Recently I attended a presentation at MIT by Jeff Lieberman called "It's Not What You Think: An Evolutionary Theory of Spiritual Enlightenment."

Lieberman is a science-educated artist and host of a TV show called Time Warp. He's a relatively good presenter, and given his credentials, one would expect him to juxtapose disparate fields of science and art. However, the downside is that one is not left with a single solid believable conclusion or theory--or at least I wasn't. Of course, this was also the first time Lieberman gave this talk, so he might improve it in the future.

I think that there are really four different themes woven in his presentation:

  1. Evolution of consciousness.
  2. Future directions of human consciousness.
  3. The concept of consciousness having existed for billions of years in all things, and that human-level consciousness is simply a more complicated construction (this is the weakest point).
  4. The common psychological goal of faiths underlying the world's popular religions.

I will attempt to describe the first three themes below. I won't say anything about the fourth--it's a neat concept in which Lieberman interprets religious stories to have themes about human consciousness. For instance, human thinking we have compared to our animal relatives, however I am not well read in mythology / religious texts.

Please note that I'm leaving out a lot of his talk...he covered a lot of ground.

1. Evolution Of Consciousness

The premise is that human consciousness evolves--and that seems to be a sound statement given animal evolution thus far.

Lieberman gives us a 15-minute compressed history of the universe relevant to consciousness. Our universe starts with undifferentiated energy, then we end up with these various layers of organization emerging from previous layers: energy->particles->atoms->molecules->cells->animals.

Human perception does not by default work so well for layers that are smaller/larger than our little world. We can't even perceive these other worlds without the help of technology. The perception we have is the result of evolution, as Lieberman puts it:

What we take for granted as real on a day to day basis is completely determined by what was functional for our evolutionary past.

This means not only are we not able to observe outside our small window of perception (unless we use technology), our brain is actually "creating a lie" to operate with. The brain constructs patterns. Lieberman shows some examples, such as a visual illusion and how viewing a symbol in slow motion shows the waves which we can't see with normal vision.

Lieberman didn't mention this, but he gets into some subjects I'm very interested in, such as affordability and perception as an interface. I am also reminded of the excellent book Visual Intelligence by Donald D. Hoffman, which describes the rules our vision systems use to construct reality. And, as Hoffman himself suggests in that book (and expounds in his paper "The Interface Theory of Perception"), the construction of reality may not actually be a reconstruction. The phenomenal sense of something need not resemble the relational sense. Our perception builds fictions that are useful for the organism to survive.

Anyway, Lieberman goes on to talk about consciousness in evolutionarily older organisms, especially cavemen, and that we should not assume that we are the apex of consciousness. I.e., who knows what potentially better (depending on the context of "better") consciousness will become widespread in the future.

2. Future Directions Of Human Consciousness

Lieberman has a concept called the "new mutation," which would operate at a social level, not just at an individual level. Certainly speculation about the future of consciousness should include this possibility of going to the level of the nesting of organizations.

Lieberman mentioned a lot of the old-fashioned mind hackers such as Buddhist monks, etc. He mentioned a world full of Ghandis or something like that. There's a premise that these kinds of self applied brain wetware changes are a way to achieve "true" consciousness, if there is a such thing. However, I'm not sure if that kind of consciousness leads to future pathways. Let's take a monk who is selfless and full of compassion--that's great, and maybe there is some game model in which all or a certain percentage of the world's inhabitants could operate like that for a better all around experience for humankind, but is it a method that will work as the basis for the "new mutation"...or is there some much better way? Or are existing meditative states not even scratching the surface of useful consciousness modifications?

Lieberman seems to that existing methods for "enlightenment" are:

  1. A way to access the "lower levels of the self" and that this is in fact the primitive consciousness that he thinks is really interesting and useful to experience.
  2. The side effects of that particular method are also desirable.

I, however, would not assume such things. The way Lieberman describes this more basic consciousness makes me think of a metaphor of a computer program which can look at its own execution and data (introspection) but normally does not.

This metaphor might also let me describe a potential danger: imagine the program completely abandons its normal operation and spends all its time doing introspection. The first question is...does motivation change? Can it change its own motivation? And is it in jeopardy of dying because it's no longer paying attention to the outside world?

Lieberman said how the self disappears when we are in dreamless sleep. So "you" as you think of yourself are essentially nonexistent quite often. One way to look at this state of mind of awareness of lower consciousness is to think of it as being aware of yourself in deep sleep. You would be disconnected from the interfaces to the real world, and, as I said previously with the computer metaphor, be in an introspection mode.

Something Lieberman omitted to mention is the overlap with mindfulness, such as described by Ellen Langer in her various books on the subject.

Lieberman did mention Flow, however I am not convinced by his interpretation that true flow means that the self is not existent. And it doesn't really sync up with his descriptions of being aware of oneself. It seems, in fact, to be two opposite states of of being completely immersed in an interactive cycle with the real world, and the other an internal inspection that is not synced to real world events.

3. The Concept Of Consciousness Having Existed For Billions Of Years In All Things

According to Lieberman:

And consciousness is not something that comes out of the human; it starts at the bottom and is built into the complexity and form of a human.

Now, I totally understand the strategy of trying to turn a concept on its head in order to find a new path for investigation and/or new theories. So when he says this, I am still on board with the general strategy, especially since I'm very interested system-oriented explanations for consciousness and cognition.

Lieberman tells us that this view somehow makes subjective experience much easier to explain. I suppose his talking about perception and whatnot was supposed to support that claim, but I am not grokking it. He could be on the right track, or the presentation may be a shell without enough data and/or theories to fill it in.

He tries briefly to explain this by saying consciousness is composed of "attraction and repulsion." He gives an example of electrons having attraction and repulsion via fields. But I am not sure how that is equivalent to consciousness at any level. He says that at the higher, more complicated, levels of human emotions and thought that, "it's still attraction and repulsion to different informational structures."

Well, that's a nice start, but it's not even close to a real theory. Perhaps Lieberman got this from some other source and/or decided to cut out elaboration in this beta version of his presentation. He seems to have included it as a basic assumption though, weaving it into the presentation at various points. Perhaps he is attached to it because it lets him link every human's mind all the way back to the big bang.

Whatever the case, he could cut this theme out or isolate it, and his historical view of evolution of consciousness is still valuable (and entertaining), and his speculations on the future of consciousness is still reasonable and thought-provoking. Likewise with his suggestions for what religious faiths are about at their unadulterated core.


Hopefully Lieberman isn't gunning to be the next pseudo-scientific spiritual guru. At the very least, talking about future directions of consciousness, especially where we might want to go as a social system, is fruit-worthy.

Image credits:
[1] Discovery Channel
[2] RambergMediaImages