one system to understand the other system because of the tunnel vision that you get when you get a degree in economics.”

Pre- and Post-Rational

China plays an ever-increasing role in transforming developing countries in Asia and beyond. Some of these lesser developed countries will skip the industrial age and move from agricultural societies to post-industrial societies. India has so far resisted the Chinese embrace for political reasons, but China’s growing economic clout may be too big to ignore much longer. Economic ties with China offer the quickest route for developing societies to skip Industry 2.0 and 3.0 and move directly to Industry 4.0.

China was the first country to introduce paper money. Introduced in the 7th century Tang Dynasty, paper currency was in common use throughout the country by the 11th century, during the Sung Dynasty. History is now repeating itself in high-tech fashion. With its digital yuan, China is the first major country aiming to eliminate cash. The introduction of paper money radically transformed economic life, and the introduction of digital money will do the same.

Digital money is radically transparent. Every transaction, big or small, is traceable. It sharply reduces nefarious activities: tax dodging, money-laundering, currency speculation, price-gouging, insider trading, corruption, and shady practices shielded by so-called “privacy laws.” Digital money, which is programmable, will change the world as much as the Internet did. China already reigned in its would-be oligarchs by breaking their grip on the country’s enormous electronic payment system to make room for the digital yuan. In China, the government controls the oligarchs.

Futurist Lawrence Taub, author of The Spiritual Imperative: Sex, Age and the Last Caste who captured China’s rise in a model based on Hindu thought, expects that China will reach it peak by mid-century or somewhat later. We can reasonably assume the world will be a different and somewhat “sinofied” place by that time. Gebser and Wilber had different concerns, but it will be clear that China is difficult to capture in their models. If we accept the sequence of Gebser’s five structures, the Land of the Dragon may skip the mental structure and jump from the mythical to the integral structure, from the pre-rational to the trans-rational.

Author of When India Eclipses China Futurist Lawrence H. Taub on the Unexpected 21st Century