The Evolution of Consciousness - the esoteric dimension

the evolution of consciousness

This page contains some of my metaphysical musings on the elvolution consciousness...


The Fallacy of Judaeo-Christian-Materialistic Thinking

The Judaeo-Christian religions - and scientific-materialistic ideas derived from them - are completely wrong when they assume that it is "only man who has a soul" or cosnciousness.

It is a fact that consciousness is universal throughout nature, and developed consciousness is found in all organisms with a developed nervous system.

It is useless to argue this position one or the other, because the rational mind unaided can never attain to the Truth.  Rather I present this statement as a self-evident fact which one can accept or reject, according to one's own opinions.


Rudolph Steiner's theory of Consciousness

In Steiner's evolutionary cosmology, the four classical "kingdoms" of nature determined ac-cording to their presence or absence of the various subtle principles:
                                      Astral Body     Astral Body
                      Etheric Body    Etheric Body    Etheric Body
      Physical body   Physical body   Physical body   Physical body
          Mineral        Plant         Animal         Human
         ("Coma")     (Deep sleep)     (Dream)        (Waking)
Thus, in this simplistic theory, the Mineral has a physical body alone, the Plant a physical and an etheric body, and so on.   Notice that only man is considered to have an "Ego" (Steiner means by this term soul or self-consciousness).  Here we see Steiner's prejudice; in spite of his evolutionary and theosophical ideas he was unable to break free of his conservative Chistian roots.  Yet although his theory is a very simplistic way of looking at things, it is in agreement with the paradigm that evolution involves the incorporation of progressively more and greater psychic faculties as well.

The following table lists some of Steiner's correspondences:

Conceptual life 
Head Wakefulness Astral body 
(note: I would put "Mental body" here)
[Cosmic intellect]
Feeling  Torso Dreaming Etheric body 
(I would put "Emotional body" here)
[Cosmic love and individuation]
Will  Limbs Deep Sleep Physical body "Ahriman" 
Materialism, Power

This table is only partially compatable with the preceeding diagram.  Inconsistences such as these are common in Steiner's teachings.  Nevertheless there is the interesting correspondence of somatic elements with elements of consciousness.

Steiner, Jung, and MacLean

Steiner's three-fold classification of the human  psycho-physiological functioing opens the way to a  number of other similiar analyses.  For a start, I  cannot resist making a connection with Jung.  Although Steiner has nothing corresponding to Jung's  Sensation and Intuition ego-faculties (Jung's  "irrational" ego-functions), and although Jung makes no mention of Will in his dial, there is a clear  connection between Steiner's Conceptual  life and  Jung's Thinking faculty, and between the Feeling  faculty of both.  It is as if with Steiner and with Jung we have two distinct, yet also overlapping,  diagrams of the psyche's faculties.

Another obvious parallel is with evolutionary-neurological theory of Paul MacLean.  MacLean divided the brain into  three layers: "reptilian brain" (or Brainstem), tied  up with instincts and ritualistic activity, hence "Will"; Limbic system, the old mammalian brain, which pertains to emotional responses, hence,  "Feeling"; and the Neocortex, the part of the brain concerned with thought.

Again, Steiner's three-fold psychology can be identified with the theosophical-occult idea of "subtle  bodies", especially the Astral, Emotional, and Mental.

Although these various principles may not always  match up, the correlation is still fairly close.  So  we have the following synthesis:

Steiner   Jung      MacLean         Theosophy
Thought   Thinking  Neocortex      Mental body
Feeling   Feeling   Limbic system  Emotional body
Willing      --     Brainstem      Etheric body
  --       Sensation   --          Physical body
The MacLean three-brain system is the manifestation  of this on the physical level, and, I would suggest,  the Jungian ego-functions the manifestation of this  on the mental level.
Extending this pattern to the other subtle  bodies, we have the following (the faculties of the  Etheric body are not shown, but are presumably like  the Physical):
              M e n t a l    B o d y
          Willing -- Feeling -- THINKING
            E m o t i o n a l    B o d y
          Willing -- FEELING -- Thinking
            E t h e r i c     B o d y
          WILLING -- Feeling -- Thinking
            P h y s i c a l    B o d y
          Willing -- Feeling -- Thinking
          Reptilian  Limbic      Neocortex


Consciousness, the Brain, and the Subtle Bodies

All organisms (not just humans) possess a series of subtle bodies in various states of development.
In higher animals the best way to consider the evolution of the subtle bodies is in their relationship with the physical brain.  Here there is a two-way feedback; on the one hand psyche deter-mines brain-structure, on the other brain-structure determines psyche.

Each of the subtle bodies - although not  possessing a specific physical location, would func-tion primarily through a particular part of the brain and the body as a whole.

So the Mental body or individualised  thoughts and intellect of an individual manifest  primarily through the neocortex, and also through  the nervous system as a whole.  The neocortex or  "grey matter" is the physical "receiver" and expres-sor of thought, whilst the thought-stuff itself  flows around the head in a sort of halo, as represented for example in drawings of saints and in Aboriginal cave paintings.

The Emotional body express itself through the Limbic System of the brain, the sympathetic and  parasympathetic nervous system, the Endocrine glands, and perhaps also the internal organs in  general (the "gut feeling", the "heart", and so on).

And the Etheric body, with its much more primitive level of consciousness, could be tied in with the  ritualistic, instinctive, "old brain" or Reptian "brainstem" functioning, .

This can be shown as follows:

                 M e n t a l    W o r l d
Mental Body-----------------------------------------|
                 E m o t i o n a l    W o r l d     |
Emotional Body---------------------|                |
                   E t h e r i c   | W o r l d      |
Etheric Body-------------|         |                |
physical Psyche:      Instincts  Emotions      Intellect
Brain stratum        "Reptilian"  Limbic        Neocortex
 On the left-hand side of the chart are the various gross and subtle bodies.  These higher principles, although originating from  the substance of their own higher (less material) worlds, are grounded in the physical body and the  three-fold physical brain, and function at the  physical level to produce "physical consciousness".

And since the brain itself has evolved through  time, with certain parts appearing earlier in the  evolutionary record than others, this indicates that  the various subtle bodies which express themselves  through those brain levels also appeared consecu-tively in the evolutionary sequence.

It can be assumed that there would have occured a  kind of feedback between the physical and the non-physical.  So for example the pressure of the Emotional body caused the expansion of the Limbic system; the pressure of the Mental body the expansion of the neocortex.  The growth of the Limbic  system then generated impetus for the increase of  the Emotional body ; the growth of the neocortex for  the expansion of the Mental body.

So we can assume then that a full mental body ap-peared along with a full neocortex, with the  primates; and so on with the other subtle bodies in  their corresponding evolutionary levels.  This can  be represented diagrammaticaly as follows:

             .                 :               *          Mental Body
             *         Hi Emotion Body       H.Emot.b.    H.Emot.b.
  Lower Emotion Body      L.Emot.b.          L.Emot.b.    L.Emot.b.
      Physical body          Phy.b.          Phy.b.       Phy.b.
         Instincts         Instincts         Emotions     Intellect
         Brainstem         Reptilian         Limbic       Neocortex
It can also be stated here that there is no reason why evolution should cease with the human species.  And indeed, neither the scientist nor the esotericist claims it does.  So just as in a reptile or a primitive mammal the mental body is very embryonic, but it is developed in man, so in man the higher mental and spiritual bodies are embryonic (or even non-existent), but would perhaps be developed  in a few, more spiritual race or species of being; assuming of course that human greed and stupidity does not destroy all higher life before then.

I would also like to point out that what is  being referred in the above figure is the full development of a particular subtle body.  So it is  not the case that the reptiles say, possess no mental body, but only that its mental body is very embryonic.  These undeveloped subtle bodies are indicated by dots, etc,

Somatic Consciousness and the Metazoan Body-plan

Three things characterise Metazoa (multicelluar animals), distinguishing them from other life-forms (e.g. plants, sponges, etc).

First, because animals cannot process their own food (like plants can), and are too large to assimilate it directly into their body (as  microoganisms do),  there is need for a digestive  tract.
Because cilia are no longer sufficent to allow the multicelluar animal to move around so as to  procure food, escape enemies, mate, and so on,  muscle cells are necessary.  And to co-ordinate the muscle cells and  other body parts, there is a nervous system.  [Lawrence Dillon, Animal Variety, p.42 (1970, Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers)].

These are the three biological inventions  that gave Metazoa the advantage over other life- forms, enabling them to become the dominant life-form.

This much has been revealed by science.  But  when we look beyond the physical to the other fac-tors involved, we see that these three biological inventions correspond to the three primary psychic -  or psycho-physical - functions of Thinking, Feeling, and Willing.

According to Steiner, man possesses three psycho-physiological functions: Thinking, Feeling, and Willing.  Thinking is associated with the head,  Feeling with the torso, and Willing with the limbs.  Steiner thus saw man as a rhythmic being, with three different forces active, expressed and  focused in three different sections of the body.

This three-fold psychology can be identified  with the theosophical-occult idea of "subtle bodies", especially the Etheric, Emotional and Mental.  The following table lists some of these  correspondences:

Metazoan body plan
Steiner on Human nature 
subtle body
 Nervous system
Mental body
Respiratory and Digestive system 
Emotional body
Muscular system 
Etheric body

What this means is that the various psychic  levels incarnate in, and are grounded in, the or-ganism through these particular parts of its physical being.  Of course, these psychic levels by no means constitute the full development of a particular subtle body, but only the embryonic beginnings.  This rudimentary development is still very much caught up in physical-somatic existence.  So what we have is a very simple Mental Body and a very simple Emotional Body.  This dim consciousness is con-stantly pervaded and ensouled by the inflowing con-sciousness of the overshadowing deva; it is not so  much an individual as a collective consciousness containing the seeds of individuality.

Each of these body types thus embodies one of the triblastic layers, and the corresponding psychic faculty that that layer embodies or expresses.

Metazoan body plan
Human physiognomy 
mode of consciousness
subtle body
Ectoderm (Skin & Nervous system)
Mental body
Endoderm (Coelom & Digestive system) 
Emotional body
(Muscular system) 
Mesodomorph (Somatotonic)
Etheric body

The coelom seems to have developed independently a number of times.  The various ediacarian worms all evolved from a acoelomate ancestors.   Today, the flatworm and other such humble invertebrates are at least to some extent "living  fossils" that indicate something of these ancestors.

The Subtle Bodies and the Ego-Functions

The various subtle bodies can be matched with the  psychological functions of Thinking, Feeling, and  Willing.  Basically, each of the psychological  faculties are more or less equivalent to one of the three higher "subtle bodies".  So the three active  ego-functions - Thinking, Feeling, and Willing - can  be identified with the Mental, Emotional, and Etheric bodies.  So we "think" through our mental body, "feel" through our emotional body, and "will" (or  motivate ourselves) through our etheric body.
Pure Concept or Image     Thinking    Mental body
       |                  Feeling     Emotional body
Pure Energy or Action     Willing     Etheric body
But each of these faculties recur on each  level (as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky put it "each faculty is divided into sub-faculties").  So there  is for example a thinking-thinking, a feeling-thinking, and a willing-thinking.  And because these  faculties occur on every level, there is interaction  and mutual shaping between all the "vehicles of consciousness".  The various evolutionary levels of  the brain is the manifestation of this on the physi-cal level, and the Jungian ego-functions the  manifestation of this on the mental level.

Sensation and Intuition - the orientation of con-sciousness towards physical reality or towards psychic reality - are not shown in this diagram, as they are not so much psychic faculties as repre-sentative of the direction the psychic energy and  the consciousness takes.  They will be considered  seperately, in relation to the psychic worlds.

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page history

page uploaded 19 June 1998
revised a little bit 13 April 1999
modified again 19 May