The following interview was conducted by Gary's publisher, Lindisfarne Books, in 2003, concurrent with the publication of his A Secret History of Consciousness.
The subject of human consciousness deals with the essence of being human. It seems to be an extremely broad subject. What led you to write about this topic? Why a secret history of consciousness?
Well, for many people familiar with Rudolf Steiner and other similar thinkers, this history may not seem that secret at all. I was troubled by a very strong movement in mainstream studies of the mind and brain to explain consciousness. This, like so much in modern science, really means to explain away, with the ultimate aim of gaining control over consciousness. It struck me that there is no such thing as an abstract,free-floating consciousness, always only your consciousness or my consciousness. If mainstream neuroscience wants to explain consciousness, what that amounts to is explaining you or me. For a number of reasons I find this troubling. So I decided to put together an account of several alternative views of consciousness, none of which aim to explain it, but instead try in different ways to grasp its living essence, you might say. I should point out that there are several such secret histories. Mine is shaped by my reading and experience, but Im sure many people could add to it. Hence I called the book A Secret Historyof Consciousness, not The.
Consciousness, being invisible, is usually spoken of in abstract, vague terms — even as a mere artefact of physical brain activity. How is it possible to trace the development of consciousness from,say, ancient Egypt to today? For example, how would you say the world appeared to ancient Egyptians or Greeks in contrast to us today?
In the book I talk about something I call mindprints. These are the impressions the human mind has made on the world around it. As consciousness is immaterial — it doesnt weigh anything, nor does it occupy space, and so on — it is through human artefacts that the history of consciousness can be traced.
One of the writers I discuss, Owen Barfield, traced the history of consciousness through language [History in English Words]. I think practically anything that has felt the influence of human hands can be used; Arthur Zajoncs book Catching The Light can be read as an exercise in surveying the history of consciousness through our differing ideas and relations to light. Earlier thinkers, like the philosopher Henri Bergson, who I also discuss, saw the effects of consciousness in the evolution of life itself. One way to see how the ancient Egyptians or Greeks differed from us is by recognizing that, for them, consciousness had little to do with the head or brain, as it does for us.
For the Egyptians, the seat of consciousness was the heart; for the Greeks it was the diaphragm. The standard view is to look at these quaint ideas and shake our heads at the misguided notions of our ancestors. This, I think, is incorrect. There is a good argument that the Egyptians and Greeks thought as they did about consciousness because their consciousness was different from ours.
Is there a difference between the world we perceive and whats really there, before any perceptual representation? Is it realistic to speak of really there without the presence of human consciousness? For example, you quote Owen Barfield as saying that the actual evolution of the earth we know must have been at the same time an evolution of consciousness. What does this mean in terms of our perception of the world?
This is a standard mind-numbing exercise, in the same league as If a tree fell in a forest and no one was there, would it make a sound? I am increasingly of the opinion — and it can be only an opinion, as no one can ever know for sure — that it is unintelligible to speak of a world that is really there in the way we usually do. I dont believe the mind creates reality, but it does create the picture of reality we see. What is really there, I believe, doesnt look like anything. It is only through a consciousness — yours, mine, a birds, possibly a sunflowers — that what is really there begins to take on features.
Consciousness shapes what is really there, but we, I think, can never see what is really there when we are not looking at it. So, the world we see is the way it is because we are the way we are. If we alter our consciousness, the world alters, too. This lands us with a very heavy responsibility, as the world will more and more come to resemble our ideas about it.
Two frequently mentioned names in your book are those of Jean Gebser and Rudolf Steiner. How would you distinguish their views of the history of human consciousness?
Briefly, where Steiner speaks of epochs, Gebser talks of structures of consciousness. Steiner is also very forthcoming about the character of existence, age sbefore anything resembling us appeared. Gebser, while remarking that symbols like the yin-yang existed before the earth, does not go into great detail about this curious stage in time. But in a very important sense, many of their ideas about the evolution of consciousness are very similar. Steiners Old Moon consciousness, and Gebsers mythical structure of consciousness are, I think, almost identical, aside from some differences in the time periods involved. This argues that they were both mapping out the same new terrains of consciousness. I find this exciting, as exciting as hearing of two different explorers confer on their separate travels in a very strange terra incognita.
Finally, you end on the subject of time. What is the significance of time and consciousness?
In many ways, time and consciousness seem intimately related. When we are unconscious, we are unaware of the passage of time — likewise, when we become deeply absorbed in some activity. The opposite is also true; when we are bored, five minutes seem like ages. Time, I think, is not a single thing. There is historical time, our own subjective, inner time — what Bergson called duration; there is the time of growing plants and the time of rotating galaxies. I end the book with a discussion of time, because practically all of the thinkers I investigate argue that the next shift in consciousness will involve a radical alteration in our experience of time. Many thinkers have said this, starting with the end of the nineteenth century: Nietzsche, Bergson, Ouspensky, Steiner, as well as Gebser and contemporary philosophers like Barfield and Colin Wilson. I think that, on a sociological level, there is ample evidence that the last twenty-five years has shown such an alteration. Something as obvious as the increased rapidity of life itself is sufficient to suggest it, as is the development of the information superhighway and all that business. I think we need to focus on how we can surf these changes and not be swamped by them, and through this we will, I believe, be intimately and immediately involved in helping the next shift in the secret history of consciousness take placein a positive way. What we need to remember — and what I hope I make clear in the book — is that we already have the ability to take an active part in the evolution of consciousness. It isnt something that happens to us, or at least it neednt be. Simply focusing on this possibility, and becoming aware of the creative power of our own minds, can achieve remarkable results.
Gary Lachman's A Secret History of Consciousness is available here.
Image by Ralph Buckley, courtesy of Creative Commons license