Hunger for Wholeness: Who (or What) Guides Us Into the Future with Steve McIntosh (Part 1)
In the first part of a conversation from the Whitehead-Teilhard conference, Ilia Delio sits down with integral philosopher Steve McIntosh. They discuss how holistic frameworks can inspire cultural evolution, and how religion and spirituality inform our development.
“Like life itself, culture is an evolutionary phenomenon.”
ABOUT STEVE MCINTOSH
Steve McIntosh, J.D., is a leader in the integral philosophy movement and author of the acclaimed books: The Presence of the Infinite—The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, & Goodness (Quest 2015), Evolution’s Purpose—An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins (SelectBooks 2012), and Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution—How the Integral Worldview Is Transforming Politics, Culture and Spirituality (Paragon House 2007). He currently works as president and co-founder of the integral political think tank: The Institute for Cultural Evolution. McIntosh’s innovative political thinking has recently been featured on NPR, The Daily Beast, The National Journal, The Hill, and in a wide variety of other media. He is the author of numerous influential political articles including Depolarizing the American Mind, and Why Centrism Fails and How We Can Better Achieve Political Cooperation.Support the show
A huge thank you to all of you who subscribe and support our show! Support for A Hunger for Wholeness comes from the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society's toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org.
A HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS TRANSCRIPT | S03E05
Who (or What) Guides Us Into the Future with Steve McIntosh (Part 1)
Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness; a podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Today, we sit down with integral
philosopher, Steve McIntosh. Our conversation took place in person during an interim period at our Whitehead-Teilhard Conference last weekend. To begin, Ilia asks Steve about his motivations and how holistic frameworks can inspire cultural evolution.
Ilia: So Steve, first of all, it's really great to be with you here at the Whitehead-Teilhard Conference. I've known of your work for quite some time, and read your book on Infinite Potential. You're a major thinker and a mover and shaker, as we say, of our contemporary world. So maybe I'd like to begin by asking you just to tell us a little bit about your work. What brought you to that work and what you see are the major questions today that we're facing?
Steve: Sure. Ever since I was a young man, I've been particularly attracted to the idea of a cultural renaissance; the periods in history, throughout history in many different cultures where there has been a recorded fluorescence of culture. And of course, we are familiar with the European Renaissance, and then the Reformation and the Enlightenment. These are all major developments in culture. But I was born in 1960, and as an adolescent growing up in Los Angeles, I felt like I had been missing out on a renaissance. The youth movement of the sixties was something that was very exciting to me. I wanted to be a
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hippie, but I was too young, and the sense that, that was a cultural emergence that there was more to come. I was sort of gripped in the seventies by the idea that there was another renaissance coming down the road and that I would be given meaning if I could participate in it. So I continued to study that, and that was kind of the orienting, guiding light of my career. I wanted to go beyond
just being a counter-culturalist. I wanted to get some establishment credentials. I went to business school, I went to law school.
But it wasn't long before this idea of renaissance kind of came back. In the nineties, it felt as though what referred to as progressive spirituality, which is now kind of referred to by the derisive term, New Age. But at the time, it felt, especially where I was living in Boulder, Colorado, that there was a spiritual emergence occurring. I began to really try to participate, and I started a business to create artifacts for that. But by the end of the nineties, it became clear that that was not going to produce, that the New Age was not going to fluoresce into some kind of larger cultural movement. And that led me to—I guess the best description is integral philosophy, which is in a sense, very similar to process philosophy, perhaps a branch of process philosophy.
Nevertheless, I was engaged with that. I wanted to make a contribution. My first book, Integral Consciousness came out in 2007. Then the element of integral philosophy that was most interesting to me is specifically represented by Teilhard and Whitehead, and had begun reading Teilhard in the eighties, and then began to read Whitehead as an interpreter in the nineties. I was really immersed in it to a degree in 2004, when I went to the Center for Process Studies for a conference on science and religion that they had. My intuition was that this is where this spiritual renaissance that I had been hoping for my entire life, that this was the best chance for its emergence. So that led me to write a book, came out in 2012, called Evolution's Purpose, which was based on a lot of the thinking of Whitehead and Teilhard. But that book wasn't complete. It was to try to unify science and spirituality, but I had a deeper intuition that there was more to be said about spiritual experience itself, which led to my 2015 book, The Presence of the Infinite, which is all over the map about spiritual experience, but it's not just a catalog of what people have thought I've tried to add to the discourse about it.
My work in spirituality had a certain amount of fruition, but I also felt that the next step was to try to put a stake in the ground about how this spiritual philosophy of evolution
could actually produce evolution and especially, in a kind of cultural, political environment. So I turned my focus to politics—not partisan politics of Washington DC elections, but more the cultural politics of the evolution of consciousness. And that led to my 2020 book, Developmental Politics: How America Can Grow into a Better Version of Itself is the subtitle. The first half of that was pragmatic methods for integrating values and creating a cultural synthesis, which I just spoke about in my presentation of the conference.
The second half of the book was more to my favorite subject which is about values and values conceived as spiritual experience, values conceived as the equivalent of energy in the neuro sphere. There's an energizing quality the way that Whitehead talks about the good, the true, and the beautiful being lures. In my 2012 book, I played with the idea of value as gravity, but my thinking there has evolved a bit because gravity is—I now use the analogy of value as energy comparing it in the neuro sphere, a little bit like the electromagnetic spectrum and the physio sphere with the idea that value energizes consciousness.
The lure is also nutritive. In other words, we're being fed by it. That in the same way that physical, biological systems metabolize energy and even prebiotic weather systems metabolize energy, that the internal equivalent of energy as value as the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the whole spectrum of eventual intrinsic values, that this has an energizing effect that structures of consciousness and structures of culture metabolize value. And that this theoretical construct had very pragmatic implications because we could see how not only could we create a synthesis by recognizing that every one of these worldviews, these cultural structures that are part of the neuro sphere, that they each have their own value metabolism, and that it's possible to create a system that metabolizes all of that value energy. So to take it out of the abstract, to make it practical, it's a matter of recognizing that the good, the true, and the beautiful are continuing to evolve. That our conception of what's good and what's true and what's beautiful, in some ways, that itself is what can evolve for this next emergent level. That the renaissance that I'd been hoping for all my life is a renaissance of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
So this next book that I'm working on now, the working title is Humanity's Higher Purpose. It's kind of in a question and answer format. But the idea that transcendence is real or this is sort of upward current of the good. I prefer to think of value as moving, as a process, as an attractor. And that reclaiming the God-shaped hole that our society lacks at the moment, and filling it with an inclusive and pluralistic concept, but that still connects fully to the divinity that I have experienced directly.
Ilia: It's really fascinating. First of all, we're not that far apart in age, and I too was sort of—I missed the sixties, but I was really lured by Woodstock, the Woodstock generation. I think Teilhard would've been really enamored of the sixties revolution because there was like a release or an explosion of energy during that time. And I think your pursuit or dream of this kind of renewal or rebirth of a new humanity, a new age, which I think was so much part of that thinking at that time. It was like a breaking out. It was a new freedom.
Steve: The Age of Aquarius.
Ilia: An Age of Aquarius. Exactly. So I was completely enamored of that myself. And so I think our ideals are very similar. I have moved away from the language of Renaissance. Because I hung around Teilhard so much, I just think in terms of evolution as a novelty, a new birth of a new age that takes the old, it takes it up into itself, but it's really new. And in that respect, I want to kind of talk a little bit about your paradigm of cultural evolution which I find really interesting, and I think is definitely on the right track. A lot of my work these days is on technology and evolution. And what I find is that there's two things. One is that evolution is speeding up because of technology. And I think as you were showing in your scheme this morning on the different shifts from modernity to post-modernity, and then post, post-modernity, that we have this kind of advancement now which is changing our values, our approach to the world, our world of views, so to speak.
Seems to me that what we have is not just conflicts of paradigms or worldviews. But I really think people are at different levels of evolution of consciousness. It seems to me— and I'd love to hear your input on this. As you were talking, I couldn't help thinking that
we're moving out of homo sapiens. We're moving out of the species that we have grown to know and love. I think this comes as a shock to many people and people think, "What? I'm human." And here's just the problem, that we, humans now are undergoing these historical shifts, and going, "Well, in part." But the other thing is, you're actually becoming something other than human. I mean, that's what technology does to us. It begins to—this has always happened, by the way, this is nothing new to humanity.
Evolution is really a function of our creativity; the way we develop tools, the tools create us, and life goes on. So I think one of the things that we began to realize in the late nineties is that the boundaries of biological life are no longer static and fixed. That they are permeable, they're malleable, the term cyborg or cybernetic organism. That we can be hybridized, that we can be changed, not only in form, but as the form changes, so too does in a sense, everything else changes. It definitely is, matter and mind are two aspects of the same reality. So I find today, for example, that younger generations or what might be called Gen Z, I always quip and say, "They look like us. They look like homo sapiens, but they're slightly different species." And people quip about that they go, "Oh, we hear that." But I would like your insight or your input on where you see not just cultural shifts of evolution, but the evolution of personhood itself as that which undergirds or is at least intrinsic to the cultural evolution
Steve: There's a lot there in your question, and let me try to unpack it one piece at a time. One of the amazing things that inaugurates and facilitates Noosphere evolution in the first place is that humans have demonstrated their ability to evolve their consciousness somewhat independently of their biology. In other words, certainly our brains are wired up, and there's plasticity in our biology regarding the evolution of consciousness. But our anatomy has not changed significantly compared to the evolution of consciousness over the last 50,000 years. And that what stands in—I mean, so animals, in order to evolve their consciousness, they have to evolve their biology, that their consciousness and their biology evolves relatively in lock step, whereas humans, the evolution of our
consciousness is at least, I wouldn't say freed from our biology, but at least there's a degree of liberation that we're not stuck.
Ilia: Right. And Teilhard de Chardin actually comments on this. This is the turn in the road in terms of evolution.
Steve: Right. So what stands in for this lack of biological development is the material development of our civilization, including our technologies, our institutions. And that I would say is not just external, but there's also an internal realm. Like I spoke of the evolution of culture proceeds with an inside and an outside, and the inside is values and worldviews and ideas. And as those values and worldviews ideas on the inside, and technology and the structures of society on the outside, those allow us to become, in a sense, a new species. I wouldn't object to the appropriation of the species concept if we are holding it loosely because obviously there's, I think, a very important element of tradition, traditional consciousness is a degree of recognizing that our bodies are sacred.
I mean, that doesn't necessarily lead to every political implication of what the sacred body means. But my philosophical intuition about, for example, transhumanism, is that it's sort of dark. That the idea that we're going to just change our genome and we're going to select for a superior genetics while I'm all for curing every disease in sight, when it comes to splitting the species and creating an enhanced genetic human, and then a non-enhanced genetic human, I can see what could possibly go wrong. I mean, in other words, it could get ugly fast. And so I want to maintain a degree of sanctity regarding the bodies that we've received from biological evolution and mess with that in very slow ways.
In other words, I think that because we are so liberated, there's so many ways we can evolve into a new species, metaphorically using this idea of the co-evolution of consciousness and culture. I think that whatever we were in the past as humans, perhaps more tied to our biology, more ruled by our evolutionary psychology. The more that we are liberated, the more that our evolutionary psychology has less control over us. And as Maslow said, "That as our consciousness evolves, our free will widens." We become less
determined. And so to the extent that we're entering this new era characterized by the Anthropocene. That in a sense, if it's a new era of geological evolution, it's also a new era of consciousness of culture, and that constitutes a new human in this Anthropocene. So to that extent, I'm completely on board with your characterization.
Robert: For better or worse, our species plays an integral role in our planet's life and survival. Can our technology help more than it hinders? Next, Ilia asks Steve about how we're to understand the developmental role of religion and spirituality. Then, who, if anyone, should get to set the values that guide our evolution? Support for a Hunger for Wholeness comes from the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations that are applying spiritual solutions to society's toughest problems. Please consider getting involved at fetzer.org. And now, we resume our conversation.
Ilia: Now, I do want to modify the one idea that the body has maxed out it's kind of biological evolution, because we do see, you brought up transhumanism. So I want to just take that up just to note, because what we are beginning to see is that we can modify the body with artifices; with implanting chips or somehow, electronically extending embodiment. So I do see that embodiment is an evolution itself. And again, I think as embodiment begins to change, consciousness begins to change. In other words, even the sense of the self, I think might begin to change. So that in itself is very interesting. One of the things though, which is important, so in terms of values, which you speak a lot about values. One of the problems of technology is in terms of eugenics. Now with CRISPR, we can slice and dice your genes. We can take out the bad ones, put in good ones, make you have blue eyes, and live forever type thing.
Who determines those values? What values determine those values? That's where I think the paradigm shift, that in moving towards not just the Noosphere of collective consciousness, but a collective consciousness—to use Teilhard's term—of more life, more being, more justice, more peace. So what Teilhard would say is not that we ever arrive at these things, but it's the deepening of these things that actually constitute the next level
of evolution. But that's where I see religion or spirituality. And maybe we might talk a little bit between how you see the difference between religion and spirituality, and why you might favor spirituality over religion. Teilhard uses the language of religion not in a narrow sense, in institutional sense, but in the broadest sense as the free energy of the earth that actually is thrusting or pushing everything towards something more unified, towards this omega point that many people talk about, which I see as that wholeness, that complexified wholeness of what we are. But without that religion, in a sense, interwoven into culture— In other words, getting religion out of the institution and back into the earth, and back into the vitality of life, do you think that could make a difference in the way we are evolving even culturally?
Steve: I think it's central. To a certain degree, religion and spirituality is just a matter of semantics.
Steve: So if we want to expand the term religion to go beyond the institutional structures receding from the pre-modern history, then absolutely, religion as a way of life, religion as the recognition of the gift of life and the opportunity to be agents of evolution here on earth, and to work to make the world a better place, both individually and collectively, I'd say that if we define our religion as that, as the pursuit of any value we could point to. Rather than thinking of values as static properties, I think of them as trajectories of development. It's almost like we could think of the beautiful, the true, and the good as the directions of evolution itself when we bring in the neuro sphere as the sort of culminating —at least the current culminating layer of evolution. And that this notion of we are here on the earth and that our lives are a sacred gift, and what goes with that gift is a duty to pursue the higher purpose of humanity, which I'm trying to define as news for evolution itself, making the world a better place. Bringing heaven to earth, that's, I think, in some ways the ultimate religion.
Ilia: I completely agree. My question would be then why should we buy what you say as bringing heaven to earth as truth? What makes your position true for all people or for the earth itself?
Steve: Well, as Whitehead framed it as gentle persuasion through love, I certainly don't assert that my sense of what's valuable is superior and must be adopted by everyone. But at the same time, we can see the evolution of consciousness and culture in a sense. If we think despite all the negatives, despite all the horror, and the suffering, and the evil and the injustice in the world, something more keeps coming from something less. And “the something more,” when we look at it as a trajectory, as a historical trajectory, it is pointing in a direction. And although that direction is a winding path, there's this dialectical nature of it where that's like a sailboat tacking against the wind. So it can only go so far before it becomes pathological and has to tack back in the other direction. We see that in this pattern of values development.
So the emphasis is on the individual, emphasis on the community. Then the community becomes stifled, we have to break out of the individual. And I don't want to assert that that's a deterministic pattern. But it's sort of the natural course of how the boat has to sail against the wind. So this idea that there is a wider kind of set or system of values that's emerging now that any advocate of a better way has to be able to claim that it's better. We can't deny that the world is incomplete. That the suffering that we see—we live in a world of trouble and suffering, and clearly, there's a duty upon us, those who can, to try to bring the world incrementally just a little bit toward the better. So what is the better that is partially defined by agreement? I wouldn't say it's completely relative. I'd like to kind of touch on some notion of natural law. But I also want to say that it's open-ended, that we're discovering it. And that the opportunity to discover what's next, what a wider frame of values looks like. As I argued today in my presentation, that looks like a synthesis that can draw the circle of inclusion wider to include progressive values, modernist values, and traditional values in a larger synthesis. And that's why I can begin to claim that I think it's better.
Ilia: Here's what I see about the human person as we are now. We're both fascinated by the bigger pictures before us. But I think just about everyone—I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't choose against greater unity or greater justice or more love in the world. You know, someone say, "Nope, I don't want more love. I just want to be angry at everyone and hate everyone." So there's something within us that deeply longs for that together. So we're fascinated by it and we're fearful of it at the same time. There's something about us as individuals; as we're still human persons, we're still partially, we're still in formation, so to speak. And therefore, I think it's this feeling of—we still have a sense of aloneness, even though we are more together today than ever before.
And it's this feeling of not being fully connected, this feeling of being attracted to, but repelled by. Like, what if I were to give myself over into something more than myself; into a larger cause or a larger system, what will I lose of myself? And that's where I see the shift today from what we might call in this cyborg and frame of life into the post human. In other words, not just the human anymore, but a post-human, which is a different type of personhood based on what Gilles Deleuze called “rhizomic subjectivity.” That this subjectivity is really a weaving in of what we are together which is brought together actually by internet technology. And by the way, computer technology is—to use Teilhard's language—blinking minds together. So the post human is what Katherine Hayles calls the “hyper-personal,” or what we call sometimes the hive mind.
There's something about this hive mind or the hyper personal in this collective. It's not just a collective consciousness of individual consciousness come together. It's actually a new type, a new level of consciousness brought about by a shift in personhood, in having a sense of self that's no longer centered in the self, but centered in something other than the self. Katherine Hayles speaks about living from the splice, that we no longer seek that center of meaning within ourselves. Now, we seek that center precisely where we meet the other; in the splice of meeting itself. So the focus has shifted, and this is what I find really interesting in post-human life. We're shifting from binary thinking, from the me and you, black and white, heaven and hell, to this kind of, what we might call triadic thinking, or
what Cynthia Bourgeault calls “the law of three.” Or this intermediate space, the splice, which is where it's neither one nor the other, but it's precisely in that mediating center that we find something more that enhances what I am. But precisely because I'm meeting the other in the splice, that I become something more than myself, and therefore look towards a future of creativity and something new.
It's kind of similar thinking to what we call Trinitarian thinking; that the spirit is the openness of divinity to new life. I think we have been locked into binary frameworks, institutional binaries, for entirely too long. I do see that there's a new type of person emerging. I see it in younger generations. Not simply they're longing for a better world or a sustainable world, or a world of more justice. There's something that's literally changing, I think, in the human rate, physiologically changing about us. And so I find it in some ways, hopeful. But I also see—and I think as you pointed out—our systems are about a half a century behind. They're still operating on principles from the 19th century, and our systems are not able to support the type of evolution we find ourselves in today.
So what I find is a dissonance. We have the human emerging into the post human. We have a new type of life emerging, what John Johnston calls “complex machinic life” or “complex life systems.” In fact, he wants to get rid of the term human person and replace it with complex life systems, which would alter our thinking about what we are, which is very interesting. In other words, the language of the human person and the language of system and culture keeps us bound in some ways to binary frameworks of thinking and more categorical individuals. We have a hard time because technology is leading us into a whole different frame of interconnectivity.
Steve: I can start by saying that I agree that we live in a Trinitarian universe, and this threefold nature of reality as a process of becoming, and reflecting, being, and all those theological terms, I think there have been so many different ways of getting at it. Perhaps we could think of it as like a diamond with many facets and it looks different from different angles; almost like a fourth dimensional object or something. And certainly, Cynthia
Bourgeault's “law of three,” or the Hegelian dialectic or some of the other constructs that you mentioned are different angles on, I would say something very similar. And I would add that the purpose of this universe of apparent polarities that we live in is to transcend the pairs or to continue to use those as generative agents of growth and evolution.
But the elements of these polarities, at least as long as we're here in the finite, are somewhat indestructible or permanently recurring. One of those is the polarity of part and whole, which we could talk about in personal terms as the individual person, and then the collective culture in the society or whatever word you want to use to frame that. And of course, each one has their own telos; self-interest versus greater than self-interest. And each one pursues that to the extent that the growth that's seeking to become, the evolution that these two ultimately want to bring about when properly related to each other, that each one can take into extreme naturally wants to cancel the other. So the idea of collective consciousness, there are dark elements to that too because the individual is only a cell, like the dystopia of Orwell. And so recognizing that the pull of the individual, the sovereign self in which I would say God dwells. That the individual who can love and be loved because he or she's an individual, that there's something sacred about that.
But even as we move to new possibilities of collective consciousness, I still want to stop short of the idea of a “species subject.” That is, I think there can be collective awareness, but I see the part as persisting even as the whole grows more connected. So just to say one more thing, and that is when we bring in the idea of the inner subjective cultural evolution, it's in a collective interior, not just our subjective interior, but the inner, subjective we- space that connects us all. And that there are forms of cultural consciousness that are growing larger and larger there in the sense that they're not just encompassing more people demographically, but the more recent ones to emerge are encompassing more people morally. They're drawing the circle wider to include all essential beings. And that represents a growth of a manifestation of the collective, which is emerging by these steps or stages.
So the next human, the post human is an opportunity to work toward a kind of collective that can interpenetrate our consciousness. In other words, this collective consciousness becomes, we possess it as individuals, even as it has its sort of locus in the inner subjective. And that in a sense, I think is very much the idea of referring to it as post-human or thinking about not only are we embarking on a new age of history, but we're embarking on a new age of the person, if you'll pardon the term new age. I think that's a very powerful idea. And so I'm glad you're forwarding it in your work.
Ilia: Yeah, thanks. Thanks, Steve. I really appreciate that.
Robert: Next week, Ilia asks Steve about the implications for systems and institutions that seem to hinder our shared progress, and if he had the power, what systemic changes he would like to see implemented. A special thanks to our team at the Center for Christogenesis. I'm Robert Nicastro, thanks for listening.