“As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future. This cosmic self-awareness is being realized in one tiny fragment of the universe —in a few of us human beings”.
Huxley suggests that there are many aspects of our social and psychological environment which we can consciously alter – from spirituality to education to urban planning – to realise a human potential frustrated by rigid school curricula, outdated ways of thinking, and badly-designed physical environments. More recent ‘Transhumanists’ suggest that we can direct the evolution of our offspring, perhaps not just psychologically and socially but also genetically – see the work of the Metanexus Institute on ‘reproductive freedom’ (http://www.metanexus.net/essay/h-defense-posthuman-dignity )
Another ‘Trans’ relevant to our discussion here is transpersonal psychology, which has been developing since the 1960’s, and concerned with our potential for spiritual growth and higher states of consciousness. Huxley refers specifically to developing spiritual ‘techniques’ to reach a state of mental and physical ‘efficiency’. I want to spend a moment thinking about ‘efficiency’ here. To be efficient is to use the optimum amount of a measurable quantity (like fuel, or time, or physical effort) we need to complete a task. Engineers make calculations to measure the energy efficiency of machines, for example. But how do you measure spiritual awakening ? Or happiness ? Are these ‘tasks’ to be completed ? Are human beings simply advanced, self-aware machines ?
The philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that behind modern technology there is a concern with ‘ordering’ – with calculating the potential energy available in nature (from fossil fuels for example) and setting it to work. Nature, viewed in this way, has no inherent value, it is a ‘standing reserve’, a stock of raw materials. What Heidegger was afraid of was that, whilst we are busy ordering and rearranging nature in this way, we will begin to view other human beings in the same way, as a resource to be reordered, measured and used. Rather less seriously, the recent BBC 3 sci-fi series Orphan Black (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/posts/Orphan-Black ) imagines a secret cloning experiment run by a shadowy cult of ‘Neolutionists’, who promote ‘self-directed evolution’. However, the clones in the project had no choice over their own creation, and are constantly monitored in their everyday lives without realising it – each one is a copyrighted product, who can be recalled to the laboratory at any time. Obviously, this is ‘just’ entertainment, but this raises a number of serious questions.
In the 1970’s, cognitive Psychologists saw consciousness as a form of ‘computer’ – a programmable machine. Our cognitive and emotional ‘efficiency’ could be measured by batteries of psychometric tests, IQ scores, and personality inventories. Psychology and psychiatry have a long, unhappy history of trying to ‘direct’ and program consciousness to make it better fit their ideal measurements, including ECT ‘shock therapy’, leucotomies and eugenics. We really need to ask whether spiritual transformation and psychological growth should be about ‘efficiency’ at all. So what alternative is there ? Heidegger drew attention to the fact that the Ancient Greek word technē (which gives us ‘technology’) was used to describe artistic creation as well the making of tools or machines. There was no distinction between ‘Art’ and ‘Technology’ in the Ancient world. Pierre Janet, writing around the same time as Freud, saw human memory – the narratives we make about past events to inform future actions – as a kind of artwork. So Huxley’s term ‘spiritual technology’ might make sense, if our starting point is to consider our consciousness as a work of art we ourselves create, rather than a self-programming machine.