A Universe of Epic Complexity, Creativity & Consciousness. WTF?
Have you ever stopped to marvel – and I mean really marvel – at the mind-bending reality that a creature as crazily-complex as you has evolved into a universe that mainstream science suggests is a total fluke because it ‘should’ have evaporated a moment after the Big Bang. That’s not all. Then a creature as crazily-complex as me can consciously choose to share big ideas like these with you through words, on this screen, amidst a culture jammed full of complex creations that both come from, and engage, our billions of self-creating (or autopoetic) neurones?
Speaking at my first ever academic conference last week, Towards A Science of Consciousness – “the largest and longest-running interdisciplinary conference emphasizing broad and rigorous approaches to the study of conscious awareness” – reminded me of the time when I first fully grokked this majesty in its full enormity. The insanity of it all – that all this creative complexity on this 3rd rock away from a small sun in a backwater of an ever-expanding universe – almost sent me over the edge of my own sanity when teaching science to kids in rural Africa, aged 18.
I remember the moment where I looked over the edge of the proverbial abyss of madness after spinning out at the yet endlessly beguiling question one evening: Why? Why is there creativity in the form of life… and why am I conscious of it all? I was brought to my knees on the yellow ochre sand of the Zimbabwean bush. I made a conscious choice to step away from the edge and start searching for firm ground through, first, Western philosophy and scientific study at Cambridge University; and then, thankfully, healing my own heart and investigating my own consciousness and creativity through wisdom and practice.
This self-same question is arguably the ground-zero of all philosophy. But the lack of firm answers is also a challenge to the scientific worldview that is currently embedded in our society. Standard evolutionary theory cannot fully explain the creation of DNA, RNA, amino acids and proteins; ‘epigenetic’ changes in our DNA; and increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection. Nor can it explain why or how life appeared in the first place. The 2nd law of thermodynamics states clearly that over time, nature tends towards more disorder and, eventually, heat death. Yet human beings create things, including ourselves, that are consistently more complex and more ordered than anything ever seen in history. In the words of world-renowned physicist Sean Carroll:
We know there’s a law of nature, the second law of thermodynamics, that says that disorderliness grows with time. Is there another law of nature that governs how complexity evolves? … Embarrassingly enough, we don’t even know how to define this problem yet.
Writing and researching Switch On brought me right back to these profound mysteries. I spent a decade exploring, through everyday practice and deep inquiry, how can we reliably and consistently unleash our full creative potential to break through persistent psychological, emotional, practical and societal problems. I have ridden (and continue to ride) across the ranges of human knowledge, ingesting and digesting the latest science – from how stress impacts our brain to the biology of athletic performance – and then painstakingly integrating all this with timeless insights from the wisdom traditions, such as Stoicism, Sufism and Buddhism.
I discovered with glee that virtually every sutra and science journal slots into a rigorous framework, a ‘Theory of Everything’ for human thriving. This framework, which I have called Breakthrough Biodynamics, unifies insights from empirical observation and inner contemplation, inspired by the desire to empower us all to cause transformative changes in any human system with purpose. The ‘bio’ reminds us that all our creative breakthroughs come via our warm, wet, fleshy human brains and bodies.
I believe that nothing is more important than the capacity to solve problems with creativity. Simply looking at the data on depression, stress, divorce, unemployment, disengagement, climate change, education, resource wars and public services suggest we will all need to hone this skill if we want to thrive. It is only when we generate life- and world-changing breakthroughs and sustain them in the face of old habits, assumptions and fears that we can resolve them. Yet knowing how to unleash creativity is not the same as understanding why it is there in the first place. At some point during my research, a breakthrough in this question emerged… one that may shed some light upon the mysteries of life, creativity and complexity in our universe.
In a moment of epiphany, I realised that the process I take individuals through to first heal past pain and then create a purpose-driven life, maps exactly onto the process I take organisations on when they want to create breakthrough innovations that radically solve social or environmental problem. The same shape then emerged in my work teaching storytelling to leaders; and the toolkit my consultancy developed to create disruptive idea. An archetypal journey from problem through to possibility emerges, one that challenges the idea of simple, gradual, linear progress completely. This archetypical process – The Breakthrough Curve – is the shape of a J:
To move from A (problem) to B (creative possibility) we must first go through C (breakthrough). In other words, true creativity is non-linear. We first have to allow things to fall apart a little, surrendering old and outdated habits, ideas, assumptions and emotional traumas… before we can enjoy a break through that brings a more appropriate and creative way of being / thinking / doing into reality. Before we can consciously create and sustain a better business model, social program, way of talking to our partner or way of raising our kids, we must first release the old; which can feel terrifying, extremely difficult and strange.
The release of what we know to cause a breakthrough is even more challenging in a hegemonic Westernised global culture (a heady blend of scientific positivism and capitalist extraction) which prioritises and rewards the gains, accumulations and certainties of the via positiva, the upside of the curve… and actively disparages and denigrates the spiritual quest of the via negativa, which necessitates surrender, release and the vanquishing of the ego’s desire to always be right. Small wonder that in a recent study of 24 Nobel laureates, all of them said they had papers rejected by mainstream scientific journals which proposed the ideas that would later win them the Nobel Prize!
Piecing together the few neuroscience studies of people in truly creative states, this journey appears to be mirrored by how the brain behaves during truly creative states. As we begin to experience creative flow, our brain becomes less controlling, less conveniently smart, less reliant on the cerebral cortex:
Curiously, we can also see the tripartite process (A-C-B) of breakthrough in the ancient symbol of the Trimurti, found in Hindi cosmology. It’s an image of the Absolute that is made up of 3 gods: Shiva (the destroyer), Brahma (the creator) and Vishnu (the preserver). They neatly make up the down (destroy the old), across (create the new) and up (turn the new into reality) elements of the ‘J’. Here is a beautiful wooden Trimurti image:
This what not the only analogue for the J-shaped Breakthrough Curve. I started to see them all over the place – such as how stories are crafted in Hollywood movies, how capital is invested in start-ups and how dictatorships like those in Egypt or Syria transition to democracy. Knowing that these kinds of pattern-finding frenzies happen rarely in a person’s life, I have collected together all these instances and started to decode them. Naively, I thought I would share my findings on all this excitement as an epilogue to Switch On. Yet what was meant to be a small chapter started to expand. So the bold conjectures in this essay are the bare bones of a follow-up book that goes deeper. Time to lift up the bonnet of Breakthrough Biodynamics and see how the engine works.
The key feature of every Breakthrough Curve is that the place where we end up after ‘riding’ the curve, fits better with the constantly-changing environment we find ourselves in; and so is more likely to afford us the ability to thrive. We move from a problem, which we can also describe as a state of being where we lack a good fit with our context, probably because it has changed (I.e. we have less fittedness)… to a creative possibility, which is a state of more fittedness to our environment where we are able to flourish as times change.
Fittedness is not the same as evolutionary fitness (which is itself poorly defined). It is not about being strong and selfish; it is about being responsive, flexible, creative and adaptive. Whether it is the hero of a movie ending the narrative having saved the day; or a former dictatorship that has achieved stable democracy, the end result is qualitatively more likely to ensure we thrive. This difference we can define as ?T, the Thrive Difference:
The wisdom of the Curve tells us that we get a higher ?T the deeper we are prepared to go into the root causes of our problems in order to transform them. This means penetrating to the hidden order of things, at the edge of chaos, to come back with a breakthrough that will help us thrive. We excavate into the deeper layers – the underlying beliefs, emotional traumas, negative memories, philosophical assumptions and spiritual relationships – that are causing us to lack fittedness and so experience problems:
Now things get far more interesting for positive breakthroughs do not happen by chance alone. Far from it. In fact, every time I work with either organisations and people to help them tap into their creativity consciously – as long as they ensure fear and pain are not clouding their hearts and minds – the ideas that come out always bring more fittedness, or ‘thrivability’, into the space they are operating in. Thrivability can be defined as ideas and actions that open up the possibility for more people, in more ways, to flourish not just despite life’s problems, but because of them. What I believe this means is that, somehow, we are geared towards increased thrivability: whether we call that complexity, creativity or consciousness.
You can see thrivability emerging whenever we unleash our conscious creativity. Do it in business, with the environment becoming ever more networked and digital, and you soon get ideas like AirBnB or Indiegogo, which allow us all to share, connect and collaborate in ways we would never have done otherwise (and helps many people thrive, not just the Venture Capitalists and owners). Do it in society, which is ever more transparent, as we soon get social enterprises, co-operatives and ideas like kiva.org which fit better than centralised public services in a a world where our gifts and needs are distributed. Do it in our private lives and we can engage an recalcitrant boss with empathy; find a new way to reach out to an irate lover; or work out a way to compassionately tell our kids they can’t have a packet of Haribo candy without them getting the hump.
Should this be true, and I am convinced it is simply by the weight of lived experience and years of empirical evidence, then it fundamentally challenges the essence of Western scientific orthodoxy. The latter states that the universe is a heartless place that cares nothing – I mean zero – whether we, or any of the insects and pebbles, have a good life or not. Our thrivability should make no difference to the particles and waves that constitute our shared reality. In fact, mainstream science goes even further to say that all the thrivability we see in plants in the rainforest, teeming fish in a coral reef and the creativity at a festival like Burning Man has come about purely by evolutionary fluke. The narrative is that we just happen to have lucked out on a gazzillion-to-one bet that a world like ours evolved for us to create in.
This disenchantment of our world began during the Scientific Revolution. The popularisers of Isaac Newton’s mechanics (Newton himself was both mechanist and leading mystical alchemist, believing that God ‘injected’ creativity into the world when we need it) decided that everything could simply be reduced to the movements of atoms and molecules, ripping any magic out of the cosmos. As such, assuming we knew all the movings of all the parts, the world should be utterly predictable. Today, people who base their worldview only on science, a position called scientism, believe that if we look hard enough, we can understand all the laws of the universe and so predict and control all of nature. This left us all, I believe, yearning for meaning in a universe we are told doesn’t have any.
Darwinian evolution and 20th Century cosmology came along to complete the disenchantment by showing that not only is everything in life reducible to physics… but that the cosmos evolved randomly. Yet there seem to be a glaring contradiction in this: How can there be no gambling in physics (because everything is caused by something else in a predictable, lawful way)… yet our entire existence is purely down to a crazily-unlikely cancellation just after the Big Bang (which led to a universe forming at all instead of implosion); and a whole lot of totally chance mutation occurring cellular replication which has led to us?
The beginnings of a resolution to this may come from the realm of quantum mechanics, which broke through the old paradigm of physics (but not yet fully biology, which is still massively deterministic) by saying that, for very small things (like electrons and protons), we can’t actually be certain of where one is unless we measure it. In fact, it is everywhere and nowhere until we decide to look at it and ‘ask nature a question’ (which is the essence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Paul Dirac’s work showed that the answers we get back seem to be random. Einstein was particularly vexed by this, saying:
Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the “Old One.” I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] is not playing at dice. Albert Einstein
Yet my work has shown that perhaps both are true. What if some things are certain and predictable, for example the habits of a lifetime that inform whether we reach for a coffee / cake / crack pipe or not. And yet other things, like a moment when we choose to suddenly fly to New York on a whim, develop a new painting style like Cubism or, conceivably, impact how our genes methylate, are not predictable. What if there is some lawfulness, as the mechanists believe; but also some unpredictability, which is what allows genuine novelty into our world. So incremental, gradual linear progression occurs (as evolutionary theory tells us); as well as big, bold non-linear breakthroughs which may come from within the infinite field of quantum possibility. This is a gateless gate; an uncausing cause.
So God doesn’t just play dice.. but she plays with loaded dice.
Yet this still does not fully account for the relentless expansion of consciousness, complexity and creativity that every one of us represents; and it does not explain why thrivability is increased when we consciously create. The only answer that I can infer is that there must be some kind of basic ‘orientation’ in the universe that is geared towards better, more thrivable, more fitted, outcomes. This tendency must underpin all reality. So God doesn’t just play dice.. but she plays with loaded dice. So there are quantum fluctuations that look random… but some kind of tendency leads them to generate arrangements that move towards more thrivability.
This ‘tendency’ for creativity to build more and more elegant and complex creations until it reaches us conscious creators – that I believe we can all harness when we are consciously creative, with the right tools and techniques to smooth the process – bucks the axiomatic laws of mainstream, mechanistic cosmology. This dangerous little idea challenges the dominant paradigm of the atheist intelligentsia and has the power to reconfigure the intellectual stage on which all our lives are played out. In fact, it re-enchants a cosmos that was thoroughly gutted of magic by the Scientific Revolution without recourse to religion.
After some deep study into the intellectual history of the West, I realised I am anything but alone seeing some kind of form in the universe (and so hopefully won’t get charged with intellectual heresy). Many great thinkers have posited some kind of essential organising intelligence in the universe, some kind of self-organising ‘force, without needing it to be an Intelligent Designer or God-like entity. In rough chronological order, here are some of the most notable:
Michelangelo’s ‘angel in the marble’
Leibniz’s ‘pre-established harmony’
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s ‘ur-phänomen’
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ‘force that perpetually tend to make order’
Carl Jung’s ‘archetypes’
These are all pretty heavyweight folk, all believing in some underlying organisation to the world that I would say tends towards creativity, complexity and fittedness. More recently, contemporary, cutting-edge scientists like the late physicist David Bohm, biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon at UC Berkeley, biological mathematician Jonathan England at MIT, renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake and Stuart Kauffman at the Institute for Systems Biology have all begun reaching for scientifically-informed mechanisms that are more interesting and beguiling than mere chance and can explain evolutionary creativity and complexity.
David Bohm, one of the great theoretical physicists of the last century, believed in ‘hidden variables’ which are connected to a background, folded up ‘implicate order’ which unfolds as quantum uncertainties become reality in the ‘explicate order’. Terrence Deacon suggests that there is a drive to re-organise life in non-random directions, ‘ratcheting up‘ towards more complexity both via uphill and downhill change (the J shape again). Jonathan England has proposed a theory of ‘resonant adaptation’ where by evolution accelerates towards creativity and complexity because it is driven by vibrational frequencies found in nature, allowing an organism to dissipate more of the sun’s energy through structure / order. This idea of vibrational alignment can be seen in Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance, where complexity is driven by memories of past complexity. Stuart Kauffman has proposed that we get ‘order for free’ in a universe must be a ‘partially lawless‘ place for novelty to enter into it.
This chimes with the ideas of Kurt Gödel, who stated formally there is a inherent incompleteness in all mathematical systems. It take this to confirm that there is a logical gap in the physical laws, which is presumably where genuine creativity comes from, from nothing. There is a rich mythic history of this idea, which is symbolised in the powerful cross-cultural icon of Trickster (E.g. Coyote, Eshu, Brer Rabbit, Loki) who, in the words of author Lewis Hyde, “Makes This World”. Here is low-down from pioneering physicist of Quantum Bayesianism, Christopher Fuchs, who says:
If you have it in your heart — and not everyone does — that the real message of quantum mechanics is that the world is loose at the joints, that there really is contingency in the world, that there really can be novelty in the world, then the world is about possibilities all the time, and quantum mechanics ties them together.
This ‘loose-at-the-jointness’ is what allows the background organising information to burst through into the observable, Actual World from the Possible World of the quantum ground of all being. This may happen through some kind of contextual resonances and drives; what we might call ‘strange attractors‘ that guide a system to self-organise towards a more complex, creative and, perhaps, even fitted state. In other words, is there is a J-shaped Breakthrough Curve etched into the entangled fabric of the cosmos, even more fundamental than spacetime? This might explain why we see it in fractal form at so many different scales of reality. It could even begin to help us understand why we got a Big Bang (or a Big Bounce) and not just a Big Phlump. Ie. Why was there such totally improbable cosmological fine-tuning to create a set of constants that allow protons, planets and people to exist rather than have everything dissipate into nothing?
Breakthrough Biodynamics could also provide insight into how we might bring about a reformation of evolutionary theory, something we need given the mounting evidence that the conventional story of solely gradual (as opposed to non-linear, breakthrough) change through simply random mutation, reproductive fitness and natural selection (I.e. the ‘Modern Synthesis’) doesn’t quite cover the evidence. By including some kind of archetypal tendency towards creativity and complexity, we might be able to explain how proteins have been able to find the exactly the right way to fold so they can drive the photosynthesis, catalytic reactions and DNA self-replications that characterise life; how genes and epigenomes interact with each other (e.g. Horizontal Gene Transfer) and conscious choice (such a selection of a mate or our ability to destress ourselves) to generate such amazing up-hill complexity and novelty (which natural selection then winnows out on the down-hill journey); and how conscious creativity can, right now, help me write this article (even though it is dealing with ideas at the edge of my capacity to conceive of, and understand, them).
This creating partly obeys the deterministic laws of classical physics, natural selection and behavioral psychology; and partly aligns with the idea that consciousness is the essence of all being, which is at the heart of most of the wisdom traditions (and can fit with a ‘loose-at-the-joints’ quantum theory and the advances in quantum biology).
For sure this is a marvellous, and definitively a tad mystical idea: That there is a structuring principle in the universe that is geared towards more creativity and consciousness, which leads to increased thrivability. Yet it can be totally secular and scientific too; no more or less weird than quantum mechanics. Why should the universe not favour creativity and thriving over total randomness and lack of meaning? Why should un-manifested possibility not always be seeking real-isation in ever more fitted, complex and co-evolving forms? It would certainly answer some of the our most pertinent questions as human beings without any referenced to a super-natural being. This “distributed becoming” is the only God we need. The cosmos has within it the potential for Possible World to become Actual World, shifting from problem (constraint) to solution (creativity) via breakthrough in all areas of nature.
I recently presented the core ideas in this essay to some of the foremost scientists and philosophers engaged in understanding the nature of consciousness at Towards A Science Of Consciousness. Here I heard Stuart Hameroff (who 20 years ago proposed, along with the mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, a rigorous Orch OR theory to show where quantum mechanical ‘spookiness’ might enter our classical mechanical neurones to provide us with consciousness and creativity) suggest a reason why and how organic molecules developed the capacity for some consciousness: When elementary organic particles became quantum mechanical, they were ‘rewarded’ with a pleasant ‘experience’ of consciousness, what he calls a ‘Bing!’. That then encouraged them to keep scaling up their complexity, ‘Bing!’ after ‘Bing!’, arranging themselves in structures that would get more jolts of pleasure… right up until the extraordinary levels of conscious awareness that showed up a few hundred thousand years ago in us, homo sapiens sapiens.
Hameroff, who works within an impressive multinational scientific collaboration that includes a number of international universities and Deepak Chopra, has therefore suggested this elemental pleasure principle is an informative blueprint that drives life towards ever greater complexity… because it feels good! Perhaps this move towards pleasure is the simple motivating factor for each ‘organism’ to bring more thrivability into a space: More consciousness, so more creativity, so more possibility of more ‘beings’ thriving. This would scale up to fit a load of research, which I refer to extensively in Switch On, that being generous, volunteering and having a purposeful life of service feel damn good, the so-called Helper’s High. It also leads to better health, longevity and happiness for those doing the giving (and so conventional evolutionary advantage). In fact, from my own experience, working with thousands of organisations and people to switch on their conscious creativity, it’s the best damn feeling on the planet (and, perhaps, in this entire universe).
It is a striking Jungian synchronicity (Jung developed the idea of synchronicity with quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli to connect nature with mind) that Hameroff, who is an anaesthetist, believes that the ‘Bing!’ of consciousness may have first arrived after molecules became ring-shaped (and so developed ‘pi resonance clouds’ that allow quantum effects in warm, wet biological environments). We first understood the essential cyclical / ring-shaped nature of organic molecules after discovering the structure of the chemical benzene. The man who discovered the benzene ring, Friedrich Kukele, got the idea from a dream he had of Ouroboros, the snake that eats itself. Due to its importance in a huge number of human endeavours, Arthur Koestler, one of the most renowned philosophers of science, called this incident “the most important dream in history since Joseph’s seven fat and seven lean cows.”
One thing that I know, that empirical science may never be able to prove (as it tends to lose its predictive power when it turns it gaze to the Possible World), is that no matter our choice of cosmology, in everyday life we can all learn to consciously unleash our creativity and bring more thrivability into our lives and the lives of the people and communities we love. When we do, we tend to get a deep sense of creativity ‘coming through us’ as opposed to from us. This is creative flow, what pioneering Victorian psychologist F. W. H. Myers called a “subliminal uprush” and contemporary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “the secret to happiness” in this TED talk. Breakthrough Biodynamic predicts that nature wants us to discover her secrets when the time is right… once we have the awareness to winnow the wisdom from the clatter of our egos’ fears and judgements, and implement our breakthroughs in ways that serve collective thrivability. Maybe this why the Nazis and Japanese could never crack the Atom Bomb…?
Different creators have described the experience of effortless, flowing, positive creativity in widely varying language. The great composer J S Bach said, ‘I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.’ More recently, double Booker prize winning author, Hillary Mantel says in the New Yorker: You have to say to yourself, I take my hands off, I let my unconscious work for me.’ According to interviews, she doesn’t find giving up control easy but knows that effort alone doesn’t create great literature (though it can help in completing a manuscript on time of course). Legendary post-structuralist and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said: “I don’t have the feeling that I write my books… I have the feeling that my books get written through me.” Quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger attempts, at the end of his enormously influential essay “What is Life?”, to suggest that our creative free will occurs when we tap into quantum possibility, into the ‘distributed becoming’ that is everywhere. He says: “DEUS FACTUS SUM”; or ‘I have become God’.
The channel to the Possible World – and its infinite creative potential – is always open because our molecules and cells have access to it at every moment because they are all part of it. Each of us is creative in our DNA. This is why we have gone from perhaps 10 tools (like a loincloth and arrow head) to maybe 10 to the power 10 in just 5000 years. When we become aware of, and choose to align ourselves with, this creativity we become active co-creators of a more thrivable, ethical, love-filled world. Ideas for a more thrivable life and world come through us all, in collaboration and co-creation. From Switch On:
Any one of us can harness this orchestra of biology to invent and design anything we want: A juicier love life, a liberating career shift, a cultural sensation, or a world-changing invention (and even all of these at the same time). Now that, my friends, is a freakin’ miracle to me.
This awakening to our ability to channel love-fuelled (love being the embodied human experience of quantum-entangled interconnection) transformational creativity from Possible World into Actual World – which seems to me as good a definition of enlightenment as any – is not meant to languish in the meditation hall or yoga studio. It’s designed to bring insights for healing to both the self and system – what the Jewish mystical tradition calls Tikkun Hanefesh (healing of the individual) and Tikkun Olam (healing of the world). This is enlightenment in action; spirituality becoming reality. We purposefully bring together the Possible and Actual Worlds within us. We become the Sage of the Stoics,; the Zhenren (The True or Authentic Man) of Taoism; or the Anthropos, or Whole Man, of Christianity. As philosopher Thomas Nagel says: “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”
I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: My business is to create. William Blake
If my hunch is true, and the universe is geared for us to create, break through challenges and thrive, then it gives us all a pressing reason to quiet our minds and expand our hearts, balancing productive ego & intuitive essence as we allow the cosmos to bring more thriving into the world through us… with us as ally not resistor. When we do this in tandem with others, in open-hearted collaboration, we can co-create solutions to any challenge, as long as we feel safe and willing enough to let go of the emotional, mental and behavioral habits that stop us from being in communion and community. If we are prepared to make these tough choices, exercising our free will to surrender the old, we can all relish at-one-ment with the ‘distributed becoming’ of the universe… and let those loaded dice roll!