Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger

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11

The Collective Conscious

A sense of collectivity, arising in our minds out of the evolutionary
sense, has imposed a framework of entirely new dimensions upon
all our thinking.
Teilhard de Chardin *

The word conscious is formed from Latin words meaning "knowing things together." In the past two chapters we have spoken of the conscious in relation to analytical psychology, as one of the functional divisions of the total psyche. The conscious is the realm of ordinary awareness, as distinguished from the unconscious realm of which we are usually not aware.

In ordinary circumstances, one is called conscious when one is not sleeping. A person who is sleeping shows no awareness of surroundings. Yet even in sleep, one retains a certain level of responsiveness to surroundings, for one may be awakened by a sudden noise or perhaps a bright light.

The physician who refers to a patient as conscious also refers to a state of awareness. However, in making that judgement the physician must rely entirely on actions or behavior of the patient. The main point is that the patient is not in the clinical state of coma or stupor. Coma is Greek for deep sleep, and is different from ordinary sleep in that the patient is not responsive at all, and may not be awakened. In his classic textbook of neurology, Lord Russell Brain describes the states:

In Jung's model, the ego is a complex (or system of complexes) around which experiences of external sensation cluster. The process involves many different areas of the brain. Maintaining consciousness is not just a matter of neuroanatomy and neuron physiology: it is also a matter of many complicated homeostatic processes, including blood flow, glucose level, hormonal interactions, et cetera.

Organically, consciousness seems to be a function of sensation. There seems to be a separate division of the nervous system concerned with maintaining consciousness. In the spinal cord, ordinary sensory fibers run in defined tracts to connect eventually with the cerebral cortex, where sensory signals are processed. The spinal sensory fibers also give off separate parallel branches which run in an ascending reticular activating system. Deep within the brain they join brain reticular fibers in the central reticular formation. Injuries there can cause coma with a sleep-like electroencephalogram (brain wave tracing). The reticular system seems to act as an alerting system that keeps the brain awake. **

There are occasional brain-injury patients in apparent coma (that is, unable to show any evidence of awareness) who have recovered sufficiently to relate that indeed they had been aware of what happened around them. Similarly, patients who have recovered from near-death situations (such as heart attacks) have reported awareness of the team working over them, even while they were thought by the team to be unconscious. That "consciousness" has often been an "out-of-body" consciousness.

Sometimes it has been followed by a mystical (but seemingly very real and usually very pleasant) experience of a spiritual world. Such descriptions often have features and feelings consistent with Jung's description of the personification of the collective unconscious. **

Sagan speculates that such experiences recall birth-impressions, since a common element of the experiences is emerging from darkness into light, sometimes accompanied by the image of "a heroic figure ... bathed in radiance and glory." * However, the feeling tones reported by such patients are not those that one would expect to accompany the stress of birth. It seems more plausible that such experiences represent the especially vivid workings of the transcendent function, bringing the collective unconscious into the conscious realm of the psyche. *

Of course, it is not yet possible to completely define the conscious and the unconscious biologically. Despite Broca's work, even major motor-sensory functions remain to be mapped. The pioneering neuroanatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal who flourished almost a hundred years ago, reflected:

As predicted, the problem still persists:

We have been using Jung's model of the psyche, but it is important to remember that it is only a model, empirically describing how the psyche seems to work. No one has defined, or so far as I know even proposed, that the anima or the animus resides in any particular nest of neurons. There are studies that suggest a left brain - right brain division of certain functions. On that basis, one may assign intuitive (Eros) functions to the "right brain," and cognitive (Logos) functions to the "left brain," and consider that the right brain is an unconscious parallel processor for the conscious left. However, such a model stops far short of mapping such functions to particular brain tissue. Indeed, the current direction of some research indicates that such specific functions may not be mappable at all, but globally dispersed throughout the brain in a neural net. *

Sir Roger Bannister, who is the revisor of one of the late Lord Brain's textbooks, reminds us of the important distinction between the contents of consciousness and the state of consciousness.

However, the concept of consciousness as awareness of surroundings applies as well to other mammals as to humans. What exactly distinguishes the consciousness of wakefulness and the reflective self-consciousness that characterizes humans remains unknown. Nor can we answer whether the greater leap of brain development from lower primate to human lies in the refinement of mechanisms related to cognitive consciousness, or to those related to the instinctual library of human-ness that is the collective unconscious. Both domains are essential to our human-ness, and it is likely that there is not a concrete biological boundary separating them.


Despite the questions remaining, we can assert that consciousness is the most important aspect of the individual human life. It also seems clear that the formation of consciousness is the single most important step in the history of life. It is the step that permits thought. It is the step that defines mankind as human. It is the step that Teilhard de Chardin calls "hominization," or formation of man:

In accord with his sweeping spiritual view of human evolution, Teilhard sees hominization as being important beyond the concept of the individual human.

Teilhard, who was contemporary with Jung, developed his thought from the standpoint of Christian theology as a priest, and from evolution, as a paleontologist. Though familiar with Jung's thought, as reflected in a conversation near the end of his life, it is not apparent that he was influenced by it. Nevertheless, his views on the evolution of consciousness and on the realm of collective thought mesh beautifully with Jung's work on the collective unconscious. The emergence of consciousness and thought is such an extraordinary aspect of evolutionary creation that Teilhard gives an entirely new concept by which to develop its significance.

The word noosphere is based on the Greek word nous (noos) meaning mind. In the concept of noosphere, we mean far more than common sense or even conventional wisdom. In parallel with Jung's work, one may think of noosphere as the realm of the "collective conscious." * As in dealing with the individual conscious state, we must distinguish the content of the noosphere (knowledge) and the process of the noosphere (thought/consciousness).

Teilhard placed a particularly high value on thought. For him, the evolving of thought was far more significant than the evolving of man's biological form. The noosphere is the collective mind of the biosphere. As the "thinking layer," the noosphere is the special environment of thought and of knowledge in which thought flourishes.

In both philosophy and psychology there has been a tendency to compartmentalize the universe, and to think and act as if thought is an isolated and somewhat unnatural phenomenon. One value of the noosphere concept is that it reminds us of the natural continuity of the world of thought with all the rest of the biological and material world. The noosphere is the realm of those survival ideas of which we spoke earlier. The human species is as subject to selection and adaptation in the noosphere as any species is in the biosphere. In fact, the survival of the biosphere itself now is contingent on our success in cultivating and nurturing the noosphere. In the noosphere too, "all is one," in that no idea can exist in isolation, nor can thought be isolated from the rest of the universe.

Since systems theory has served so well in analyzing the other levels of the universe, it is tempting to try to apply it to the noosphere as well. Since the biological aspect of consciousness is so poorly understood, we can best deal with the system of the noosphere in terms of information theory. Throughout the book, we have used word in many ways, for example as both meaning and idea. Logos is in a sense also "deed" or "act" (that's what got Faust in trouble!), and so is related to energy.

In the computer, word refers to the unit of information. The pulses of electrical energy are stored basically as bits, or off-on signals, but since it takes at least eight bits to code a convenient value, the bits are grouped as bytes and a byte or the grouping of two bytes may be designated as "word." The basic information in the files that I am now using is stored that way -- one file per chapter, one byte ("word") per character, so that the word word takes four words. But my word processor program itself is also stored as computer words. The whole computer world is organized around the idea that words give information as well as control instructions. There, word is deed.

In a way, there's an analogy to the bootstrap theory in physics, that we spoke of in Chapter Six. There, pulses of energy are seen as both operating instruction and basic input, as particles are formed in the field. Maybe it's not stretching things too much to see something similar in the work of DNA in biology. The DNA sequences in the genes carry instructions for the building and maintenance of the body, as well (perhaps) as instinctual information and archetypes somehow incorporated into the unconscious as a substrate for thought. The DNA sequence within the gene is biology's word. Word acts at all levels, and all levels interact as One.


The unit of thought is the idea. The word comes from Plato's thought, in which forms or universals were concepts that existed above and beyond the senses -- concepts like Beauty or Straightness, which one applied in evaluating what one sensed within the material world. The implications continue to unfold in both physics and psychology. Here, I want to use idea in the simple sense of unit of thought. That is closer to the concept held by Descartes, who considered that ideas are "pictures of things." The idea is the word of thought.

In the system of noosphere, the most readily recognized input is the "pictures of things" perceived through the senses from the external world, and it is the processing of these ideas that is the process of thought. However, even the lore of science includes ideas entering consciousness through dreams -- witness Kekule, and Descartes himself whom we mentioned in Chapter Three. Einstein's contributions were thought experiments confirmed only later -- mostly by others -- through experiments "sensing" the external world.

Jung cites the Platonic form or model in tracing the orgins of the concept of archetype. * In Jungian terms, we might see the Platonic idea as a concept existing not "above" but "below" the senses. The unit of thought derives from the archetype. In a lecture dealing with the interface between science and religion, Marie-Louise von Franz says,

Ideas within the noosphere become the "archetypes" which form the nucleus of thought complexes. These are entirely analogous to complexes in Jung's model of the psyche. A thought, communicated to others, generates images and feeling tone which attract or repel. The response of an individual to the idea is determined by the way the collective idea impinges on the knowledge, symbolic images and feeling tone of the individual's own psyche. The individual may join a movement to affirm constructively survival ideas within society. However, all too often, people indiscriminatingly affirm destructive ideas, allowing the collective complex to become an autonomous focus of social energy.

As a part of such a destructive social complex, one may project the destructive energy onto non-believers. People may even affirm ideas which are destructive of self and group, as the mass murder-suicides of the cult in Guyana showed. By contrast, an individual may be appropriately repelled and develop a countering feedback response. Or the individual, even an "objective" scientist, may be inappropriately repelled, and deny constructive advance.

Even in the natural sciences, an idea must fit the individual's existing model of the world. Von Franz relates the story of an elderly scientist at a meeting in which evidence was presented against the cosmic ether. He protested, "If the ether does not exist, then everything is gone!"

The reactions of modern biologists to the Eldredge-Gould theory of punctuated equilibria in evolution confirm von Franz. Gould's reference to "fruitless and acrimonious debate" was a response to just such a collective "excited and fanatical" protest on the part of traditional Darwinists. *

The output of the noosphere, in terms of systems process, is knowledge, expressed in language (word again!). This output (the content of the noosphere) may be stored for timely recall (libraries, data banks), reflected on itself as feedback (books!) to other subsystems in the noosphere, or through technology turned on to other systems of the universe -- into outer space perhaps as spacecraft, into the biosphere affecting other life, or into other geosystems affecting weather and air or water quality, et cetera.

A person's anatomic inheritance is transmitted through the somatic genes which determine the body's structure and function. As we have indicated, the archetypes indicate a psychic inheritance. Perhaps they are transmitted by "psychic genes." (There is an excess of DNA far beyond that needed to account for somatic processes, and some researchers are investigating its potential role in schizophrenia and depression.) However, genes controlling archetypal inheritance are not necessarily distinct from those controlling somatic inheritance. In any case, each is an unconscious inheritance. Each is equally a biological inheritance.

The other great division of a person's inheritance, however, is the content of the collective conscious. That inheritance of knowledge is no less biological in its origins. It is only indirect, and must be apprehended consciously and with some effort, as any student at test time will agree. Education is usually seen as a process in which teachers present a student with the heritage of knowledge. However, if it fulfills the promise of its root words, education will also be the process by which a student learns to "draw out" from the bank of knowledge the full benefits of the inheritance which rightfully belongs to any who would seek it.

A person may contribute genetically to the survival of the species generally only during the first half of life. Though the male's reproductive possibilities do not end at an arbitrary biological limit such as the woman experiences in menopause, most men, as women must, reproduce only during the first half of life. Any genetic "experiments" that have resulted from conception must be selected as "fit" during that first half of the individual's life.

A consideration of the noosphere, however, reminds us that a person's contribution to the survival of the species is by no means limited to sexual reproduction. An individual's contributions in reproducing survival ideas may be an even more important selective force for the survival of human (and other) species, than the individual's genetic product can be. Further, the genetic diversity of human life is important not merely to provide a more favorable pool of genes; it fosters the equally important selective value of diversity in the pool of survival ideas.

The nurturing of the noosphere is the nurturing of knowledge. Carl Sagan gives us a compelling example of the necessity for nurturing knowledge and protecting it as he recounts the massive impact of the loss of the ancient library at Alexandria. That catastrophic fire was followed by a Dark Age in Western civilization.

One of the most important survival considerations within the collective conscious (noosphere) is the idea, or attitude, of respect for knowledge. In our search for a universal (systems) worldview we have sought to go beyond the limitations of the scientific worldview defined in Chapter Three. However, by no means have we sought to go beyond science. The systems worldview must fully affirm the power of science, in which reason is confirmed in experience, as the major contributor to knowledge.

Reason provides, of course, that the collective conscious must deal with the collective unconscious; it must harmonize inner aspirations and understandings with sensations of experience of the outer world. The systems worldview must remain rooted in a science that is both renewed and reaffirmed.


A systems worldview is often discussed in popular literature as "wholistic," or "holistic." It is the worldview of the universe as a wholeness that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a living system. However, from personal bias but also hoping to avoid engendering even further confusion, I have tried so far to avoid the term holistic. Unfortunately, the term has been conscripted by advocates of what I would consider a pseudo-holism, especially in the field of health care. A holism that denies science and the lessons of the collective conscious, in its zeal to affirm the unconscious, is false.

"Holistic medicine" is commonly considered the realm of alternative medicine, in which material deriving from the psyche is often given ascendency over science. Norman Cousins skeptically recounts typical exhibits at conferences on "holistic health:"

Of course, some of these techniques may be usefully applied to human problems. Indeed, provision of adequate nutrition to the whole world is one of the most compelling ethical concerns of our time. However, healing techniques must be applied with due consideration for the process of affirming knowledge.

At this point, the potential for advances in understanding of healing of the whole person seems unlimited. In the systems worldview, all processes are natural, including human imagination. Technology and the workings of the unconscious are both part of the natural phenomenon of life on the planet.

In seeking new understandings of the healing process and new human understanding in medicine, we must stay within the ethical tradition of research and evaluation, and avoid competing cultist approaches. A renewed medical profession, so sorely needed, must be grounded in and committed to the needs and realities of the psyche, but it must not deny the birthright of its scientific tradition within the collective conscious.

Even so, modern skeptical "scientific" medicine provides a particularly good example of what von Franz was speaking of above. We tend to get "excited and fanatical" when presented with evidence as that showing that prayer reduces complication rates, and other evidence which does not "fit the frame." However, confronted with evidence such as that, and with the evidence from physics and psychology of the "larger frame" of a nonlocal reality, evidence-based mainstream medicine is coming increasingly to understand the value of integrative medicine, in which body-mind-spirit are treated as a true unity. **


Another great concern within the noosphere is making a proper distinction between knowledge and belief. In Chapter Ten, we considered the problems for society when ego-level religion confronts science, which by its nature is predominantly an ego-level activity. Science, in its collective conscious, must not attempt to suppress the spiritual values of mankind. Society must insure that its technology serves the biosphere. Society must not capitulate to technology's seemingly inherent imperative to operate as an autonomous complex out of control of ethical interactions.

If the collective conscious must make distinctions to avoid a conflict of science versus religion, it must also be careful to avoid allowing science to function AS religion. Dr. Carl Sagan, in television's Cosmos series and in his books, is a master teacher, presenting the urgencies of mastering our potential for knowledge, and promoting the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Such a search holds promise of great adventure. Yet, with an almost religious intensity, that adventure is presented as holding potential for learning new solutions to mankind's problems. Another spokesman, in a preface to a book projecting manned exploration of the stars, also wistfully seeks fulfillment of mankind's potential.

Viewed from the perspective of collective psyche, such impulses seem primarily to be projections from a neglected collective unconscious. That many have lost the gods from our collective conscious does not mean that they are dead. Exploration of human potential is most importantly pursued here on this globe. Human fulfillment at the global level parallels that of the individual psyche: We must bring the collective unconscious into collective consciousness, and deal equitably with the claims of both science and religion.



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