Evolution undoubtedly happens, however, it is far from clear how and why it happens. A few possibilities will be examined here: Neo-Darwinism, a dominant approach at present, briefly some theistic interpretations,  and the synthesis perspective on the subject.


Neo-Darwinism, the dominant interpretation at present, attempts to operate within a strictly materialistic framework. Evolution is regarded as a gradual process that comes about through the interplay of two factors: random mutations (accidental changes of genetic material) and natural selection that enables some of these changes to take over on the basis of their adaptive and reproductive advantages. The dynamic of evolution is based on the struggle and competition within and between species for limited resources. Although this process is considered directionless, it is apparently responsible for bringing forth the successive forms of life from single cell organisms to human beings. This interpretation of evolution has its merits, but also has some flaws. It was widely accepted in the 20th century not because it explained everything perfectly, but because it accounted for the facts better than any alternative and because it fitted well with the prevailing ideology of materialism. The purpose of what follows is not an attempt to prove Neo-Darwinism wrong, but to show that it is incomplete, which is why it cannot provide plausible explanations for all the characteristics of evolution (e.g. the increase of complexity) and for all the paleontological and biological facts. Actually, almost every key term associated with this view: chance, natural selection, competition, and gradualism, raise some doubts, especially if taken dogmatically as it is often the case at present[1].

  • [1]. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest', which is also linked to this model is not considered, because, as biologist Waddington already pointed out a long time ago, it is just a tautology: the existing species have survived because they have been the fittest, and they are the fittest because they have survived.


The materialist view is that all the changes in living organisms from the original single cell to a great variety of species that have existed and exist nowadays are the result of accidental genetic mutations[2]. Sure enough, some mutations may be accidental, but the claim that all the mutations in all the organisms have been, seems improbable for several reasons.

The effects of random mutations are almost always harmful and incur a loss, not a gain of information and complexity. Only in extremely rare cases may they be harmless. As Denton points out, ‘the fact that the vast majority of all mutations which have some detectable influence on the functioning of the organism are deleterious suggests that each functional living system is indeed enormously constrained to adaptive changes along only a tiny fraction of all the possible evolutionary trajectories available to it' (1998, p.341).

Even if an advantageous mutation occurs, the chances of it spreading throughout the population are very small and the chances against are extremely large. Taking into account the number of mutations that should have taken place, it is highly improbable that they would randomly lead from a single cell organism to human beings. The above quoted biologist states that ‘...evidence for the doctrine of the spontaneity of mutation is hardly ever presented. Its truth is nearly always assumed' (ibid., p.286). Chance mutations acted on by natural selection could scarcely account for variations within species (microevolution) let alone for successive variations among them (macroevolution). A blind process on an erratic trial-and-error basis is not impossible, but is incredible. Laszlo concludes:

...A random process could not have produced the kind of order that we meet with in our experience; it could not even have produced the kind of chaos that surrounds us at times. The fact is that pure, unadulterated chance could not have existed in the universe even if it coexisted with strands of order. If a series of chance events had punctuated the developmental process, the things that would have emerged out of that process would have randomly diverged among themselves... Given a process that is subject to pure chance, even previously ordered things would each grow their own way... Evidently, mere chance did not dominate the evolutionary process: there must also have been a significant degree of binding and coordination. (1993, p.18)


A usual response by neo-Darwinists to these challenges to chance as an explanation for the evolutionary process is that given enough time, random mutations would eventually lead to the complex life forms that exist today. However, this does not hold water, especially if long periods of stagnation are taken into account. The rates of mutation necessary are staggering, even within billions of years, considering the cost involved in disposing of the predominant bad mutations. Also, for a good mutation to become fixed in a population, all those individuals which do not have the new trait must die. When these considerations are combined with the low rates of reproduction of many animals, there has hardly been enough time for the present species to have evolved. To quote Laszlo again, ‘it is highly unlikely that random processes could have constructed an evolutionary sequence of which even a basic element, such as a protein or a gene, is complex beyond human capacities'. (ibid., p.91)


Environmental changes - another reason that makes evolution by chance implausible is adaptation to environmental changes. A suitable habitat may become less suitable in a relatively short time, which may threaten the survival of some species. In order to carry on, they have to adapt to new conditions. But, if species changed only by random and gradual mutations, they could not adapt fast enough. Yet, many somehow have managed to do so, by producing numerous and complex mutations that were just right.


Specific mutations - chance may play a part in mutations, but there are many instances indicating that genetic mutations are not always random and that specific genomic changes can take place under certain con­ditions. For example, both plants and insects can mutate so as to decontaminate the chemicals that enter their environment and develop a resistance to toxic substances. Some experiments (carried out independently by John Cairns and Barry Hall) also show that bacteria seem to be able to mutate solely their defective genes. Purely random mutations could never be so specific.


Inter-species consistency (evolutionary convergence) - despite the staggering variety of organisms brought forth during the Cambrian period (about 500 million years ago), the species that now populate the Earth exhibit striking regularities both within and among themselves. Some highly specific anatomical features show remarkable consistency among species with very different evolutionary histories. For example, the wings of birds and bats have similarly positioned bones as the flippers of seals and the forelimbs of equally unrelated amphibians, reptiles and vertebrates. Diverse species also exhibit common orders with regard to the position of the heart and the nervous system: in endoskeletal species the nervous system is in the back and the heart in the front position, while in exoskeletal species these positions are reversed. Another example is the eye: its basic structure appears to have been invented independently by about forty unrelated species. Organisms faced with the same challenge repeatedly arrive at the same solutions. Even if chance is streamlined through natural selection, the convergence of many highly ‘creative' solutions beggars belief.

  • [2]. It may be worth mentioning that Darwin is not responsible for this but his followers, who are trying, as any other ideologists or religious people, to be more Darwinian that Darwin himself. He allegedly wrote: ‘I cannot, anyhow, be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance' (in Fontana, D. 2003. p.73).

Natural selection

Natural selection is also a problem. Although it can weed out the misfits, natural selection cannot make new things (selection means choosing a few from a greater number). It does not create features but merely selects those that provide a greater survival value, and by doing so only narrows the width of the evolutionary process. Although Neo-Darwinists usually claim that the growth in complexity is the result of adaptation to environment, the appearance of increasingly complex organisms cannot be predicted solely from the work of natural selection upon random mutations.

The classical Darwinian mechanism works mainly to adapt individuals to their existing niches; individual variations do not contribute significantly to the emergence of new, more complex species. Even more importantly, many simple organisms are equally or better adapted to environmental variations than complex ones. Only they can be found in extreme conditions. Some unicellular life forms are spread across different environments much more than complex organisms (with the exception of humans). Evolutionist Gould states that ‘...without question, these earliest and simplest cells, the bacteria and their allies, remain the most abundant, widespread, and successful of all living things' (1988, p.44). If only adaptation directs evolution, evolution should not have moved from one cell organisms. This reasoning can be pushed even further:

If mere survival is the sole desideratum, then it would seem that some rudimentary type of organism would be all that is needed. And there would seem no reason why even a rudimentary type of organism should appear, since it could not hope to rival in longevity the everlasting rocks - but unstable DNA? (Edmunds, 1997, p.159)

Natural selection also cannot adequately explain long term adaptive changes. Some changes have immense consequences, and yet they could not have had adaptive advantages when they happened. One example is bisexual reproduction that increases diversity at great cost. Laszlo points out that ‘such a mechanism, while offering an obvious long-term advantage (the more rapid spread of advantageous mutations) does involve an equally obvious short-term disadvantage (the reduced average number of descendants due to males failing to produce offspring)' (1993, p.169).

Finally, natural selection seems to be based on a circular argument (everything that survives is adaptive and therefore selected, and everything that is selected is adaptive and survives) so it cannot be refuted, which does not make good science. When natural selection is used to explain everything, even mutually contradictory adaptations (e.g. the indistinctive colours of some insects, as well as very distinctive colours of others), in fact, it does not explain much.


A popular science writer, Hazen, describes evolution in the following way:

Charles Darwin proposed that evolution occurs because of the constant struggle for survival. Many more individuals of most species are born than can possibly survive. In the brutal competition for limited resources, individuals with advantageous traits are more favoured to survive long enough to pass those traits on to offspring. (1997, p.197)

This scary way of interpreting the evolutionary process, using phrases such as ‘survival of the fittest', ‘struggle', ‘brutal competition' and so forth, is fairly typical. Such a view was already popular in Darwin's time, probably as a reaction to the idealisation and glorification of nature by the Romantic movement.[3] However, this outlook is biased. No doubt that struggle and competition exist, but cooperation and symbioses within a species and between species is at least equally important[4]. For example, in order to start creating multi-cell organisms, some single-cell organisms must give up their capacity to reproduce - which is a striking example of symbiotic cooperation leading to complexity, but is contrary to ‘selfish gene' (or similar) interpretations. Using loaded adjectives such as ‘brutal' even in connection to the predatory nature of certain species is misleading. Every organism must die, and the suffering of those individuals who are unfit or misfit would probably be longer and more brutal without predators.

More importantly, if competition is the only driving force (between species, as well as within a species), one would expect that super-bacteria, super-plants or super-animals would have developed well before the appearance of humans and have taken over the whole eco-system. Yet, a delicate balance in nature that allows development seems to be permanently preserved. In rare cases when a particular type of species starts to dominate to the extent that they prevent further evolution, they conspicuously get wiped out. Many researchers have argued, for example, that mammals and thus humans could not have evolved without the demise of the dinosaurs (presumably, this has not been the fate of humans, although they are now dominant, because evolution so far has continued within the species - a point taken on in the following chapters).

  • [3]. His contemporary, poet Tennyson, famously characterised nature as ‘red in tooth and claw'.
  • [4]. After a long battle, the scientific community nowadays looks more favourably upon the proposition of Lynn Margulis that the cooperation between organisms, rather than competition, is the chief agent of natural selection. In a consolatory fashion, she said that ‘Darwin's grand vision was not wrong, only incomplete'. The position here is that the same applies to some other tenets of Neo-Darwinism.


The Neo-Darwinian theory maintains that life has been subject to a process of gradual transformation that allowed it to move from simple forms to ever more complex ones in small steps. Early life consisted of tiny unicellular organisms living in water, and every other form, extant or extinct, is connected by an unbroken chain of intermediate species to these first ones. This is not exactly the picture that one would get from the available fossil evidence. If evolution had been gradational, there should be greater variations between fossil specimens reflecting every small step in the process. But, this does not seem to be the case. Although there are an abundance of fossils of fully formed species, there are few contenders for their transitional forms (hence the phrase ‘missing link'). For example, there are no traces of the evolutionary ancestors of the trilobites in the rock layers beneath where the trilobites are found. It seems that trilobites, with their sophisticated optical systems, appear in the geological record relatively suddenly. These occurrences cannot be fully accounted for by the incompleteness of available data. Mounting paleontological evidence suggests that ‘speciation' (the emergence of new species) is a rapid process. Species change in relatively swift bursts, without leisurely transition periods[5]. These episodes of fast speciation are separated by fairly long spans during which no significant alterations can be detected. In other words, species appear abruptly, often in entirely different forms, and remain substantially unchanged for millions of years - a condition of stasis at odds with Darwin's model of continuous change. Then, just as quickly they become extinct and are immediately followed by other very different species[6]. The fossil record demonstrates abundantly that each episode of extinction was followed by a period when new forms proliferated, filling the ecological niches emptied by the old. Not only individual species but entire genera make their appearance in relatively short time. One example is the so-called Cambrian explosion about half a billion years ago, the sudden emergence, in the span of a few million years, of a great variety of the bigger animals that now populate the earth. The rapid evolution of mammals between 60 and 65 million years ago is another instance of this recurrent phenomenon. It is significant that every new cycle is not made of species at the same level of complexity, but more advanced ones.


This does not refute the continuity of the evolutionary process and certainly does not imply that an external force directly interferes with it, as the creationists (or the proponents of ‘Intelligent Design') would like to believe[7]. Slow, continuous change (within species) may be the norm during periods of environmental stability, while rapid speciation may occur during periods of environmental stress. When the milieu changes and the existing niches disappear, some species die out. Then the ‘peripheral isolates' (species that live in relatively small numbers) invade the centres of dominance and take over as the new main species. Also there are some creative solutions. For example, a link between prokaryotes (cells without organelles) and eukaryotes (cells with organelles and other structures) has not been found. The difference between these single-cell species is striking, and yet there are no intermediate stages between them. There are many living samples of each, but none of the intermediate stages. One imaginative possibility, put forward by the biologist Margulis, is that eukaryotes could be the result of a symbiosis of two different prokaryote species.


However, even when the above hypotheses are taken into account, conventional Darwinian mechanisms do not seem sufficient to explain the stops and starts observed in the fossil record (why species appear so abruptly and why they persist so long without changing.). These punctuations are too radical to allow for Neo-Darwinian interpretation. The problem is not only to explain the sudden burst but also, as a science writer Richard Kerr puts it, ‘what would maintain the equilibrium... keeping the new species from evolving in spite of environmental vagaries' (1995, p.1421-1422).


Intriguingly, growing evidence suggests that extinctions follow relatively regular periodic patterns[8]. The statistical chance of these patterns being a random occurrence is very small. Some of them may have been caused by physical factors (e.g. slight variations in the Earth's orbit over long periods, leading to a climate change). Nevertheless, it is conspicuous that new, and as a rule, more complex life always follows relatively soon after.


All the above makes it hardly plausible that new species could have arisen gradually by purely accidental transformation from one species into another.

  • [5]. Although it had its precursors, so-called punctuationism or punctuated equilibrium brought these facts to wider attention in the 1970s. It caused quite a stir, especially among dogmatic Neo-Darwinists, for fear that it could be used as a weapon against the theory of evolution as a whole.
  • [6]. Of course, ‘immediately' only in geological terms. For instance, Denton writes that ‘the evolutionary pattern was one of millions of years of stasis interrupted by periods of no more than 100, 000 years of rapid and sudden change' (1998, p.297).
  • [7]. Punctuationism, strictly speaking, is not ‘saltationism' (radical changes from one generation to the next or discontinuous appearance of new species), so it does not contradict the theory of evolution. It only adds weight to the argument that the traditional Darwinian mechanisms may not be the only factors.
  • [8]. The figure of 2.5 million years seems significant in this respect. Paleobiologist Sepkoski also suggests 26 million years, but according to Muller and Rohde, a 62 million year pattern is even more striking.

The increase of complexity

It is difficult to explain why more and more complex organisms have steadily appeared throughout evolution if every life form is supposed to be a result of accidental changes in the genetic material. The second law of thermodynamics demands that in any closed system entropy increases. This means that energy tends to go towards equilibrium, disintegrating into simpler forms, rather than integrating into more complex ones. In other words, a system inevitably moves towards the state of maximum randomness and disorganisation. Life, of course, is not a closed system, so an increase in complexity does not violate the second law. Nevertheless, it seems strange that at every level there is a tendency in evolution to produce something new and more complex, going persistently against that law - from relatively simple and crude forms to complex and refined ones. Polanyi and Prosch comment:

another unsolved problem arises from the continuous quantitative increase in DNA chains from those of bacteria to those of man - from about twenty million DNA alternatives to about twelve billion. DNA does not behave naturally. It moves from a lower energetic level to the higher, because it moves towards a higher complexity, which cannot be explained by DNA itself. There is no chemical model available to explain this enormous growth or the chemical explanation for this fundamental fact of the system, just as we have no chemical explanation for the historical origin of DNA or for its capacity to produce media that apparently anticipate the continued development of the embryo. (1975, p.167)

Materialists sometimes argue that all life could develop from a hypothetical first cell, as all new life develops from a single fertilised cell. However, a cell can develop into a complex organism only because all of the parts and instructions are in the original cell produced from conception. For large scale evolution, mutation must on average add information. It has been already demonstrated many times with detailed probabilistic analysis that this is extremely unlikely (most classic textbook cases of mutations cited in favour of neo-Darwinian evolution are, in fact, losses of information). So, it is incongruent to conclude that random mutations on their own can account for an increase of complexity.

Redundancy (two or more solutions for the same problem found in many species, such as the development of the vulva in the nematode) is a further challenge for the traditional view. Denton writes:

...the greater the degree of redundancy, the greater the need for simultaneous mutation to effect evolutionary change and the more difficult it is to believe that evolutionary change could have been engineered without intelligent direction. (1998, p.339)

Even if it is accepted that gradual incremental steps may in some cases accidentally lead to more complex structures, they could not do so in all. A comparison can be made with horse-drawn carts and motor cars. Carts and cars have some similarities (e.g. four wheels) and the same purpose, but cars did not gradually evolve from carts. Throughout centuries, carts had been steadily improved. However, in order to make a car, a leap that required the development and addition of several completely new components at the same time was needed. Even the simplest functional motor requires a few parts non-existent in the most advanced carts. And if just one of these components were missing, the motor would be nothing more but extra weight that the cart would be better off without. Similarly, the survival of a new species is dependent on all the necessary mechanisms (in at least a rudimentary form) being present to begin with. The problem is that obviously one gene mutation is not enough for more complex adaptation. But, if just two mutations are required at the same time to produce at least a slight advantage, the chance that this will happen accidentally decreases dramatically. One example from Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker may be a case in point (1986, p.97-99). Weakly electric fish use electric fields to navigate in muddy waters. However, this remarkable ability is of no use unless the body of the fish is absolutely rigid. To make up for this, the fish has developed one long fin, so that the rest of the body can remain still. Even with this fin, the movement of the fish is rather slow, but this is compensated for by its ability to detect electric fields in water. So, the navigation system is useless without the fin, and the fin is maladaptive without the navigation system. Their appearance had to be synchronous, but they require very different sets of genetic mutations (not to mention that these mechanisms must also be controlled by an appropriate nervous system and brain). Sometimes many simultaneous mutations are necessary, which makes chance, as their main cause, improbable. Considering that the vast majority of mutations are lethal anyway, it stretches belief that numerous beneficial mutations  can occur at the same time accidentally.

This issue is even more striking in relation to macroevolution, the emergence of new (usually more complex) species from earlier ones, especially if it is taken into account that intermediary forms are often not found, and that no breeders have ever managed to produce one species from another. To quote Denton again:

There are innumerable examples of complex organs and adaptations which are not led up to by any known or even, in some cases, conceivable series of feasible intermediates. In the case, for example, of the flight feather of a bird, the amniotic egg, the bacterial flagellum, the avian lung, no convincing explanation of how they could have evolved gradually has ever been provided. (1998, p.275)

Let us take one of these examples. No transitional fossil structure between scale and feather is known. This is not surprising, considering that a half-feather is  likely to be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. A feather has a quite complicated structure that is light, and yet wind-resistant. This is possible because of the complex system of barbs and barbules. Barbules on one side of the barb are rigged, and on the other have hooks. It is hard to imagine that chance mutations could produce this precise cross-linking of the barbules to make a connecting lattice. Even if the chance mutation of a ridge/hook occurs in two of the barbules, it also needs to be translated to the rest of the structure. Moreover, if the lattice structure was not lubricated, the sliding joint made by the hooked and ridged barbules would soon fray, which means that the wings would be useless. Many others adaptations are necessary to have birds that can fly (forward-facing elbow joints, navigating tail, strong wing muscles, hollow bones etc.). Even if all of them have developed gradually, each step had to be synchronised and the new must be so great an advantage that it compensates for the losses (of fully functional forelimbs or strong bones). Moreover, not only does each modification have to have sufficient survival value, but the related genes also have to be dominant in order to pass it on to successive generations. Of course, once this transformation has occurred, natural selection will select the better wings from the less workable wings. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by different mechanisms.

The problem of complexity for undirected evolution resides not only in the remarkable number of components that are sometimes necessary, but also in the fact that life forms are such highly integrated systems that their components cannot be changed independently. Any functional change would require specific compensatory changes in the interacting subsystems. For instance, a change in a protein structure would necessitate many complex simultaneous changes throughout the molecule to preserve any biological function. Denton concludes that ‘it is hard to envisage a reality less amenable to Darwinian change via a series of independent undirected mutations altering one component of the organism at a time' (ibid. p.342).

The above does not imply that complexity is irreducible, as proponents of Intelligent Design would like to present. For example, some components may have been adapted from existing structures that had a different faction, or more significantly, irreducibility may diminish on a molecular level. However, it still makes sense to challenge the claim that such complexities can be fully explained by the adaptive selection of purely accidental mutations.

Concluding Remarks

The above issues are not detrimental to evolution as such, nor do they necessarily lead to a conclusion that species were created as separate units by an external agency. For instance, the genomes of all organisms are clustered in a relatively small region of DNA sequence space forming a tree of related sequences that can all be inter-converted via a series of tiny incremental steps. So the sharp discontinuities between different organs and different types of organisms greatly diminish at the DNA level. What looks very different on the macro level, may not be so different on the DNA level: DNA sequence space it is possible to move at least hypothetically from one adaptation (position) to another in DNA space via functionless or meaningless intermediate sequences. This is because a DNA sequence does not have to be functional to survive and be passed on through the generations. In fact, the greater part of all the DNA in nearly all the cells in higher organisms, although it is copied faithfully at each cell division, is never expressed... It is very easy to imagine how an evolving DNA sequence might be passed silently down through several generations before being expressed... [this] means that new sequences and hence new evolutionary innovations can be generated, at least hypothetically, via functionless intermediates. Thus, new organs and structures that cannot be reached via a series of functional morphological intermediates can still be reached by change in DNA sequence space. (Denton, 1998, p.278-279)

Some genetic changes, especially in higher organisms, have been largely a matter of the rearrangement of pre-existing genes rather than the emergence of new ones. Information specifying the future of evolutionary events may be stored in so-called junk DNA (non-protein-coding DNA). Many such sequences have been conserved over millions of years of evolution. This, however, does not explain the enormous increase of the DNA chain throughout evolution, and even if it is assumed that these dormant genes are the key, the questions remains why they are passed over to the next generations when they are not needed, and even more importantly, why they become active just when they are. To repeat, these objections do not invalidate the idea of evolution as an organising principle, only its reductionist interpretation. The above arguments are an attempt to show that mechanisms that Neo-Darwinists use to explain the evolutionary process are not sufficient, strongly indicating directed evolution:

The sudden emergence of an entirely new type of organism, or of a functionally perfect novel organ system, would be almost impossible to account for except within some kind of directed evolutionary or teleological framework. (ibid., p.296)

If this is the case, it is reasonable to consider what is the minimum that such a framework would require.


The fact that the theory of evolution is incomplete does not mean that the older interpretations are necessarily right. The Old Testament account, for example, contains a number of incongruent and inconsistent statements that renders Creationist interpretations far less plausible than the theory of evolution. For instance, according to Genesis, fruit-bearing trees were created on the third ‘day', while fish and other marine creatures were created two ‘days' later. Whatever ‘day' is supposed to mean, the fossil record shows clearly that fish pre-dated trees by hundreds of millions of years. The existence of redundant organs and other imperfections (e.g. the position of optic nerves in the human eye) is another reason why the creation of species by intelligent design is extremely implausible. An omnipotent designer should do better.

However, there have been many theologians (notably from the Jesuit breed) who have not interpreted the Bible literally and have even attempted to incorporate the theory of evolution within a religious framework. A prominent relatively recent example is Teilhard de Chardin, who took evolution as a central tenet of his theology[1]. His essentially Hegelian vision, but extended beyond historical time, is far removed from conventional religious views with sometimes bizarre consequences. He argued in favour of the racial and cultural superiority of Europe, and even welcomed the atom bomb as a sign of humankind's triumph over nature. The other, more traditional position that can be traced back to St Augustine, emphasises God's transcendence, insisting that God only sets the starting parameters, after which nature follows the evolutionary path without any further interventions. It stems from the doctrine that the creation is perfect, so further interference is not necessary (such a view was taken to an extreme by deists in 18th century). This is also a challenge to the Biblical account that assumes the active involvement of God (from the story of Abraham to Jesus). In order to overcome these difficulties, philosopher Whitehead proposes a bipolar nature of God, one transcendent and one ‘in the world', but the tension between these two poles appears to create more problems than it solves. Without delving into detailed analyses of these perspectives, one conclusion is inevitable. In order to incorporate the accepted facts in a meaningful way, the understanding of the creator and shis involvement has to undergo an evolutionary process too.

  • [1]. In the East, a similar concept was espoused by Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.


The purpose of the above was to outline some problems with the current interpretation of evolution. However, just as the belief in chance being the main driving force is impossible to prove, an attempt to conclusively demonstrate that such a belief is incorrect is equally futile. Anything can happen by chance. Given an infinitely large eco-system and infinite time, everything is possible (although not necessary). But the eco-system of this planet is not infinite, and the time available, although huge, has not been infinite. So, the real challenge is, given these limitations, to provide a framework that is more plausible. It certainly makes sense to consider an interpretation that would give life and the evolutionary process a fair chance, rather than an astronomically small one.

In the mass of arguments and counter-arguments it is easily overlooked that Neo-Darwinism and Creationism have something in common. In both interpretations, life is essentially a passive material, moulded either by the all-powerful external agency or by ‘blind' natural forces[1]. The evidence, however, suggests a different picture. Species not only adapt to, but also actively create the environment (the present composition of the Earth's atmosphere, for example, is to a large extent created by the activity of organisms). Life has played a key role in maintaining and modifying its environments, which made possible not only its continuation but also the appearance of new and more complex forms. Thus, the Synthesis perspective considers life an active participant in this process, and suggests two additional factors that influence evolution - the one on the micro level and the other on the macro level. The first is individual choice and the other one can be called evolutionary intent. So, the process of evolution is seen as the result of natural selection and mutations that are not completely random, but influenced by individual choices and an overall accumulative tendency of life to grow and develop. In other words, a creative act is moderated by environmental restrictions. In principle, this is not something that goes against the grain of the theory of evolution. Darwin himself confessed: ‘I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification' (1859, p.69).

  • [1]. The Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that adheres to the Newtonian mechanistic model does not permit any permeability between the internal (e.g. genes) and the external (the environment). In other words, phenotype (behaviour, experience and the other characteristics of an organism) cannot affect genotype (its genetic constitution). So, not only is life completely passive, but the environment has only a selective function. According to this view, ‘blind' chance and ‘blind' nature work in parallel (or in sequence) but they do not interact.


That agency plays a role in the evolutionary process should not come as a surprise if accepted that it is one of the fundamental properties of life. It seems that even very primitive organisms exhibit agency. Choice can be recognised in the way organisms react to stimuli - and they react (in subtle ways) differently, sometimes even contrary to their urges or to what is expected. The influence of choice has been already recognised by a number of evolutionists (see, for example, Hameroff, 1998). This does not need to be seen as a form of Lamarckism[2]. Choice does not need to trigger genetic mutations or other chemical alterations. By making certain choices, an organism changes and affects its environment and its own subsequent preferences, which can indirectly tip the balance in favour of some genes rather than others. Popper (who named this ‘Organic evolution'), writes:

Thus the activity, the preferences, the skill, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual animal may indirectly influence the selection pressures to which it is exposed, and with it, the outcome of natural selection. (1977, p.12)

This is compatible with Darwinism and is not acknowledged only because those who would like to see life in mechanical terms are not at ease with giving any credence to a factor that is so non-machine-like. As for Lamarckism, it has received a fresh breath of life recently. A new field of epigenetics (that studies what regulates genes, what turns them on and off) provides some support to the notion that choices we make can affect which genes will be activated in subsequent generations. A number of scientists are working on accumulating the evidence but the verdict is still open. Even if minimally proven right, the reliance on chance would be reduced further, but these ideas would have to overcome scientific inertia before being accepted. What is important, for the time being, is to recognise that choice does play a role in one way or another.

Nevertheless, although choice may explain some adaptations within species better than pure chance, it is not enough. To explain the more global aspects of the evolutionary process (e.g. an overall increase in complexity) another factor needs to be introduced.

  • [2]. An interpretation of evolution that was very popular before Darwin, asserting that the striving of organisms is the major cause of changes. So (to use a typical example), giraffes have long necks because they were stretching their necks to reach leaves that were high up, which was gradually transmitted to subsequent generations. This description is worth including because it seems so common-sensical that even nowadays many people erroneously interpret Neo-Darwinism in a similar way (Neo-Darwinism does not allow any acquired characteristics to be directly transmitted to subsequent generations).

Evolutionary intent

Reductive materialism has its own reasons to reject the possibility that something else may be involved on the macro level besides pure chance. Polanyi observed that

the action of the ordering principle underlying such a persistent creative trend is necessarily overlooked or denied by the theory of natural selection, since it cannot be accounted for in terms of accidental mutation plus natural selection. Its recognition would, indeed, reduce mutation and selection to their proper status of merely releasing and sustaining the action of evolutionary principles by which all major evolutionary achievements are defined. (1958, p.385)

However, too much selection, synchronisation, and amplification of the mutation rate take place to make credible the view that random mutations are the only source of the ever increasing complexity. A number of scholars who do not associate themselves with the creationist account or any religious credo take this view too. Laszlo, for instance, writes:

One would need an almost blind faith in Darwinian theory to believe that chance alone could have produced in the line of birds all the modifications needed to make them high­ performing flying machines... it is hardly credible... that small random mutations and natural selection could have produced a dinosaur from an amoeba. (1993, p.98-99)

Evolution generally goes in the direction of more complex forms. Matter, on the other hand, is normally entropic, predisposed towards simplification, so it is unlikely that complex organisms would have developed if only physical and chemical processes were involved. This is not the only reason to reach a conclusion that evolution is not just a series of accidents. The uniformity of mutation rates may be another example:

The curious equality of mutation rates and evolutionary substitution rates and the just as curious uniformity of protein evolution which have caused end­less discussion over the past twenty years have not proved easy to reconcile with Darwinian explanations. And although in no sense can either of these two phenomena be claimed as evidence for design, they are suggestive of something more in the evolutionary process than purely random mutation. (Denton, 1998, p.383)

A further indication is also that evolution does not happen gradually as one would expect if Darwinism was completely right, but in leaps (rapid transformations) followed by long periods of relative equilibrium. This feature may point at something even more important. Namely, that the concerted intent of species, rather than the Intent, is responsible for evolutionary dynamics. If the Intent were directly involved, one would again expect a steady progress, there would have been no need for periods of stagnation. It is more likely, as already suggested, that the Intent is mainly involved in setting the boundary conditions by streamlining possibilities (in other words, enabling a fair chance), the rest is mostly left to life itself[3]:

If neither natural selection nor any other sort of undirected evolutionary mechanism seem plausible, then could they conceivably have been the result of the activities of life itself operating via some as yet undefined type of inventiveness inherent in all life?... even if much of the overall order of organic nature was determined from the beginning, it is surely conceivable that the Creator... could have gifted organisms not only with the capacity for growth, reproduction, inheritance and variability, but also with a limited degree of genuine autonomous creativity so that the world of life might reflect and mirror in some small measure the creativity of God. (ibid., p.364)

This implies that new species do not come from nowhere, there is no ‘invisible hand' that creates them. The difference between the Creationist and this view can be compared to seeing the universal agency as an engineer or artist who makes a tree, or as a gardener who provides the right conditions for a tree to grow (and pruning it if and when necessary). A number of scientists have by now come to the conclusion that life must harbour some fundamental order-generated tendency:

Already in mid [20th] century Hermann Weyl noted that because each of the molecules on which life is based consists of something like a million atoms, the number of possible atomic combinations is astronomical. On the other hand the number of combinations that could create viable genes is relatively limited. Thus the probability that such combinations would occur through random processes is negligible. A more likely solution, said Weyl, is that some sort of selective process has been taking place, probing different possibilities and gradually groping its way from simple to complex structures. (Laszlo, 1993, p.91-92)

Philosopher Henry Bergson argued for the existence of a unique vital impulse that is continually developing, implying that evolution was creative rather than mechanistic. He named this impulse élan vital (life force). Many traditions hold the same basic view. Hindus call the life force prana, Polynesians mana, Iroquois orenda, while in Islam it is called baraka. For the ancient Egyptians the world was permeated by sa, in China they use the term Ch'I. The notion of life force is discredited by its misuse in popular culture and dismissed by most scientists because it cannot be found. This should not be a problem in itself though; as already mentioned, gravitation cannot be directly found either. The effects of gravitation and other fields, however, can be easily measured, while the effects of evolutionary intent (that is a manifestation of life force) can be detected only over long periods. Nevertheless, the fact that evolution goes in the direction of increased complexity cannot be ignored, and this factor has potentially a greater explanatory power than blind chance or God the watchmaker. So, what is this life force? The suggestion here is that it is an intent of life to maximise existence and agency, which are the innate and irreducible drives embedded in every species.

Existence is manifested in a tendency to live, adapt and proliferate that can be called ‘drive to survive' or ‘survival intent' evident in all living organisms, but not in any inanimate objects. Biologists assume ‘survival instinct' but do not explain it, because it has to be causally prior even to genes. Otherwise, why would genes ‘want' to survive, maintain their complex dynamic structure as well as that of the system they belong to - the cell? Genes determine how organisms reproduce, but not why they reproduce in the first place. It is proposed that the energy intends to remain focused (which is a prerequisite of life). What helps in this respect, at least in the material world, are physical bodies. So, to realise itself, the non-material component forces the material one to fill in any gap that is available (like water that fills in any crack on its way),  which is why there is such a huge variety of living organisms. As Denton puts it, ‘the enormous diversity of the pattern of life on earth may not represent a full plenitude of all life forms, but it appears to approach closely this ideal.' (1998, p.383)

The agency, on the other hand, is not only manifested in the tendency (which does not need to be fully conscious) to exercise freedom or choice as suggested above, but also to increase it. Harman proposes that there is a ‘sort of teleological "pull" in the evolutionary process, of evolution towards increased awareness, complexity, freedom - in short, of evolution going somewhere (not in a predetermined sense, but in the sense of preferred direction)' (1998, p.49). This pull that is the driving force behind the leaps in complexity could be called evolutionary intent. It leads to further differentiation and fragmentation into more complex units (with their own self, awareness and intent), enabling individualisation of energy. Non-material energy though, can be self-actualised only through matter, so there is a general trend to push matter in the direction of more complex and integrated structures, which results in biological evolution. This could explain the anti-entropic trend of organisms.

However, evolutionary intent is weak, and needs to accumulate before producing any result, which is why the process appears punctuated. This can be compared with generating a new idea. It may seem as if the idea has come suddenly, out of nowhere, but this is not the case. The person has probably been focusing on the problem for a while. This is the process of incubation, the accumulation of intent, which eventually enables the idea to break through. So, new ideas are neither the gifts of muses nor a random process. The appearance of new species may be similar[4]. Organisms can live for long periods in a relative equilibrium that can produce some adaptive changes within species, but does not spawn different and more complex ones. The much stronger material side is essentially inertive and resists the change. The build-up of intent (usually at the ecological peripheries) is necessary in order to overcome this resistance of the existing equilibrium. This is a very slow process considering how weak evolutionary intent is. Environmental conditions, of course, also need to be right. However, although natural disasters may in some cases facilitate a change, they are not necessary. When intent sufficiently accumulates, the matter gives in, and some species undergo a number of simultaneous mutations in a relatively short period of time.

It is possible that on the non-material level there are connections between the organisms within a species (the more primitive, the more connections) and some between different species. So, individual intents may add up to the collective intent of species and these intents, in turn, may add up to the ‘global' intent, which (especially at the early stages of evolution) converges with the Intent, and can influence biological evolution. Denton indicates how this can be translated to the biological sphere:

...the genomes of nearly all organisms contain so-called gene families, which consist of multiple identical copies of the same gene. Surprisingly, these copies are often identical not only within the genome of one individual but in the genomes of all the individuals in the species. A variety of genetic mechanisms have been identified which act to maintain the sequential identity between all the copies of the same gene in any one species. In the early eighties Cambridge geneticist Gabriel Dover suggested that the integrated effect of these various internal mechanisms is potentially capable of causing synchronous genetic changes in all the members of a population. He termed the effect ‘molecular drive'. It is relatively easy to envisage how such processes could be utilized... to bring about cohesive directional mutational change during evolution. (1998, p.281)

  • [3]. This is, however, not straightforward. For example, oxygen was a by-product of the metabolism of simple organisms that dominated the biosphere for a long while. When the oxygen production had enabled the development of more complex organisms, these simple ones vanished. It is hard to avoid the sense of a subtle background influence of the Intent in some instances (perhaps a demise of dinosaurs is also such an instance, but it will never be possible to prove it).
  • [4]. Comparable ‘jumps' happen in the atomic world and also individual and social development. Relatively long periods of an accumulation of energy (an increase of pressure) lead suddenly to the leap of an electron, personal change in an individual, or a paradigm shift (in science, culture, or religion).

The direction

For ideological reasons Neo-Darwinism has to interpret evolution as directionless (directed evolution is incompatible with materialism). This, however, contradicts not only common sense but the facts too:

The very great complexity of life, and especially its quite fantastic holistic nature, which seems to preclude any sort of evolutionary transformations via a succession of small independent changes, is perfectly compatible with the notion of directed evolution. ( ibid., p.383-384)

Natural selection, acting upon random mutations, could never produce such results. Denton collected data on every level of biological organisation that renders directionless evolution unlikely. He concludes:

The evolutionary evidence is similar; it compounds. In isolation, the various pieces of evidence for direction, the speed of evolutionary change, the fantastic complexity of living things, the apparent gratuity of some of the ends achieved, are perhaps no more than suggestive, but taken together, the overall pattern points strongly to final causes... No other explanation makes as much sense of all the facts. ( ibid., p.384-385)

This, of course, does not mean that every biological blueprint is directed. Any particular form will depend on the available genetic material and environmental circumstances. There are many contingent adaptations (particularly noticeable in isolated environments). The evolutionary pull can be compared to the gravitational force that pulls river water in the same general direction. In conjunction with the environmental constrains a river-bed is created as a loose boundary that determines its general flow.  Within this flow some variations can occur that may appear to have a different (even opposite) direction or stagnate. Similarly, many evolutionary lines are dead ends. Although there is a general trend towards complexity, some organisms get stuck in evolutionary terms, and sometimes even regress. Nevertheless, as with a river, an overall flow is maintained.

Broadly speaking, two dimensions (or directions) of biological evolution can be discerned: the horizontal (characterised by an increase in organisation, integration and diversity - expansion of life to unoccupied environmental niches) and the vertical (characterised by an increase in complexity, specialisation and dynamics). Both processes lead to a relative decrease in entropy. From this perspective, animals, for example, are a step further ahead than plants in the process of evolution:

Animals are highly ordered systems that in contrast to most plants are largely synthesized from highly ordered (low-entropy) molecules. (Silver, 1998, p.352)

Ultimately, however, the aim of biological evolution can be linked to producing forms that would enable development of the non-material energy. This primarily means increasing and refining its main properties - awareness and intent, that are exercised through life experiences in the material world. So, the purpose of biological evolution can be defined as an enhancement of awareness and intent through developing more complex and independent biological forms. In other words, species become more aware and gain more control through the processes of evolution, fulfilling an overall tendency of life towards self-actualisation.

To avoid chaos though, this increase needs to be carried out in manageable steps, which is achieved through internal and environmental constraints. Thus, evolution can be seen as a result of the interaction between the material and non-material components of life, within the pre-set but dynamic boundaries that expand throughout the process. So, evolution starts with narrow awareness and intent that gradually develop, while the strength of biological and environmental determinism decreases. Greater awareness means that more energy can be affected by the self. The self is at the beginning a relatively passive observer and does not have a big impact, but through the process of evolution the individual selves become more pro-active and their influence grows. In other words, the role of intent becomes more prominent. It is reflected in a reduction of predictable, predetermined actions and behaviour.

To summarise, evolution enables individualisation and also the shaping and refining of energy, which is compatible with the overall aim of life. If evolution is characterised by the increase of complexity and organisation, and if the One is the source of the most complex and organised phenomena, the end result must be to become an equivalent, counterpart to the One.

This process is enabled mainly by a growth in complexity of the nervous system (more can be done with an advanced computer than with a simple one). Indeed, the awareness of higher organisms seems broader and more complex. Generally speaking, animal species are more aware than plants, and humans are more aware than animals. The self of an animal is capable of focusing (holding together) a relatively small range of qualitatively different pieces of information. Some of them may hear or smell better than humans, but they are not aware of much more besides these sensations, because their ability to organise and structure what they are aware of is limited. Thus, the consciousness that humans possess did not appear accidentally, but as a stage in the evolutionary process. There is a sound empirical basis for this assertion.


Some evolutionists agree that the appearance of humans could not be an accident:

With all these examples of convergence it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the evolution of a humanoid creature was very much on the cards since at least the time of the Cambrian explosion more than half a billion years ago, when all the major groups of animals we see today originated. (Morris, 2002, p.26)

This convergence of the evolutionary process is unlikely to be a random product of adaptation and is more compatible with directed evolution. All the distinct characteristics of humans (brain, tongue, standing upright) do not make sense if the Neo-Darwinian view is taken. They only have long term benefits (thinking, language and freeing hands to enable tool making) that could not be anticipated by purely biological evolution. It is worthwhile to look at these features in more detail.

The claim that human consciousness was developed as an adaptive mechanism does not seem valid considering that most (if not all) of it, in fact, did not have an immediate advantage. The human brain has unique capacities that cannot be rivalled by any other organ; because of the brain, humans are the only species on the Earth that can calculate, philosophise, produce art, contemplate God or the structure of an atom. Yet, none of these abilities were of any use when the human brain appeared (the brain did develop further, but not much, throughout human history). The first humans, as all other animals, could do well for what they needed to survive with a smaller and less sophisticated brain. In fact, it was a big disadvantage. The bigger head (to accommodate the bigger brain) made birth more difficult, which must have increased the mortality rate of mothers and newborns alike. The soft part of the skull, to accommodate growth of the brain after birth, made infants more vulnerable to injury. Heaviness of the head could only make balance harder, and disproportional consumption of the oxygen and glucose by the brain contributed to the species being less rather than more physically fit. Also, a big brain is accompanied by a slow physical development that enables learning, but leads to the off-spring being dependent on their parents for longer, which is another adaptive disadvantage. So, if adaptation to the environment was the only decisive factor, species with the human brain should have disappeared as soon as they appeared.

A similar argument can be applied to the development of the human tongue, which is quite different from a chimpanzee tongue. It has a thick muscle at the back which enables humans to speak (chimpanzees have a flat tongue). However, a bulky tongue makes swallowing more difficult and therefore those who have it less adapted. True, language appeared later to be a huge advantage, but what use could early humans have of their potential to speak, when no language yet existed? The argument that the thickness gradually developed in parallel with the development of a primitive language does not hold water. It is extremely unlikely that the several sets of unrelated but right mutations affecting the brain, speech apparatus, and skeleton would have happened within the same species accidentally. For example, to have the control over breathing that is necessary for complex speech, humans needed a wider vertebral canal behind the ribcage than their predecessors such as Homo-erectus had; also the larynx descended in the throat and by being lower, contributed to this ability. Such synchronised events would require directed evolution.

Standing up must have been an adaptive disadvantage in the early stages too. It made humans slower, they could not climb trees well, and injuring one leg would be fatal. Yet, it was necessary for the development of consciousness because it enabled the anatomical change of the thumb and the use of hands for tool making.

In 1927, biologist Julian Huxley (who was the first Director-General of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund[5]) wrote:

Biology... has thus revealed man's place in nature. He is the highest form of life produced by the evolutionary process on this planet, the latest dominant type, and the only organism capable of further major advance or progress. Whether he knows it or not, whether he wishes it or not, he is now the main agency for the further evolution of the earth and its inhabitants. In other words, his destiny is to realise new possibilities for the whole terrestrial sector of the cosmic process, to be the instrument of further evolutionary progress on this planet. (in Edmunds, 1997, p.172)

A view like this may be unpopular nowadays for the fear of human hubris, but if the main point that it contains is not recognised, there is a real danger that the unique responsibility that humankind has will go unacknowledged too. This point is that evolution continues through the individual and group development of human beings. As biological species, individuals and societies can also regress, stagnate, as well as progress. However, due to the complexity of the brain and its unprecedented dynamic, humans have a potential to substantially develop even within a single life. This potential for personal development makes the process incomparably faster than biological evolution, and also allows huge variety even within the same species. The next chapter will address this subject.

  • [5]. On the darker side, he is also associated with eugenics, although he quickly became its fervent critic, advocating that race is a cultural not a biological term.

Some possible questions

Why the animal kingdom appears to be so brutal?

Transitional physical bodies are not important in themselves, but what they are a vehicle for: the shaping and developing of energy and the passing on of genetic material so that the process can go on. Biological evolution is necessary for the evolution of the soul. Preserving the bio-environment, so that organisms can continue to develop, is more important than self-preservation. The more primitive organisms are, the more readily they perish after reproduction. This is because there is a very limited chance for progressing while attached to a relatively simple organic form.


If there is the evolutionary intent, why are there still so many simple organisms?

Biological life is interdependent, more complex organisms cannot survive without simple ones. This does not mean that evolution is deliberately stalled in some cases. There is a constant influx of crude non-material energy that needs primitive organisms.


What is the fundamental difference between animals and humans?

Both, animals and humans, have the self and soul. So, animals are aware and self-aware (e.g. they can be aware of their own pain), but their ability to construct reality, to integrate their experiences, is very limited. They are not able to conceptualise, so any mental structure relies chiefly on the consistency of immediate physical sensations. In this respect their experience resembles a dream-state (e.g. the past, the future or reality outside their vicinity is non-existent or fragmented at best).  Also, they do not have ‘I', a mental representation of themselves, so the inner and outer world are far less separated. As a consequence, they cannot distance themselves from, organise and reflect on their experiences, which means that it is unlikely that they can affect the content of their minds. Humans, on the other hand, can connect clusters of experience in much more elaborate ways because their brain size and structure is more complex (there are forms of connectivity among nerve cells not found in any animal). These connections lead to separating the internal and external further, which enables them to interpret, create and reflect upon the materials of awareness (giving rise to art, for example). However, as already mentioned (p.166), this ‘barrier' makes humans less open to more direct experience and interactions, which does not seem uncommon in the animal kingdom (see, for example, Sheldrake, 2000).


It is suggested that four factors influence individual development: nature (genes and the physical environment), nurture (the social environment), choice (exercising one's agency), and the ‘shape' of the soul[1]. The first two factors have been examined thoroughly in psychology, while the other two have been largely ignored. However, the studies on identical twins, who have also shared the same environment, show that their traits correlate only to about 50%. Evidently, nature and nurture are insufficient. Out of those four factors nature and the ‘shape' of the soul are the givens responsible for the character. A new born is not a blank slate -  certain potentials can be already recognised in infancy. Innate character though, can acquire different forms and be modified throughout life, which makes one's personality. This is where the other two factors, nurture and personal choice, play a role. Turning to development itself, it is possible to distinguish two types: the quantitative and the qualitative.

  • [1]. This last one deserves special attention and will be discussed in the following chapter.


Quantitative development refers to developing capacities such as cognition, volition, affect, skills, etc. It is indicated by an increase in certain characteristics (some of which roughly correspond to the characteristics of biological evolution). The list of such characteristics is proposed below. This list may not be exhaustive and does not imply that all of them are necessary:

  • Dynamism (e.g. interest, curiosity, a desire to learn)
  • Complexity and differentiation (e.g. being able to recognise the composite elements of a whole; a capacity to grasp different viewpoints)
  • Organisation and integration (e.g. an ability to connect and keep together various elements of a concept or operational segments of an activity)
  • Perspective (e.g. considering long term plans, other people, global issues)
  • Refinement (e.g. sensitivity to nuances, details or subtle points)
  • Diversity and versatility (e.g. a variety of interests, knowledge or skills)
  • Flexibility (e.g. an ability to incorporate or adapt to a change)
  • Creativity (e.g. capacity to generate something new)
  • Internal control (e.g. an ability to delay immediate gratification, self-discipline)
  • Productivity (efficiency in utilising one's potentials and energy)


This type of development refers to progressive changes throughout the lifespan and involves the concept of developmental stages. Despite individual differences, it seems that some commonalities can be discerned in this respect. It was earlier proposed that the soul grows due to information, experience and intent. Thus, the three corresponding dimensions of development are suggested. They also correlate with the three dimensions of meaning. This is not surprising, since development is progressive and, therefore, intrinsically meaningful.

Each dimension has four points, representing the four stages: physical, conventional, personal and transcendent[2]. This is, of course, an idealised schema - each stage has sub-stages and there are huge variations within them. Also, they are not inevitable, the rate of change and the final stage reached differ widely from person to person.

It needs to be pointed out that the subsequent stages do not replace the previous ones, although they may modify them. Quantitative development (developing various capacities) within each stage can continue throughout one's life. This implies that a person on a further stage of development is not necessarily better or superior (as a third year student is not necessarily better than a second year student). Any aspect of a person can be well or poorly developed at any stage. In addition, although further stages may bring more freedom, there are also more chances to abuse it, so they require greater responsibility. Life is not easier at further stages. People face different challenges, that is all.

  • [2]. These stages can be generally related to the domains distinguished in existentialism: Umwelt, Mitwet, Eigenwelt and Überwelt (Binswanger, 1946, Boss, 1963, Deurzen-Smith, 1984) and also to Wade's notetic model (1996): Reactive (1); Naïve and Egocentric (the transition between 1 and 2); Conformist (2); Achievement and Affiliative (between 2 and 3); Authentic (3); Transcendent and Unity (4).

Development of the rings

Horizontal development is concerned with information and knowledge that enable the formation of the rings[3].



The first ring starts taking shape possibly even before birth and consists of the two processes: synthesising the body image and the world image, and separating these two. The latter one derives from a discrepancy between the perceived continuity of one's body and discontinuity of external reality (e.g. people ‘disappear' when they walk away) and a discrepancy between what can be directly controlled and what cannot. So, the infant starts perceiving the world as a whole, and at the same time, shimself separated from the world (which often causes anxiety). This differentiation happens gradually. At the beginning, the external is internalised, a child is in a unity with the world, but not fully conscious. As animals, infants do not know that the external world, as something outside their experiences, exists. Dreaming and reality are the same (in other words, everything is like a dream). This is why a newborn feels omnipotent; s/he is like a god in shis own world. Before the formation of the other rings there is only the present, the abilities of temporal (the past and the future) and non-temporal (abstract) thinking are not yet developed. The practical (kinaesthetic) learning mode, in conjunction with the environmental feedback, is dominant. Language is limited to simple signifiers representing single objects (‘mama', ‘doggy'). Usually, the first ring is formed around age two, but it can continue to change and grow throughout the life-span (in terms of quantitative development).


The second ring - the most important factor for its formation is the language acquisition. This ring is not based only on precepts but also concepts, which leads to further separation, expansion and greater freedom. Animals do not have this ring, so they cannot manipulate cognitive elements available to them. Conceptual thinking is a huge step in organising mental constructs (it allows, for instance, generalisation: the word ‘chair' can refer to any imagined or perceived chair). The theoretical learning mode, in conjunction with social feedback, dominates. The term ‘theoretical' is used in a broad sense that may include, for example, stories or myths since they do not have a direct practical value. This mode is mental and indirect (because it mainly comes through others). The second ring is normally formed by puberty although, as in the previous case, it can carry on developing even later.


The third ring typically starts forming around puberty or early adolescence. Usually at that time young people begin to seek the answer to the question ‘Who am I?'. This is not to say that self-identity does not exist before adolescence. However, the various concepts of ‘I' that have existed up until this point begin to coalesce into the kind of person one is and will become (Lloyed at al, 1990, p.723). The fluid personality of the child gives way to the firmer, more stable personality - ego. When ego is fully formed, one can ‘separate the self cognitively from embeddedness in the social system' (Wade, 1996, p.135), which leads to greater independence. The methods that contribute to the formation of this ring are reflection and self-reflection: examining and often reorganising beliefs about the world and oneself. They are the result of an ability to separate, distance oneself from the world and the I (a past, present, future or imagined I). All the rings are formed through relations (in the case of the first ring to the physical world, and in case of the second to the social world or culture). A relation, however, also requires a distance (there can be no relation without some distance) - in this case from oneself. So, self-reflection derives, as it were, from the interaction between the person and shis ‘I' that serves as a kind of mirror. Reflection and self-reflection enable not only objectifying and observing the elements of the mind, but also their deliberate restructuring, which increases choice. So, these processes contribute to the formation of the third ring by transforming the materials from the first two rings as well as by producing new ones. This is not to say that the third ring disposes of the previous ones, even if some of their elements may be abandoned. For example, the person at this stage may not believe in Santa Claus any more, but the idea of Santa Claus is still comprehensible to shim.


The fourth ring can start forming in late adolescence, which explains the tendency of that age group to discuss ‘deep' issues. However, this process is in most cases quickly abandoned as impractical (usually reduced to conversations after a few glasses of wine and rarely considered seriously next morning). Such an attitude is to be expected, taking into account that, parallel to reflection at the third stage, the fourth ring relies on the intuitive learning mode and resonance recognition, so it lacks the relative solidity of the previous rings. It is mostly concerned with abstractions, processes and relations, and consists of general ideas, universal principles, or issues related to meaning. Everyday language is not always adequate to fully express and anchor these ideas. Moreover, this ring usually transcends divisions between various approaches and disciplines (i.e. science, philosophy and spirituality) and moves beyond ideological constrains. Not surprisingly, a person who operates from such a position is often seen as impractical or subversive of the existing structures. This may bring about a degree of social isolation, which is why it is difficult to sustain it.

  • [3]. Although there are some differences, the first three stages of this development can be compared with Piaget's stages of cognitive development (preoperational thinking; concrete-operational thinking; formal-operational thinking), and also, all four, with Fowler's stages of faith: intuitive-projective (1); mythic-literal (between 1 and 2); synthetic-conventional (2); individuative-reflective (3); universalising (4).

Development of experience

The ‘in depth' dimension involves the modes of experience[4].


The physical mode is a result of the interaction between the body and the physical environment. In other words, it is bound to the physical-ness of human existence. This mode starts possibly even in the pre-natal period and dominates early life. It can be associated with the range of physiological sensations, such as physical pain, hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, and those related to physical activity (vigour, tiredness etc.). The feeling of physical security (or its lack) can be included in this mode too.


The conventional mode derives mainly from a sense of belonging, being a part of a group or culture, and goes beyond physical experiences. It is especially prominent in ritualised situations such as religious ceremonies, weddings, or even sport events. However, this mode can also involve less situation-specific feelings, for instance fear and hatred (of those who are perceived to be different) or, on the other side of the spectrum, empathy, sympathy or care, especially for the members of one's group (e.g. one's family, culture, nationality or religion). Shame is also in this category - unlike guilt, shame is learned, socially induced.


The personal mode can be associated with personal depth (that may be triggered by external stimuli such as a book or music). It is possible to claim that every experience is personal. However, the distinctive characteristic of this mode is the element of absorption. For example, one may be in a crowd at a concert, and yet sink inside oneself - relating to the music, but excluding the crowd. Another example is a meaningful sexual experience. It involves a personal, unique relationship with the other, but it also excludes (at least momentarily) the rest of the world. ‘Flow' (absorption in a usually solitary activity) can also be representative of such an experience. On the other side, so-called ‘existential anxiety' (the consequence of recognising uncertainty as a life condition) is another typical feeling of this mode.


The transcendent mode transcends not only the physical boundaries but also the socially induced and ego boundaries, which is why an element of infinity may be present. One clarification is needed though. The transcendent mode is different from transpersonal experiences that can happen at any stage and are usually interpreted within the framework of that stage (e.g. the experience of a unity with the nature[5]). Such experiences can be induced, for example, by psychotropic drugs, while the transcendent mode cannot. They happen sporadically, often accidentally, are short lived, and ‘cannot be counted as a part of the modal repertoire' (Donaldson, 1992 p.235). The transcendent mode is more stable, and transpersonal experiences in this mode merge with other ones. To use Maslow's terminology, it is closer to a ‘plateau experience' than ‘peak experiences'. It may involve, for instance, transcending petty concerns, non-attachment, the sense of a larger perspective, and also the sense of connectedness, non-possessive love, or recognising beauty beyond personal inclinations, and it does not necessarily need to have a spiritual source[6]. So-called ‘existential joy' that transcends existential anxiety (a characteristic of the previous mode) also belongs to this category (see Popovic, 2003). Its most important quality though, is starting to experience reality in terms of processes rather than discrete objects. Reality is perceived in a less segmented way: ‘Spatial boundaries no longer appear stable but open and plastic, suggesting the permeability of permanent objects' (Wade, 1996, p.181). It is only natural that such a mode of experiencing leads to greater fluidity, decreased attachment to objects and, at the same time, the perception of an interrelatedness between them.


It should be emphasised that the above categories refer to the different modes of experiencing rather than the specific types of experience. The further modes are, in fact, inclusive in terms of the sources (or types) of experience. In other words, any event that can be experienced in early modes can also be experienced (albeit differently) in further ones, but certain experiences may be exclusive only to further modes. Eating may be an example. Food consumption can be a purely physical experience, when the focus is on the nutritional value, satisfying the need to eat; for the second mode a cultural embodiment is also important (e.g. a particular setting or type of food, the use of a knife and fork or chopsticks); the third would emphasise personal taste, and the fourth can perhaps best be described as mindful eating (after a form of meditation known in the West as ‘mindfulness'). On the other hand, it is hard, for example, to derive any meaningful experience from reading Joyce's ‘Ulysses' if in the first or second mode.

  • [4]. This dimension has been largely neglected in psychology possibly because it is more fuzzy than the other ones. The closest parallel to its four modes are Maslow's motivational levels: physiological needs and safety (1); belongingness and love (2); esteem (the transition between 2 and 3); self-actualisation (3); and transcendence (only included in his model later) (4).
  • [5]. Such a perceived unity is likely to be the result of a temporary expansion beyond the rings.
  • [6]. Peak experiences too do not need to be linked to the spiritual. ‘Transcendent ecstasy' can be triggered, for example, by intellectual activity, such as solving a mathematical problem (see Donaldson, 1992, p.305).

Development of intent

There are four levels to this type of development[7]. Potential freedom needs to be temporarily limited so, in a way, these levels have also a restraining role. Every further level first opposes the previous one and then, ideally, integrates it. So, development in this respect is not really a straightforward but dialectic process. A propensity for any level may exist in a latent form from the start, but they are expressed, in most cases, subsequently. This dimension has a special value because it relates to agency, and therefore it has the potential to directly affect other dimensions.


The physical level - this level starts from the moment the soul and body connect[8] and is manifested through the interaction of the body with the environment. In other words, one's own body is the reference point (what it can do and what it cannot). Physical determinism is dominant. An infant is driven by shis instincts and urges, of which the most important are the needs for body-preservation and physical development (that besides body growth also involves the utilisation of physical skills). Although rapid enlargement and activity of the neocortex can be detected, the senses and the so-called R-complex part of the brain are dominant. Considering that this level is to a great extent inertive, the challenge is to overcome indolence.


The conventional level - the physical level starts to be modified relatively early by significant others (i.e. parents) and culture; toilet training and acquisition of language are normally the first instances. This level is characterised by social determinism, known in psychology as nurture. One's reference point are cultural norms (that may be reinforced by socially induced feelings such as shame). Reaching this level is a gradual process that requires transcending the centrism of the previous one. The main motive on this level is social preservation, maintaining the sense of belonging and acceptance. Not surprisingly, emotions and the limbic system take a prominent role. As psychologist Turiel points out, ‘social behaviour is, in the main, guided by emotions; reason is, at best, secondary' (1983, p.7). So, the major challenge of this level is to defeat ignorance.


The personal level - the move from the second to the third level normally starts around puberty and can be fully reached during adolescence (although this is not a rule). It is characterised by the development of will, self-affirmation, independence and autonomy[9]. This level involves separating oneself (first of all from significant others, i.e. parents) at least in behaviour and actions. Such a tendency facilitates forming links based on one's choice, so, personal relationships (friends, partners) are valued most. Typical motives are personal happiness and personal power. One's ego (self-image) and personal norms become the main reference point. Intellect and the neo-cortex start to dominate. The challenge is to defeat self-importance (or arrogance).


The transcendent level can be achieved (but does not have to) in the post-adolescent period. The motive is to find a meaning in one's life, to re-establish integration and unity, but this time fully-conscious. In other words, the person is in tune (synchronised) with the Intent, the purpose of life. This is not to say that spiritual awareness is necessary. A meaning in one's life can be congruent with the meaning of life without our acknowledging or even realising it. What is required though, is dedication and commitment, although of course, not every dedication indicates this level. It involves transcending the personal (without losing oneself) for the sake of something greater: others, a generally worthwhile idea or activity, or spiritual practice. In a way, through its legacy this level can transcend even death. The challenge is to defeat selfishness (being capable of genuinely selfless acts[10]), which requires a move beyond ego-boundaries. This is difficult, because it entails giving up ego-control. The reference point is universal norms mediated by post-verbal intuition rather than cognitive principles.


From what level one acts can be recognised in almost any situation that requires choice, even in the most mundane ones such as buying a pair of shoes: the determining factors, if acting from the first level, are to keep feet warm and clean, and prevent an injury; the driving force behind the second one is likely to be cultural norms; at the third level it is important that the shoes fit the personal image. An overall motive at the fourth level could be that shoes are meaningful, purposeful (not conspicuous or a distraction in any way, but comfortable and congruent with one's overall goals or activities). This, on the surface, does not differ much from the first level, but is based on a deliberate rather than instinctual choice, which implies greater awareness and freedom.

  • [7]. They can be related to Loevinger's Ego Development stages: pre-social & symbiotic, impulsive, self-protective (1); conformist, self-aware (2); conscientious, individualistic, autonomous (3); integrated (4); and Kohlberg's stages of moral development: pre-conventional (1); conventional (2); post-conventional (3); and universal - stage 6 and 7 in his system (4).
  • [8]. When this happens exactly is difficult to say. The offset of awareness or agency needs to be determined, which is not easy. Almost certainly it is a pre-natal event, probably sometime between the first heart beat and the first kick (for a more detailed discussion on this issue see Wade, 1996, chapter 2).
  • [9]. Which should not be confused with the individuality of infants that is based on their character.
  • [10]. Unselfish behaviour can also be a result of up-bringing, social conditioning.


Several observations may be drawn from applying this model in practice. Firstly, it does not seem that an individual needs to be at the same stage in all these dimensions. In fact, people are often not (which creates difficulty for theories that do not recognise the different dimensions). To illustrate this point, the development can be represented with three figures where the first one refers to knowledge, the second to experience, and the third to intent. For example, fashion followers can be generally characterised in this way as 2, 1, 3[11]. Number (2) indicates that their concept of fashion is dictated by others or the media. This is applied to the physical experience (1) (as long as clothes are considered to be so). However, they are making a personal choice (they are not conditioned) to follow a particular trend (3). In comparison, those whose appearance is defined by their culture or a religious creed would be 2, 1, 2. On the other hand, 2, 1, 4 may refer, for instance, to the disciples of a yoga master. The first figure indicates that their knowledge depends on a teacher, the second that the focus is on the physical, the body, and the third that they are dedicated to transcendence. Those who practice reflectively would be 3, 1, 4, and those who abandon attachment to even their own way of doing yoga and follow intuition would be 4, 1, 4. A stage of development is, however, not stable and may fluctuate from situation to situation. Reaching a particular stage means that one's repertoire is expanded, not that the person remains always there. In fact, sometimes it is more appropriate to utilise or operate at earlier stages, in order to avoid a conflict with others or unnecessary complications (e.g. the 1st ring is normally most conducive to driving). Moreover, quantitative development plays an important role too. Any stage of any dimension can be well or poorly developed in this respect. Even a whole dimension (e.g. experience) may be neglected, which is different from being at its early stage. This all shows that although developmental models can be useful tools, any generalisations based on them (including the ones above) may not capture the complexity of real life.


One issue has not been addressed so far: the motivation for individual development. Of course, it is to some extent intrinsic (especially at the early stages) but this recedes over time. Many arrive at the point of asking themselves ‘I am going to die any way, so why bother?' For this reason, it is important to consider what may happen after death and whether development may continue. This is the subject of the next chapter.

  • [11]. The numbers represent stages: 1 - physical, 2 - conventional, 3 - personal, and 4 - transcendent.


The Method

All four methods described in chapter five (phenomenological, inductive-deductive, transpersonal and reasoning) can contribute to this subject, but each of them is understandably somewhat limited,  so combining them is essential in this case:

  • Relevant materials from various traditions (the Tibetan Book of Death arguably still being the most authoritative one). Phenomenological method can help in separating the essence from its cultural embodiments. Discerning commonalities from different backgrounds may also be facilitative, although they could stem from cross-cultural fertilisation, rather than genuine similarities in experience[1].
  • Research on Near Death Experiences (NDE). This source, however, can account only for the first stages of life after death and relies on untrained subjects (although some aspects of their reports can be verified).
  • Transpersonal insights are essential, but they can be easily misinterpreted (e.g. they may relate to something else, rather than life after death).
  • Reasoning is limited in its generating role, although some deductive inferences can be drawn to make an account complete. This method can also exclude elements that are inconsistent, incongruent with the available facts, and superfluous.
  • [1]. For instance, in Ancient Greece, Empedocles and Plato adopted the idea of reincarnation from the Pythagoreans, and Pythagoras himself had probably learned of it from his contacts with India.


Death has several purposes. It enables evolution, the emergence of more complex physical forms - without death the planet would soon be populated by primitive organisms and new ones would have no chance to appear. It is also an act of mercy on the biological level. The suffering of trapped, old, sick or injured animals would be indefinitely prolonged if there was no death. Death may also contribute to the individual development. Errors and mistakes of body and mind may accumulate during a life time to such an extent that is difficult to reverse them. Reincarnation (that will be discussed below) could offer a fresh start and still enable continuity, but reincarnation is impossible without death. Social development benefits from death too. If generations did not change, the societies would be far more conservative, solidified in their beliefs and practices.

Death is better considered a process rather than a point, and can be defined as the irreversible cessation of body functioning. However, this does not mean necessarily the end of life. Being an attribute of focused energy, life cannot cease to exist (as long as it remains focused), it can only be transformed. From this perspective, it is plausible that the soul continues its existence after death. Empirical support for the claim that an aspect of the human being remains alive after the body stops functioning is provided by research on NDEs (e.g. the work of professor Peter Fenwick in the UK). Because it is very difficult to locate the precise time of their occurrence, it is sometimes claimed that such experiences, in fact, happen before or after the period of brain inactivity, and therefore are a product of the brain. However, in several cases it was confirmed that they took place while the brain was not showing any activity. There are a number of other attempts to explain these experiences from the materialistic perspective, but none of them seem fully satisfactory[2].

A more contentious issue is what remains after death. Generally, there is a consensus that the body must return to its natural entropic state[3]. However, a dualistic perspective, that identifies the soul with the mind, entertains the possibility that the mind can be preserved in its entirety (including all the memories, for example). There are several objections to this view: firstly it is unlikely that the mind can be fully preserved, considering the extent to which it depends on the brain. Secondly, many materials of the mind are domain-specific so it would be pointless to preserve them when the environment changes (e.g. what would be the purpose of knowing traffic signs in non-material reality?). The Synthesis perspective takes a view that the mind gradually disintegrates, but the non-material component of an organism (the soul) remains. When the body ceases to produce oscillations that resonate with the soul, the soul separates from it. The aura also slowly breaks down. If the resonance is what connects the soul and the body, full separation may not occur even when the brain stops functioning, which is why people can ‘return' after having an NDE.

  • [2]. For their more detailed analyses see for example Blackmore, 2005b, and Wade, 1996, chapter 12.
  • [3]. It is occasionally believed that even the body can be maintained in non-material reality but this is out of question. A body consists of atoms that are kept together by nuclear and electro-magnetic forces. If these forces do not apply, anything physical would be highly unstable - atoms would break up into energy, which would be the equivalent of a nuclear explosion. On the other hand, if that realm allows these forces, it could not be much different from material reality and should be susceptible to the effects of entropy (further deterioration). This point is brought up only to eliminate some unrealistic NDE claims.

The Intermediate Stage

NDEs can shed some light on that twilight zone between physical and non-physical life. There are several common elements of such experiences (largely independent of culture, age, education, or religious affiliation) that are worth considering.

  • An OBE is, as a rule, a prelude to a NDE. Subjects report that they perceived the situation from a different point of view than where their bodies were, and were able to describe resuscitation procedures in detail (although they appeared unconscious and their eyes were shut). However, considering that an OBE can happen in other circumstances, these experiences do not say much about life after death, except adding to the argument that the body and mind cannot be identified.
  • Going through a tunnel or other passage with a bright light at the end is also commonly reported. Researchers do not provide an explanation of what this ‘tunnel' may be and whether it relates to something real (except misguided ones, such as that it is the memory of passing through the birth canal). One possibility is that the awareness shifts towards the other opening of the soul (towards non-material reality), but that would mean leaving the rings behind, which does not seem to fit well with the description of such experiences. Individuals sometimes tend to meet relatives and religious figures, which indicates a projection. Therefore, the rings must be involved, we do not lose our constructs immediately after death. A more plausible explanation could be that the soul goes through a tunnel that the rings themselves create. The purpose of it is to be able to maintain the rings in non-material reality. In other words, to minimise confusion and preserve one's own identity without the support of physical reality, dividing the two worlds is required. Such a separation is constructed as going through a tunnel or a corridor, and just as frequently, as crossing a river or a bridge.
  • Subjects often report that their lives passed in front of their eyes. The freeing of the soul from the body may cause energy shifts, so suppressed experiences can resurface. They can trigger such a swift succession of images that they cannot be distorted (as they are in dreams) and, therefore, resemble real memories. It is sometimes claimed that the whole life is repeated, but this is likely to be a result of later interpretations.
  • Acceptance of death and the sense of calm and purpose that can remain well after an experience and profoundly change the outlook on life of those who had them. These are non-interpretative phenomenological experiences that can be taken seriously. They make a difference between NDEs and pathological states that are sometimes invoked to explain NDEs. It is worth mentioning though, that even after an accident or serious illness that does not involve NDE people can have an enhanced sense of well-being and contentment. However, it is usually short lived and not accompanied by calm and acceptance or death as in the previous case.

Possible trajectories

There are three major beliefs (with many variations) about what happens after death: one is that nothing happens, the other is reincarnation, and the third  is that the non-material aspect of the human being continues to exist in a different reality. Surprisingly, it seems that there is scope for a synthesis even here. Each of these interpretations are to some extent right, but they are burdened by ideological baggage that makes them seemingly incompatible. In other words, they are all epistemically valid, although the degree of their ontological status may differ. To draw a parallel, when swimmers reach the other end of a swimming pool, one can stay there and do nothing, the other can swim back, and the third can get out. However, the first one will eventually have to either swim back or get out, and the second one will eventually have to get out.

Several conclusions related to this subject can be drawn from the previous arguments. First of all, if the soul is non-material, it does not return or go to another world after death - the soul has never left that other world. What happens is that it loses the connection with and the support of the body. The soul can still remain a discrete unit of energy in non-material reality because it has a centre (the self) and also its unique ‘shape' (the distribution of energy) that was re-formed during physical existence. This shape  may be to some extent affected by the rings, but cannot be identified with them. It is more fluid and is sustained by an internal cohesive force, rather than structures acquired from the outside. The shape gives a character to the soul and does not disappear. The rings that are created through an interaction with the brain and the physical environment cannot be indefinitely sustained though, and slowly fade (the difficulty is not only to preserve their elements, but also their coherence). So, after death, constructs created during one's physical existence eventually disintegrate (which is to be expected, because they are not relevant any more). However, their effects, the imprints that they leave on a soul (the knowledge and experience content) are incorporated into its shape. In other words, the form is forgotten, but the essence remains. This may be compared to a computer disc that preserves a particular code, but not words and images. On the other hand, without the restrictions of the heavy brain, awareness has an opportunity to expand, and what happens after that is likely to depend on the stage of development achieved during material life. Several options are possible: the soul merges with a larger unit, reincarnates or, if the self is capable of keeping its energy together, remains aware and intentful in non-material reality. The following descriptions of these options are an interpretation that does not need to be taken onboard. What really matters is the notion that development can continue even after death.

  • A soul is sometimes still connected to a larger energy unit (physical separation during material life does not mean necessarily that individual souls are fully separated in the non-material domain). In this case, the soul again becomes a part of the larger whole, within which it may still maintain a limited individuality or it can merge fully.
  • If the body and bodily instincts were the main driving force during material existence the soul cannot, on its own, remain integrated after death (the first ring easily breaks when the soul loses the support of the senses and body to provide security and anchor it). Two reactions can be expected: panic, which leads to a rush attachment to any available new body or a (spontaneous or possibly assisted) enfolding of the soul, similar to a sleep without dreams, a state of rest and preservation until the next life begins. This means that the soul ceases to be aware of anything until a new life (which fits well with the materialists' view that nothing happens after death).

If the main force in life was social determination, the second ring can preserve the soul integrated for awhile. The experience is interpreted according to the cultural framework adopted during the lifetime. A person gives a recognisable shape to a new experience. Non-material energy takes familiar forms (relatives, angels, religious figures[4]). These constructs can persist for a while on the basis of inner ‘monologue' or for even longer if a collective framework is created and supported by mutual interactions among participating souls. Nevertheless, those constructs do not have the same solidity and durability as in physical life (they create a state similar to a dream). Without the support of the brain and material world, sooner or later they also fade off. The second ring starts falling apart. The length of this process depends on how much the soul is attached to socially conditioned elements and whether they are reinforced by other souls. When this ring eventually disintegrates, awareness expands, but the soul that heavily relied on such constructs is unlikely to be able to adapt to the new, so the same happens as in the above case (i.e. reincarnation). On the other hand, if the person managed to transcend shimself within the conventional stage (through shis actions, for example), it may weaken the attachment and make possible to remain in non-material realm.

  • If during physical life a person was predominantly on the third (ego) stage of development, shis soul is likely to be fully separated. An individual can temporarily create shis own environment, so personal expectations are fulfilled. The soul of a convinced materialist, for instance, can spontaneously enfold leading to ‘hibernation' and supporting the belief that nothing happens after death. More commonly, the soul can create the world of shis desires. Such an ego-created ‘world' can be shared and supported by other souls that have similar affinities. However, this ego shell can consume much energy and be limiting. Furthermore, being transfixed with these identifications can become a trap. As long as the self is identified with ego, awareness is restricted (like awareness in a dream that is narrower than when awake). This is similar (although more intense) to being so involved in a computer game, fantasy or dream that one forgets the real world outside. The third stage, however, is notoriously unstable, so sooner or later the third ring also starts to break down. As in the previous instance, a soul at this point does not need to reincarnate any more if it is capable of opening enough and accepting the new, but this is far from easy. When reality is faced, the experience is still susceptible to personal interpretations and can look like Heaven or Hell. Heaven and Hell are in fact the same (an analogy can be drawn with, for example, London, that can be Heaven for one individual and Hell for another). It all depends to what extent the shape of the soul fits the new environment. Moral sense and an ability to give up personal importance play a significant role. For instance, people who, during their material existence, used physical strength or money to control others may feel lost because there are no bodies or money any more. In short, unless the person is able to transcend, reincarnation is again the most likely outcome.
  • If the fourth stage of development was dominant (at least in one dimension) the self is likely to be able to preserve and control energy with expanded awareness. This is not to say that it is easy to maintain the soul coherent (as a separate unit) without the support of the rings, but transcendent stage is a good preparation in this respect. The fourth ring does not even need to contain elements about the non-material aspect of reality if a sufficient degree of non-attachment (to the constructs of the world and one's own ego) is involved. Thus, reincarnation is not needed any more, although it is traditionally believed that some souls may return to assist the collective development[5].
  • [4]. please add footnote
  • [5]. This must be a hazardous undertaking because it is necessary to start from the beginning (such souls have to, of course, forget themselves first, and only in time remember or learn again).


Reincarnation is, by far, the most frequent occurrence, which is why it deserves special attention. The pioneering work of Ian Stevenson and recently of other researchers can provide some fairly credible empirical evidence (as far as it can go) in this respect. From the Synthesis perspective, it makes sense that every soul goes through a series of lives. Reincarnation enables development of awareness and intent through experiences in the material world (although, of course, these experiences could also have negative effects). Thus, every physical life is an opportunity to increase awareness and control and to improve the ‘shape' of the soul (so it is unlikely that a human soul would connect to an animal body, for example). The soul can stop reincarnating when a heavy and slow body is not necessary any more to keep it together - in other words, when a crude moulding is finished. Until the shape is optimal, until the self is able to maintain, expand and control energy without the help of the body, the soul goes from one life to another. When the first ring breaks apart, the other rings can maintain the energy coherent and separated from other souls, but only temporarily. Sooner or later, they break apart too, and the soul is, in most cases, again attracted by matter.


Previous lives are hard to remember because there is no connection - the associative chain is discontinued. As when we dream, not only do we not remember the awake state, but we usually don't remember previous dreams either. We are attached to the experience of the dream we are in, so if there is no link, there is no propensity to remember. How can one remember previous dreams, if s/he does not even know that s/he is dreaming? Even more importantly, those memories have lost their form and coherence (because the rings have broken down). Overall, this is an advantage, the previous memories could be confusing and not conducive to development (if you played draughts, and now you are learning how to play chess, better to forget draughts). Sometimes, however, especially in the cases of a sudden death and a rapid return, the rings do not dissolve completely, some ‘pieces' may be still left attached to the soul after it connects to another body - which is why some people can recall a few fragments of their previous lives (but this is likely to be a less frequent occurrence than reported in popular literature). Snippets of memories can also be reconstructed by corresponding energy configurations and are normally accessed outside the present context (e.g. in sleep). Moreover, they are influenced by current experiences, so their interpretations may not be always correct.

Some possible questions

Why individual souls reincarnate?

It enables the continuity of individual development alongside the collective one, which accelerates the evolutionary process.


Can a collective soul also reincarnate?

Some collective souls of relatively primitive organisms can reincarnate (although they normally evolve). Complex organisms such as humans, as a rule, reincarnate individually, although there are some indications that they may be connected to something that would be an equivalent of a collective ring.


Is there such thing as karma?

It is plausible that the situation and the body a soul is reincarnated into depends to some extent on the shape of the soul, which in turn is influenced by the earlier experiences and conduct. However, this is a much more complex phenomenon than usually presented (that would require a book on its own). So, the fact that somebody is born in unfortunate circumstances cannot be taken as a sign that this person had done something bad in shis previous life. Such a linear interpretations are far too simplistic.


To what extent is the material life affected by prenatal experiences?

The soul can affect the person through pre-set intents and its shape, which is reflected in one's character. This is why (in addition to genes) even infants have character. Some intents can have a lasting effect on the shape of the soul and so can influence subsequent lives, although the person may not be aware of it or its source. However, other factors (physical and social determinants and choices we make) can override such effects.


When does the soul reincarnate?

The soul reincarnates when a new body is formed in material reality that can resonate with its configuration. This is a very complex process that depends on the genetic material, but also fluctuations in the social environment may be involved to some extent. The soul does not fully connect with the body immediately but gradually, step by step (which is determined by the development of the ‘containers' - the body and mind). Thus, although an initial connection is normally established even before birth, new connections (with the same body) can be formed throughout one's life.


There is substantial data indicating that a soul can retain a larger perspective for a while after connecting to the body and even after the birth (see, for example, Wade, 1996, Chapter 2). Only gradually, it seems, does awareness become restricted by immediate experience, and the rest is forgotten. There may be several reasons why this forgetting happens: the sensations from material reality are stronger; the shock of birth breaks continuity; or the fluidity of these experiences makes it hard to retain them. Forgetting non-material existence is also beneficial. Such memories could intensify feelings of alienation and longing, and prevent focusing fully on this world. In contrast, when the rings start falling off after death, the self can become aware not only of non-material reality but also some experiences (although not necessarily their forms) from earlier lives that were incorporated into the soul. In any case, memories become a part of a wider perspective (like when one wakes up). Not everybody can adapt to the new environment, though. The difference between the imprints that expectations and beliefs left on the soul and reality as it is, can cause emotional reactions (e.g. fear or loss) that lead to reincarnation.

(Self)evaluation of the previous life is a persistent component of life after death accounts, but is often misunderstood. The soul seeks coherence (it is difficult to keep the energy together if there are internal conflicts), so this is more about coming to terms with the past experiences and choices, than evaluation. The sense of meaning is also enhanced. This does not lead to uniformity. Being aware that there is a purpose does not automatically mean interpreting it in the same way, or even accepting and working towards it. Also, there may be a plurality of views as to what is the best way to realise the purpose. Establishing contact with other souls makes sense, but meeting one's earthly relatives or religious figures are most likely projections (which does not rule out the possibility that they are projected onto something real). One's grandpa, for example, usually appears as one remembers him, not as an old sick person on his death bed or a man in his prime (which would be more likely if he could adopt an image of his choice). That non-material reality is populated by a conglomeration of gods and demi-gods from various cultures who just happen to be passing by is also unrealistic[6]. The conventional stage may still play some role, but its elements will certainly not take earthly forms.


Certain differences between non-material and material realities can be discerned:

  • Non-material life is very dissimilar in appearance, but not so much in experience. There are no bodies, cars, TV, money, pets, computers, phones, books, clothes, genders etc. (although all these can be constructed as mental projections). Yet, there is no reason why familiar feelings such as fear, joy, hate or love should not be present.
  • Unrestricted experiences in non-material reality though, may have an additional quality of infinity. In fact, considering that the mind is affected by the soul, every experience potentially has this quality. It can be occasionally glimpsed even in the material world (as eloquently described in the first chapter of Colin Wilson's Outsider). But, because the rings have a tendency to close, this quality can be captured only for a moment. As soon as an experience becomes concrete, the element of infinity is lost (which often leads to disappointment). In the non-material world this does not need to be the case.
  • Time is linked to entropy, so time cannot exist in the usual sense. Attributes like near and far, before and after may still be meaningful, but they do not belong to a space-time framework. This is similar to a dream, when a dreamer can recognise these categories, although s/he does not operate within the space-time continuum.
  • Non-material reality is less solid, more fluid. This is not to say that it is experienced as such. Dreams too are felt as solid, although they are evidently not. However, this increased fluidity makes reality less stable. There is still permanency, but not of shapes or objects but the qualities of phenomena - similar to a river or sea or clouds that are lasting phenomena although they keep changing all the time.
  • The perception depends more on an inner state. For instance, if two persons in the material world observe a dog, they see more or less the same object, although the meaning and feelings related to it can be very different. For one person, the dog may present a danger and frighten shim, while the other may feel love and friendship towards it. In non-material reality those two persons would even perceive such an energy unit in a somewhat different way. So, not only the meaning and feelings can differ, but the perception too, because it depends far more on an interaction between the subject and an object (a form is created, rather than given). This does not mean that non-material reality is completely subjective, but the perception is heavily influenced by the state of the perceiver. As a consequence, it is much more difficult to communicate, understand and maintain a shared reality. A lot of effort needs to be invested to stabilise the image of reality without the help of solid matter, so the compatibility of souls that perceive in a similar way must be highly valued.
  • [6]. Regarding the visions of gods and demons The Tibetan Book of the Dead advises: ‘Be not terrified. Be not awed. Recognize them to be the embodiment of thine own intellect'.

Some possible questions

Can constructs be created  in non-material reality?

In principle, there is no reason why energy cannot be constructed even without the help of the brain, body and language, although such constructs are likely to be different.


If knowledge is a construct, does that mean that it falls off after death, and therefore is only useful during physical life? What knowledge remains  after death?

Forms that contribute to the structuring fall off (e.g. a particular language), but not the network that was established with the help of these forms. So, knowledge is not lost even if signifiers may be - only, it is not formulated in the same way as in physical life (it is not bound to specific end points and is also more fluid than when supported by the brain). Such knowledge is not a part of the rings that gradually break apart, but the energy configuration that corresponds to the rings and can be preserved after death. In other words, in the absence of synaptic connections, the implicit aspect of memories remain in the soul, although their specific form may be lost.


How is it that certain information can be preserved after death (at least temporarily), but some can be instantaneously lost following a brain-injury?

Temporary amnesia suggests that memories are not fully lost, otherwise they could not be retrieved. In some cases of brain injures a loss of memory may be even confused with an inability to communicate memories, but this cannot explain everything. A more complex way of looking at this issue is needed. Amnesiacs do not usually forget early memories, but only recent ones, which indicates that the rings are in the process of formation during the physical life, when the soul relies heavily on the brain. So, perhaps, only those memories that are not yet fully integrated are lost (like computer documents that are not saved). It is also possible that a brain injury actively prevents access to memory as long as there is a link between the soul and the brain (direct signals from the rings are weaker than those coming from the brain). Again, this can be compared with using computers. As long as a computer works well, a user relies on its ‘memory'. Suppose, however,  that the computer crashes and the user does not have a back-up. As long as s/he is attached to the computer, the effects of the malfunction apply. However, if s/he detaches from the machine, s/he may start to recreate what is lost from shis own more vague, less precise memory that nevertheless may bring about many pieces of information and their relations that can no longer be recovered from the computer.


Does the soul have an I? Is there an  identity even after death?

In non-material reality a soul can still retain the rings for awhile, and therefore an I. A soul that loses its rings does not have a projected identity, but it has its unique ‘shape'. This shape is, of course, less permanent and stable, but a soul in any case remains distinct because of its centre (the self) that provides a unique (first person) perspective.


Are all souls in non-material reality good?

There is no reason to believe so, considering that their development can still vary, that there is choice, and that there are different interpretations of what the purpose is and especially how to achieve it. Some interpretations are still necessary in the non-material realm, so even souls can be mistaken and delusional. The Intent may be beyond a dichotomy of ‘good and evil', but souls are not.


Can non-material entities affect the physical world?

Considering that there are beings in non-material reality at different stages of development, the question of whether they can influence the material world cannot be avoided. In the end, all that folklore about spirits, saints, daemons, angels and so on, is perhaps not utterly groundless. What is certain is that they cannot move mountains (or even chairs - the physical world is stronger by far). Yet, there is no reason why they could not operate on the boundaries of natural laws or communicate certain meanings or ideas, providing that there are recipients able to pick up such subtle information. This should not be confused with talking to dead relatives or auto-projections when one's own wishful thinking or fears get externalised (e.g. seeing winged angels or hearing voices forcing the person to do something). Spiritualists (mainly in the 19th century, at the time when the radio and other transmission devices were invented) developed ingenious methods to prove that communication with the deceased is possible. However, even the credible ones are open to different interpretations, so they remain inconclusive. In any case, assuming that an interaction with non-material reality may happen, it should be an exceptional phenomenon for several reasons: it is difficult to penetrate through the barriers of the world structure (those who attempt to establish the contact must open up to an extraordinary extent). The ways of communicating in two realities are different and difficult to make compatible. Also, there is a lack of interest, souls that are able to permanently remain in non-material reality should be aware that heavy interference would go against the Intent. The possibility of some sublime influences (of which source we cannot be conclusive in order to preserve agency) is not excluded though. However, they can never override individual choice. So even if a ‘message' is selected from the noise of the brain and interpreted correctly, it may still be ignored. In any case, such experiences are constructive only if necessary, so they must be rare. Any frequent occurrences or ongoing guidance would be, in fact, contrary to individual development, and therefore should be treated with scepticism.


Can souls die?

Unlike the body, the soul is not susceptible to entropy, so it cannot deteriorate or die in the common sense, ‘naturally' (which would also be an enormous waste). However, souls are only potentially immortal. They can cease to exist as separate units if one of the two fundamental principles, static and dynamic, completely takes over (it is most likely though, that in this case their energy becomes a part of the greater whole). If the static principle becomes so strong as to prevent movement and the exchange of energy, it may lead to the ‘extinguishing' of the soul. If the dynamic principle becomes so strong that the energy cannot remain focused any more, the soul disintegrates, dissolving the self. It is also worth mentioning that individual souls can be assimilated by other souls, which probably has a similar outcome.


Even if an individual soul manages to preserve itself as a whole, is it capable of surviving  on its own in non-material reality or must it join other souls?

It does not have to. Souls have intrinsic needs for coherence and development. Whether these needs are satisfied through personal transformation, independent interaction, assimilation, or integration with other energy units may vary from case to case. This is not to say that others are not important. After all, to fulfil the purpose, the unity of souls must be eventually achieved. So, the subject of interaction with others (in material and non-material reality) may be worthwhile consideration.


Besides the individual function, the mind also has a social function: it enables separation between souls, but also re-connection through an exchange of structured energy (no mind exists in isolation, but interacts with other minds). So, the others matter in every domain of material life, for both existence and agency:

1. In the physical domain others are important to maintain and perpetuate physical existence (cooperation, reproduction). Clearly, agency is dominant here, although others, of course, have a role regarding existence too (e.g. protection and help).

2. In the public domain others are important to create, maintain and confirm the image of the world and our own image through the process of socialisation. This is not to say that perception of reality is the product of a consensus. It does relate to something real, and cultural differences are not completely arbitrary variations. Shared reality is based on a similar range of sensory inputs and experiences, common language, etc. Existence dominates here, although agency also plays a role (e.g. creative expressions within the established paradigms through art, mythology, religion, literature etc.).

3. In the personal domain others are important to stimulate, to initiate energy shifts. A direct exchange of energy hardly ever occurs. Normally, energy first passes through the heavier filters, the body and mind. The rings act as shields, so others are rarely the cause of a shift, but they can be a trigger for the restructuring of existing energy (through our reactions). So, to what extent and what shift will happen, mainly depends on the person shimself, not on others (e.g. they do not upset us, upsetness is our chosen reaction that has become habituated). Obviously, agency dominates here again, although others may also serve as a mirror, to confirm one's existence.

4. Regarding the transcendent domain there is now mounting evidence supporting the commonly accepted wisdom that individuals and even whole groups can resonate, producing measurable effects at the time of heightened attention (see, for example, McTaggart, 2001, p.197-214)[1]. Expressions, such as ‘being on the same wave-length' or ‘feeling in tune' may be more than just metaphors. All this can have harmonising effects, linking the interaction in this domain to existence. However, in what way and to what extent agency can be affected is unclear. If there is any effect, it must be subtle so that freedom of choice can still be preserved.

  • [1]. This should not be confused with a collective consciousness. That individual wave patterns may converge does not means that they create a new consciousness.


There is one type of interaction that deserves special attention. The meaning of life cannot be just a theoretical concept, there must be an empirical equivalent at any level, including the level of human life. Otherwise, the suggested meaning is unlikely to be more than just a construct. It seems that such an equivalent does indeed exist. Love has an intrinsic sense of meaningfulness and infinity, which is why it is experienced as special.

Love is a very broad term regarding its typology and what it refers to (e.g. passionate love v. compassionate love; eros, philia, agape; caring love for children and elderly; not to mention some banal use of the term in everyday language, such as love for a particular type of food or activity). It would not be possible and necessary to address all these meanings here. The term is used in a much narrower sense, signifying a freely chosen intimate relationship between equal partners. It excludes infatuation (eros, passionate love), and agape (universal love or love of God) and is closest to philia or compassionate love (that should not be identified with friendship, to which it is sometimes inaccurately reduced).

If love is a reflection of the meaning of life, it is not surprising that the intimate relationships (which do not need to be restricted to only two people) is arguably the most complex phenomenon regarding human interactions. A good intimate relationship consists of an interplay between a tendency towards unity (which is also, on a larger scale, a prerequisite to the formation of the Other) and a tendency towards preserving separateness (enacting the separateness between the One and the Other). Although these two are intertwined, the former is what is prominent throughout the process of an intimate relationship (as well as through the process of achieving the final goal), while the latter acts as a corrective mechanism. So, the uniting will be taken as the dominant part, while the separateness can be considered (for the sake of simplicity) its ‘shadow'.

Love has the same function in every domain: the bonding of the bodies in the physical domain; the socially constructed bonding (a ritualised unity such as marriage) in the public domain; the bonding of the egos (and the ensuing personal attachment) in the personal domain; and finally the bonding of the souls in the transcendent domain[2]. The last one goes beyond the body and mind, so it can indeed transcend illness (mental or physical), old age or death. Therefore, so-called eternal love is indeed possible (providing that those involved can survive in the after-death environment).

This is, however, not all. Love is also the road to fulfilling the purpose. If individual selves are to become the Other, the counterpart to the One, they will have to eventually merge too. The only appropriate way to achieve this is through the act of love. Love is the force that allows this process. However, not despite but precisely because of it, this ultimate act is also a most hazardous event, which is not only recognised in spiritual traditions, but its echo reaches common experiences too. Love is highly valued and desired, but it is often linked to death and a sense of annihilation. This is because the final merging requires a merging of the selves (rather than just souls), which is a highly delicate process. If, at the moment of merging, there is a shred of desire for control, fear, or inequality, the result could be a moment of panic that can lead to one soul assimilating or being assimilated by another rather than merging together. So, the risk is much greater than even the risk of physical death. If the person dies, there is always another chance. If the self is lost, there is no other chance. In a way, this is the only real death. Not surprisingly, such an act can cause extreme anxiety. Yet, the merging of selves is necessary. This is why individual development must include moral development (that can be best justified as a preparation for the act of love) and also affective development (the development of the un-constructed aspect). Equality between the partners (that, of course, permits differences) is also vital[3]. Inequality is not appealing in any case, because it takes away agency, but more importantly, it is dangerous. An unequal love can lead to assimilation rather than the merging of the selves. In fact, the unification does not have to be the result of love or mutual choice among equals; it can also be the consequence of forceful or accidental assimilation. However, not only does this annihilate another self, but also the energy acquired through assimilation (a set of information and experience) is a ‘dead' energy, far less valuable than the active energy acquired through the merging of selves. So, a relationship that has a prospect of leading to assimilation rather than merging is unethical and far inferior.

Although the merging of souls can happen even in material reality, the merging of selves cannot, because the bodies always remain separated (therefore, perceptions, memories and experiences are also separate). This is good, considering that souls that identify with bodies are not yet ready for such an ultimate act. In fact, this final unification does not even happen at the early stages of non-material life but usually only at the later ones. Still, the journey of love leading to it starts here and is not restricted only to individuals. It may be hard to believe, but we are all already a part of this long voyage, which is the subject of the last chapter.

  • [2]. The other side, separateness, is also present in every domain: unbridgeable separateness of the bodies in the physical domain, divisions of social roles in the public domain, preserving autonomy in the personal domain, and independent selves in the transcendent domain.
  • [3]. So, loving God in terms of yearning to merge with God is pointless and likely to be rejected, as any lover usually instinctively rejects one whose love takes the form of inferiority. Therefore, love of God is best expressed through love of people.


Reducing social development to utilitarian purposes (e.g. maximising the chances of self-preservation or the transmission of genes) cannot account for the ubiquity of practices such as art, spirituality, philosophy and theoretical science (in its pre-application form). They play an important part in human life and yet largely do not contribute to, or at least are not primarily motivated by these ends. Human beings have an intrinsic urge to develop, and that urge is reflected in the development of human societies too.

The very term social development though, is abandoned nowadays in favour of social change because the former is associated with progress and there is a widespread opinion (in line with the dominant views at present, such as Neo-Darwinism) that there is no such thing as progress. The reasons for this, however, are not only ideological. There is a real difficulty to determine the criteria of progress (e.g. science taking over religion is progress for some, but not for others). What indicates progress from this perspective is a greater opportunity to increase overall awareness and freedom. Yet, even if this is accepted, there are other grounds to doubt progress: the destruction of fellow human beings and of the environment happened on an unprecedented scale during the 20th century. Fascism, Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge, the butcheries in Vietnam, the Balkans, or Rwanda, the damage to the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect are only some prominent examples. These distortions though, should not undermine a general positive trend. It was new freedom (accompanied with recklessness, arrogance and, to use Fromm's term, the fear of freedom) that arguably led to them. To make an analogy, although many engage in destructive and self-destructive activities in the period of adolescence, it is still recognised as a step of individual development. Indeed, the signs of maturation seem to be present in every aspect of life. Technology and science are self-evident. Developments in other areas of life may be less so, but they are still present; granted, not in every part of the world, but further than ever in some. Their indicators (relative to previous periods) are a greater egalitarianism, equality of genders and the protection of children; more widespread education and a decrease in superstition; greater freedom of speech and artistic expression; increased sophistication in spiritual awareness and philosophy (it is unlikely that Plato would pass a PhD exam these days with his writings). These achievements should not be undermined. They have been possible because knowledge, experience and constructive actions tend to accumulate. Of course, there are still many problems and serious mistakes are made, but they do not invalidate the whole idea of development. When society becomes more complex, it is expected to have more problems. Integral thinker Ken Wilber points out that, ‘as society adds levels of depth, there are more things that can go wrong at every stage' (in Horgan, 2003, p.63). It is undeniable that regressive and destructive actions are far from being eradicated. However, in the past, some of them, including ownership of other human beings, killing for entertainment, torture of ‘heretics', pillage and rape in wars, or subjugation of women were institutionalised throughout the world. Legitimised slavery, gladiator games, or the Inquisition are unthinkable nowadays more or less anywhere[1].

  • [1]. Some telling examples related to this point can be found in the chapter ‘The moral Zeitgeist' (Dawkins, 2006, p.262-272).


Quantitative development may be a result of internal processes but also competition, cooperation or integration with other societies. An increase of the same characteristics that typify individual development in this sense can indicate social development too, although of course, different examples apply: dynamism (mobility, cultural exchange, internal social processes); complexity and differentiation (of knowledge and skills); organisation and integration (of various segments within society); the width of perspective (e.g. taking into account the effects on other societies or the environment); refinement (in art, philosophy, science or spirituality); diversity and versatility (e.g. multicultural coexistence and cooperation); flexibility (e.g. an ability to incorporate or adapt to changes); creativity (e.g. technological and other innovations); internal control (e.g. autonomy, self-governance); productivity (efficiency in utilising resources).

The demise of the native Americans can be an example of how these characteristics can affect the very survival of a society. One such characteristic is increased mobility. When the Europeans arrived in America, the indigenous societies were almost wiped out. Disease was a major factor. The Europeans did not die (at least not in such great numbers) because they were more mobile, so their immune system was more exposed and better adapted to various diseases. Another feature is integration. Upon their arrival, the Spanish were by far outnumbered, were not familiar with the terrain and could not rely on regular supplies. Yet, they managed to conquer the natives, largely because of infighting and disunity. One more characteristic is an increase in complexity (knowledge). In the above example, what also assisted the Spanish was superior war technology. This is not by any means a justification for the conquest and atrocities committed by the Europeans. It is rather an attempt to understand why it could happen on the first place.


It is proposed that societies develop through stages akin to those of individual development[2]. After all, any society consists of individuals (although, of course, it cannot be reduced to them). This view was popular in the past, but has been abandoned at present not so much because of empirical data (that are open to various interpretations), but mainly because of two concerns: determinism and inequality.


Determinism - until the 20th century the determinism of social development was a popular notion among both, idealists (e.g. Hegel) and materialists (e.g. Marx). In the 20th century, however, the idea that there is a particular trajectory was abandoned. The idealist concept was not acceptable for its teleological overtone (this issue has already been addressed, so it will not be discussed here). The other concern was that such a determinism is incompatible with human freedom. If global social processes were fully determined, this could mean that historical events and consequently individuals themselves are also determined, which does not leave much room for something that can be called free will. However, recognising that there is a particular trajectory of social development (at least up to a point, which will be clarified below) does not imply inevitability of any social event and can be compatible with self-determination. It only means that a society and humankind as a whole sooner or later, in one way or another, can reach a certain point or plateau (that is, if that society or humankind does not perish before). To make an analogy, the fact that every person (who lives long enough) goes through the stage of adolescence does not diminish shis freedom. So, as in quantum physics, a global pattern can be discerned but no single event can be claimed to be pre-determined. The Intent operates in accord with the principle of minimal interference. It only sets the boundaries to the process and is not concerned with immediate outcomes, so in a way, it is even beyond ‘good and evil' as commonly understood. Siding with the good would be unproductive to developing agency - people would choose to be good because it pays off, which would reduce the whole process to conditioning. Improbable outcomes may occasionally occur, but only if something threatens the boundaries, and this is rare indeed. Therefore, events and individuals are not determined, but social processes and relations between them may be favourable to some events and individuals. In other words, they allow some potentials to be realised although, of course, in some cases circumstances may also play a role. For example, Napoleon (and Kutuzov, the general who defeated Napoleon in Russia) became prominent not because they were creating history, but because the flow of history at that particular moment allowed them to surface. If they were not there (say, they died before the crucial events) somebody else would take their roles, which could affect particular happenings and their quality, but not the global dynamics. Individuals are important for history, they may speed up or slow down the process, and even change its direction on a local scale, but they are not irreplaceable. This also applies to societies. If one does not take a particular step, another will.


Inequality - there is a reasonable worry (if judging by the past) that the concept of stages could be used to legitimise the claim that some societies are superior. Such a claim is, however, groundless. To make again a parallel with students, a second year student is not a superior human being to a first year student. S/he may even be less intelligent or a worse scholar than the latter (which is not to say that using the term superior could be justified if s/he was not - there is more to being human than intelligence or studentship). The same applies to societies. A stage of development does not make them superior or inferior. In fact, more advanced societies are potentially more destructive, so a further stage only implies a greater responsibility. By the same token, being at an early stage of development does not imply being primitive. There are primitive individuals and groups at every stage, including the stage of transcendence (they can exhibit elitism, rigidity, dogmatism, exertion, lack of humour). Moreover, humankind may be better grounded if there are cultures at all stages (so attempting to force or coerce societies into change is a mistake). Those that have remained at one stage for a long time are likely to have acquired some wisdom that other societies lack. For example, the founder of multiple intelligences theory, Gardner, added spatial intelligence to the list after being impressed with the spatial orientation of some indigenous people.


The above concerns highlight possible dangers if the notion of stages is not correctly understood,  but there is no need to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water'. These issues are not intrinsically related to this concept, but are rather the consequence of its misinterpretation. To minimise this, a few further clarifications need to be made.

Although the stage a society is at and the average stage of the individuals in that society may coincide, these two cannot be equated. What matters is the dominant social pattern at that moment. Thus, the stage at which a particular group is can, perhaps, say something about the majority or else a powerful or influential minority, but nothing about an individual from that group, who can be at any stage. In fact, it is likely that within any reasonably large society there are individuals at all stages.

The stages of social development also cannot be associated with stable features, inherent to the group. Evidence clearly shows that such a link does not exist. Using biological (genetic) or geographical factors to determine a stage of development is nothing more than a crude attempt at reductionism. Those who try to connect race or nationality, for example, to development are most likely motivated by a need to simplify and generalise, which only reveals their own limited degree of development. Most people have a brain of sufficient capacity and other potentials to achieve any stage. If there are some minor chemical and structural differences between groups they may, arguably, affect the path of development, but not its stage. The stage depends on individuals and the society as a whole. Any group can progress, stagnate, and regress, even if the physical characteristics associated with a group do not. Of course, some circumstances and living conditions may not be favourable (e.g. not allowing any spare time for self-development), but this is a separate issue.

Stages may provide a platform, an opportunity for progress (that may happen or not), but progress should not, however, be identified with them. It seems that accumulative quantitative development plays a greater role in this respect. For example, while human sacrifices were common in the past throughout the world, nowadays they are extinct in all societies, at any stage.

The stages of social development are described below from a historical perspective (which is not to say that all societies nowadays are at the same stage). Each stage has its cross-cultural characteristics in every area of social life (religion, social and economic organisation, art, the interpretation of time, personality constructs etc.). The emphasis in the text will be on religion though, since it has less exceptions and is clearer in this respect than other areas (possibly because religion usually has a strong grip on society and affects other areas). It should be pointed out, however, that religions do not form, but provide a framework for the stages. They are taken as an example of social organisation that structures dominant processes. In any case, what follows is no more than an outline. Its only purpose is to illustrate a broad tendency, and is by no means an attempt to provide even a remotely comprehensive account of historical processes. It would be easy to find many aberrations and exceptions, but they should not cloud the view of an overall trend emerging from history.

  • [2]. This, of course, does not mean that individual and social development can be identified (tables have legs and animals have legs, but this is not to say that they are the same).

The physical stage

The physical stage

This stage could also be called ‘pre-historical' because there are no written records, and it was by far the longest period of human history (archaeologists are saying that the first modern humans appeared about 160 000 years ago). It consisted of ‘hunter-gatherer' communities, usually organised in relatively small groups (tribes) with a low level of hierarchical differentiation. Such a society was in a relative unity with the environment, but instinctively rather than consciously (this state ‘before the fall' was encapsulated in the story of Eden and other similar myths). The separation between the subject and the object only gradually occurred. Personality was not valued - a common use of masks indicates that an individual only represented something. Physical determinants (including the physical environment) and the first ring were dominant. The writer J. N. Sansonese notes that ‘the more ancient the myth, the more often do parts of the human body play an explicit role in the myth' (1994, p.7).

In religion, elements of the physical world were worshiped: celestial objects (the Sun, Moon), the natural forces, as well as animals and plants that often had supernatural powers. In other words, nature was subjectivised. Deities were immanent (they became transcendent only later on). Rituals were based on the physical and instinctual (e.g. trance induced by rhythmic and repetitive sound and movement, or by the use of psychotropic drugs). The after-death life was inextricably fused with physical reality. Magic was a dominant way to control and learn about the world (through sorcerers or directly).

An abstract notion of time did not exist, significant events were used as a reference point instead. It is likely that art had a practical (magical) function. As any other stage, this one also had its dark side (e.g. body mutilation). However, its value should be recognised and respected. A lack of further rings can be facilitative to intuitive insights. Although there are no written records, the notions of the One, the Intent, reincarnation and the soul (atman) seem to be rooted, in a rudimentary form, in this period. Some societies have remained at this stage, either because their physical survival has been too demanding, or they have been isolated, or did not want to go further (e.g. because they have been well integrated with their environment). Nevertheless, they have contributed to many areas of modern life: education, medicine, art (music, painting), alternative life style (hippy communes), psychology (e.g. the effects of psychotropic plants), spirituality, anthropological understanding. This is not to say that this stage should be idealised. Even at present, there is a huge diversity between the groups within it (as a renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead made clear), of which some may be primitive and some may not.

The transition period between the physical and conventional stages

Social development had already greatly escalated in this period[3]. Its outset can be linked to the appearance of horticultural farming. Horticulture started as simple gardening, supplementary to hunting and gathering. It used relatively crude technology and was less efficient than agriculture. Nevertheless, this way of production had important social implications.

Establishing permanent settlements became possible. The villages were initially small, some no larger than the temporary ones of hunters and gatherers. However, because the soil would quickly get exhausted, new land had to be found, sometimes at the expense of neighbours, which in more populated regions greatly increased the chances of conflict. Large-scale warfare was not usual though, probably because there was no political or other unifying force that would amass a sufficient number of individuals for such endeavours. Horticulturalists had more material goods than most hunter-gatherers due to the greater stability of their settlements, with the implication that divisions, on the basis of wealth, started to emerge. However, this was a less physically demanding way of production than agriculture, so women were still able to work in the fields alongside men, with a consequence of greater equality between genders. Tracing one's ancestors through the mother's lineage has its root in such societies. Cults of goddesses rather than male dominated pantheons were widespread (this trend continued through the worship of Inanna in Sumer, and Ishtar in Assyria and Babylonia).

Nevertheless, in many respects the religion of horticultural people resembled that of the hunter-gatherers. Shamans, rites of passage, human sacrifices, animism (worship of plants or animals believed to be ancestral to clans or lineages) were common. In time, religions became more and more anthropomorphosised though, deities were often represented in a half human, half animal form (this legacy can be found in as diverse civilisations as the Egyptian and Olmec). Among horticultural peoples with chiefdoms, the chief's remote ancestors, the founders of the lineage, became eventually the most important gods. More recent or less significant ancestors received a lesser status. The result was a hierarchy of gods moving religions in the direction of fully-fledged polytheism.

  • [3]. ‘Conventional stage' should not be identified with having a society or living in a group. Even animals live in groups and sometimes have a relatively complex social structure, but it does not mean that they are at this stage. Their social life is physically determined and is essentially the same from group to group, while the huge variations of human societies indicate that they are products of more than just adaptation to their environments. They transcend the strictly practical purpose of social organisation.

The conventional stage

Roughly speaking, this stage started around 6 000 B.C.E. with agricultural farming that allowed the establishment of relatively large settlements. All the old civilisations were founded in this period (Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek and Roman). Most importantly, writing appeared. Although it had mainly a practical purpose at the beginning, the value of writing for establishing and perpetuating social constructs can hardly be overestimated. Social determination, based on customs, conventions, duty (e.g. dharma in Hinduism), shame, reputation and glory, was dominant. Personality was externally defined (by the name, social position or heredity). The overriding psychological faculty was affect (e.g. fear of punishment), rather than instincts or thinking. A hierarchical differentiation within society was fully established (slave, caste and feudal systems)[4], as well as separation between groups (‘us and them').

This stage was characterised by polytheistic religions that reflected the socio-political organisation (as practiced by early Hindus, the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Vikings). Religion was based on cults and rituals, rather than ideas. These cults were elaborate conscious procedures, unlike the rites in the previous stage. Observance mattered more than belief. Mythology replaced magic. The separation between the two realities occurred, but the after-death world was inferior, a shadow of this reality. Fate and superstition regulated daily life (as evident from the Greek narratives, for example). Art had a predominantly social function - glorification of heroes, leaders, or victories. Time, in terms of the process, was perceived as cyclical (based on the seasons, vital for agriculture). The reference point was the past, rather than the future. Consequently, the ethos was essentially conservative: it valued the authority of ancestral custom. Innovation was regarded as dangerous and subversive: the Romans, for instance, were highly suspicious of movements that would challenge a tradition even if it was not their own (which is why they persecuted the early Christians). A lot of these attitudes still exist today: for example, many people who attend religious services are not interested in theology and dislike the idea of change. They find that the rituals provide them with a link with the past and give them a sense of security.

  • [4]. This can easily be seen as a step backwards, but the previous stage should not be idealised (e.g. slaves that were exported to the Americas from Africa were captured mostly by other tribesmen). Also, however repugnant such a move may seem nowadays, it did bring some advantages at the time: it enabled social organisation on a larger scale, the undertaking of long term projects, and it created free time (at least for some) that could be devoted to activities that did not have an immediate practical purpose.

The transition period between the conventional and personal stages

Most documented history belongs to this period. Its beginning can be traced back to the 6th century B.C.E. (that philosopher Karl Jaspers called an ‘axial age'). Karen Armstrong, who can be credited for providing a balanced, informative and yet accessible account of the history of monotheism, describes this period as follows:

All the chief civilisations developed along parallel lines, even when there was no commercial contacts (as between China and the European area). There  was a new prosperity that led to the rise of a merchant class. Power was shifting from king and priest, temple and palace, to the market place. The new wealth led to intellectual and cultural florescence and also to the development of the individual conscience.' (1993, p.36)

Within a very short time, all the major directions of human civilisation were laid (which can be compared, in its magnitude, to the Cambrian explosion in biological evolution). K'ung-Fu-tzu and Lao-tzu developed their teachings in China (known as Confucianism and Taoism, respectively). In India Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism, and Mahavira Jina, an early rebel against the caste system, Jainism. In the Middle East, Zoroaster created the first monotheistic religion (or, at least, it became prominent at that time). The greatest of the Hebrew prophets, Deutero-Isaiah appeared, and (while in Babylonian captivity) the Jews transcribed and compiled the Torah, the foundation of the Old Testament. The movement towards the belief in a single spiritual reality coincided with the search of Greek thinkers for a single principle to explain the material world. This was the start of classical philosophy (with the three Milesian ‘natural philosophers', Thales, Anaximenes and Anaximander, and a little later Pythagoras). Although the evidence is sketchy, it seems that a ‘paradigm shift' occurred at that time in central America too (the earliest Maya temple-pyramids were built then)[5].

Not all of them, however, chose the same direction. In fact, practically all the conceivable paths were attempted. For example, it looks like that the pre-Columbian civilisations of Latin America tried to skip the development all together and reach immediately for transcendence. This shift can be recognised in the fact that they had highly sophisticated art, architecture and astronomy - but not technology that remained on the stone-age level. They did not have metallurgy or use wheels (although they knew how to make them for toys, not transport). Physical existence was secondary and, not surprisingly, (self)sacrifice became prominent. This had disastrous consequences when the content and meaning of such practices were lost and only a form (a ritual) remained, as later on with the Aztecs, leading to an obsession with sacrificing others on a massive scale. The other main directions can be linked to the dimensions of development. Buddhism focused mainly on the experience and found a solution in going back into an undifferentiated state (similar to the state life came from). It is a truly rebellious doctrine denying the One and the universal purpose (although acknowledging other, lesser deities). Confucianism, at the same time, concentrated on the development of self-control, which led to emphasising stability and remaining where the society was at that point. The first Greek philosophers and Jewish scholars favoured thinking and discourse (developing the rings) which appeared to be the most conducive to this transition. This is not to say that other civilisations did not pay attention and contribute to the advancement of intellect (nor that the occidental cultures completely neglected experience and intent). Science and technology thrived in India and China too. The decimal numerical system and so-called Arabic numbers, commonly used nowadays, were Indian inventions (passed on by Arabs). The conceptualisation of zero, accepted in Europe only in the 15th century, is attributed to India too. The Chinese were using paper, gun powder (mostly for fireworks) and print much before Europeans. However, the West created relatively coherent frameworks (societal rings), which allowed  the assimilation of invaders and integration of disparate groups, while the affinity towards discourse accelerated the process. In comparison, Buddhism, for instance, with its emphasis on experience and the inner world, managed to ascend to the status of an official doctrine and act as the means of social organisation only for a brief period (during the reign of king Asoka), and Hinduism took over again. Buddhism is nowadays practically wiped out in India and is the state religion in varied forms only in a few South East Asian countries and Tibet, after being heavily modified by the indigenous cultures. Confucianism produced a fortified culture (occasionally punctuated by invasions and rebellions), which contributed to stability but not to the evolving of the society. For example, although a Chinese fleet of 63 ships sailed as far as Africa in the 15th century, China remained relatively isolated (but tolerant, allowing foreigners to build their churches, temples and mosques).

For these reasons, in an attempt to summarise some general characteristics of the transition between the conventional and personal stage, the focus will be mainly on the occidental culture, spreading from the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. This, by no means, implies its superiority (in fact, as the above indicates, some dimensions may have been better developed elsewhere). However, for better or worse, the occidental culture has been evidently the most influential. The Americas and Australia are practically its extensions. The political system in China is based on the ideology of a German philosopher, and the legacy of the British in India is ubiquitous from politics to sport.

In this period, that lasted almost until the 20th century, manufacturing and merchandise became the dominant economic forces. They encouraged innovation, exploration, discovery and interest in the new (which contributed to spreading the occidental culture to India, the Far East, and Americas). Time was seen as an arrow, so the future could be contemplated - not as a repetition, but something different (the book of Daniel being possibly the first written example).

Thinking became gradually a dominant faculty, which led to the development of philosophy. Philosophy in turn, enabled freedom from custom and convention. In the view of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, it promised to ‘create a community of beings who can take charge of their own life story and their own thought' - a community, in other worlds, of autonomous individuals (Jenkins, 2002, p.17). Personality and with it personal responsibility (epitomised in equality before the law) emerged, and guilt took over from shame:

The ‘old commitment' in more stable, traditional cultures depended on maintaining a role in relationships, putting the good of the group above the good of the self, and avoiding punishment from the group for deviating from social expectations. The ‘new commitment' depends more on the individual's decision-making about a given relationship... [it] is experienced more by the individual as coming from within and not from societal pressure. (Lund, 1991, p.213)

Consequently, the personal (inner, psychological life) became important. Sociologist Durkheim claims that individuality was not prized and the individual, in a certain sense, did not exist in traditional cultures; only with the emergence of modern societies and, more particularly, with the division of labour, did it become the focus of attention (in Giddens, 1991, p.75). In fact, the major changes in this period were usually initiated by an individual standing against society and social norms: Socrates is one of the first examples, but this trend continued with Jesus, Mohammad, Copernicus, Bruno, Luther, Nietzsche and Marx. What they all have in common is a move from action that is prescribed to action by choice. Such a trend also brought the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century and later on further orientation towards the personal, pluralism in values, and separation (this time between individuals - with the ensuing feeling of ‘loneliness in the crowd').

This shift is reflected in art too. Greek dramas, for example, do not have personal conflicts (arguably, the only exception can be found in Agamemnon when Cassandra, a king's lover and slave, predicts that she will be killed if she enters the house, hesitates for a moment and turns back, but nevertheless enters out of duty). On the other hand, great dramas from the later periods are dominated by personal conflicts and dilemmas (e.g. Shakespeare's Hamlet or Ibsen's A Doll's House). Epics are another example. For Milton (in comparison to Homer) true epic action occurs in the mind (where, when and how we make decisions). Joyce takes it to an extreme in Ulysses - rejecting any structure - it is an epic about events of the human psyche, not external events.

In religion, the whole period is marked by the gradual prevalence of monotheism over polytheism, which was an essential step towards the third stage. Armstrong writes:

The personal god has helped monotheists to value the sacred and inalienable rights of the individual and to cultivate an appreciation of human personality. (1993, p.242)

It is suggestive that even in strictly polytheistic societies many individuals whose own development superseded the conventional one reached this point. For instance, in Ancient Greece, a number of great thinkers and artists including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had monotheistic tendencies. Xenophane, for example, wrote:


One god, alone among gods and alone among men, is the greatest,
Neither in body does he nor in mind resemble the mortals.
Always in one place he abides: he never is moving;
Nor is it fitting for him to change now hereto, now thereto.
Effortless he moves the world by thought and intention.
All of him is sight; all is knowing; and all is hearing.


Monotheism is not only about reducing the number of gods, it is a qualitative shift. Religious belief gradually replaced religious observance, deity became transcendent rather than immanent. Mythology is banished in favour of theology. God became more and more distant and less interfering (which is to be expected with the increase of independence). The after death reality was split in two (Heaven and Hell) to accommodate choice and personal responsibility and, of course, to maintain social control. Significantly, it was not any more a mere shadow of the material world, but became an aim, something to look forward to, so the future became important.

This transition period is, however, a relatively slow process that has many steps, which can be illustrated by the development of monotheism through various religions.

  • [5]. There is no data indicating that any significant developments happened in Sub-Saharan Africa at that time, even if several great cultures arose later on. It can be speculated that living in a highly hostile environment led to emphasis on quantitative development rather than a qualitative change (reflected, for example, in the achievements of the Bantu people in coping with disease, climate and topography).


Zoroastrianism is arguably the first major monotheistic religion. Many of its elements: a battle between good and evil, beneficent angels, immortality of the soul, a saviour born of a virgin, Heaven and Hell, and the final judgement, were later incorporated into other ones (the Jews were exposed to Zoroastrianism during their exile in Babylonia). Its essentially dualistic nature (Good and Evil) and the emphasis of its ethics on human free will contributed to the shift from the prescribed order of the 2nd stage and to the development of individuality. Good thoughts and conduct mattered rather than sacrifice. Some other characteristics of the third stage were germinated too: choice, personal responsibility and equality (including, up to a point, the equality of women). However, understandably, the conventional stage was still very strong. Not surprisingly, Zoroastrianism had many polytheistic elements, even another creator responsible for evil in the world, and a host of other deities and semi-deities (six of which were especially prominent).


Judaism had a profound effect on social development in that part of the world. It ‘provided for the first time a moral reference point which would help people to rebel against their rulers on the grounds of individual conscience' (Brazier, 2001, p.30). Displacement of the Jewish tribes contributed to the sense of further psychological separation from the divine world (the purpose). The Hebrew kaddosh means otherness, a radical separation. Seraphim (high ranking angels) were crying ‘Yahweh is other! Other! Other!'. This facilitated a turn towards the personal, the internal, which is a necessary step of individualisation. The deed became more important than the creed, and that led to valuing debate and freedom of thought. However, although monotheism won, the previous stage was still prevalent which, combined with the social circumstances, lead to a limited individualisation within the nation (a phenomenon that has re-occurred throughout history, as in 19th century Europe). Israelites were very reluctant to give up the cult of other gods. In fact, it is difficult to situate The Old Testament within a purely monotheistic framework. Although there is only one creator, Heaven is inhabited by a number of supernatural beings (angels and archangels who are helping an omnipotent God, Satan who is making a wager with the all knowing God, etc.). The very idea of the covenant ‘only made sense in a polytheistic setting. The Israelites did not believe that Yahweh, the God of Sinai, was the only God, but promised, in their covenant, that they would ignore all the other deities and worship him alone. It is very difficult to find a single monotheistic statement in the whole of the Pentateuch. Even the Ten Commandments delivered on Mount Sinai take the existence of other gods for granted...' (Armstrong, 1993, p.31).

Early Christianity

Early Christianity is another decisive move towards the personal stagestage[6]. Christianity made the person the centre of the religious life in a way that was unique in the history of religion: it took the personalism inherent in Judaism to an extreme. Religion is no longer identified with a particular group of people or nation. It becomes a question of personal choice. The essential message of Christianity is that ‘God shows Himself in the freedom of individual human action... Without the freedom, and the historical development of the human to which it gives rise, there would be no God' (McMullin, 1987, p.78). An individual became the image of God. The internalisation of sin (that replaced sacrifice) led to taking the inner world of self-reflection seriously. Personal psychology became important. Augustine (and later on Bonaventure and others) urged introspection, descending into the depths of oneself as a way of discovering God.

Of course, the conventional stage was still powerful in early Christianity, reflected in various polytheistic tendencies. Everybody assumed that there were many otherworldly beings. St Paul, for example, referred to Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties and Powers. These invisible forces were believed to be the ancient gods that were intermediaries between humans and the One. Gnostics also believed in an array of supernatural entities. In Eastern Europe, polytheistic elements were incorporated in the form of saints that are worshiped even nowadays. However, the most important of such elements was tritheism: the belief that there are three emanations of God: Father, Son and Spirit. In the Orthodox church, where the previous stage was more prominent, the idea of the trinity was central. It has never been as important in the West as it has remained for the Eastern church. The Greeks always started with the three hypostases, while the West began with the notion of God's unity and then considered the three entities within that unity. When Western Europe moved further towards individualism, this issue caused the first schism. Individualism was also reflected in the Catholic church by an elaborate hierarchy, with one person at the top (i.e. a pope). In any society the priesthood had a prominent role, but never before was so much power concentrated in the hands of one man, who was in most cases even above kings.

However, even in the West, in periods of crises and later in the time of decline, polytheistic elements would resurface, indicating a retreat to the conventional stage. Armstrong writes that ‘soldier saints like St George, St Mercury and St Demetrious figured more than God in first crusaders' piety and, in practice, differed little from pagan deities' (1993, p.229). During the 14th and 15th centuries, people in Europe were more and more making other human beings the centre of their spiritual life. The medieval cult of Mary and of the saints increased alongside the devotion to Jesus the man. Even nowadays in some catholic societies (e.g. in Ireland or South America) saints or the cult of Mary are dominant.

  • [6]. Although nominally polytheistic, the Roman Empire, within which Christianity developed, contributed to this shift. Somewhat paradoxically, the winning of individualistic values against collectivistic ones was signalled by Caesar's abolition of the Roman republic (the reason: his personal worth).


Monotheism was adopted in the Arabic world as a unifying force: ‘Muhammad knew that monotheism was inimical to tribalism: a single deity who was the focus of all worship would integrate society as well as the individual' (ibid., p.175). However, Islam became more than that: another integral step towards the third stage. Several factors contributed to this.

The Koran was written in Arabic, therefore directly accessible to all literate people. There was no priesthood, sanctified intermediaries. Religion became more about the personal relationship with God and personal responsibility. While Christians at that time attempted to wipe out free-thinkers and non-conformists (as in the case of the Cathars), in the Islamic world they were not persecuted. Rationality, which is a characteristic of the third stage, became more prominent. Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages had a decisive role in moving from Platonic intuitionism to Aristotelian rationalism, which greatly contributed to the development of the Western world and the rise of science. They used paper and printing, and introduced algebra and Arabic numbers (that originated in India). In the 9th and 10th centuries, more scientific discoveries were achieved in the Abbasid empire than in any previous period. Islam was, at that time, a step forward in social organisation too, which is reflected, for example, in a greater egalitarianism and equality of genders (the right to inheritance and divorce). This all goes parallel with the trend of increasing the distance between God and humans: ‘In the Koran, al-Lah... is more impersonal than YHWH [Jehovah]. He lacks the pathos and passion of the biblical God' (ibid., p.167).

Yet, even Islam, from the start, was not immune to polytheistic influences (as exemplified by the so-called ‘Satanic verses'). The decline in Muslim society (due to numerous invasions and a geographical shift of trade routes and economic power) inevitably led to a retreat to the conventional stage, and as a consequence, the re-surfacing of polytheistic elements. Muhammad and the members of his family gained the status of deities and even imams ‘were revered as avatars of the divine, each one has been "proof" of god's presence on earth and, in some mysterious sense, made the divine incarnate in a human being' (ibid., p.190).


Protestantism was another step towards the personal stage. Until the 4th century Christianity was still very much about society. After Augustine, it became more about the individual (saving shis own soul) who was still passive though. With the Reformation the person became active (had a duty to be active) in shaping shis destiny. This was also accompanied by strengthening monotheism. Protestant reformers (and Catholic too) insisted on turning away from saints and angels and focusing on God alone.

In 16th century Europe Luther's translation of the Bible into German and call for education for all resulted in the democratisation of religion and a heightened sense of individualism. Shortly after, Calvin managed to transform society on a small scale (in Geneva), so people started to believe that they could make a difference in this world. Calvinist pre-determinism of salvation may seem on first sight to remove choice but, in fact, it furthered individualisation - social control became harder without the belief that one's thoughts and behaviour will affect the outcome. By the end of the 16th century Christianity was fragmented into many groups, so religion became more than ever a question of choice. Moreover, ‘instead of expressing their faith in external, collective ways, the people of Europe were beginning to explore the more interior consequences of religion' (ibid., p.318). The cornerstone of modern philosophy, Descartes, urged to turn inside, self-reflection being the only reliable method to cognise reality. Isolation and autonomy that sprang from the Cartesian method were to become the central characteristic of the Western mentality.

When introducing what is now known as Pascal's wager, Pascal ‘was the first modern' (ibid., p.343), conceding that a belief in God was the matter of personal choice. In the 17th and 18th centuries Deism emerged as an attempt to reconcile religion with reason. Nothing was left except an impersonal God, who does not interfere with human affairs and could be discovered only by one's own efforts. This was only one step away from discarding God all together, which was yet to come. New self-reliance would soon lead many people to reject the whole idea of God who reduces them to the state of a dependant. All of that prepared the ground for a radical break with the past and a turn towards the future. While traditional societies resisted innovation and change, a new feeling that people are in charge of their own affairs provided a fertile ground for the development of technology on an unprecedented scale.

This is not to say that reformed religion did not leave its mark. Even when an image of God was discarded, its ethos could be expressed in a secular way. The idea that people make their own destinies was perfectly aligned with the emergence of a new economic system, capitalism, that glorified work and favoured competition over cooperation.

The personal stage

Although it very much depends on the geographical location, it can be said that this stage started, in earnest, roughly in the mid 19th century. At that time, the idea of progress became dominant: the previous stages were looking for guidance in the past, while this one made a deliberate break with the past and institutionalised change. Science and technology became the leading economic forces. It is a mistaken belief, though, that science brought the demise of the old religion. After all, most scientists (including Newton, who is considered the originator of the mechanistic view of the world) were spiritual or religious. Quite the opposite, according to physicist and theologian Stanley Jaki (1970), mechanistic science arose in Europe as an outgrowth of the development of religious outlook, where God was becoming steadily more and more removed from the material world.

This stage is fully realised in secular societies dominated by materialist ideologies. Materialism can be considered a form of religion too (true, it does not have a deity, but some other religions, such as Buddhism, also do not have a deity). ‘The death of God' really means the death of an old form of religion, and the rise of a new one. What makes atheism a religion is that as other religions, it is based on a set of arbitrary beliefs, and is an attempt to conform reality and experience to this set of beliefs (the existence of non-material reality, for instance, is rejected a priori). Materialism should not be identified with humanism that has always existed (in parallel with religious attitudes). The difference is that a humanist may accept that non-material reality exists, but is not concerned with it. The focus of shis attention is this world (s/he may be dedicated, for example, to improving the living conditions of the poor). A materialist, on the other hand, as a starting premise, adheres to an ideological framework that rejects the possibility that non-material reality may exist. Although the roots of this new religion can be traced to the renaissance and enlightenment (and even earlier), it really took hold in the 19th century. Philosopher Nietzsche (among others) can be seen as its prophet. As already mentioned, Zoroaster started the shift towards the personal stage. Appropriately, Nietzsche used his character to herald the last step in this process, and chose to write in a form more suitable for religious rather than philosophical books. He was aware that he was endorsing a new religion that disposed of the image of God. Socrates and Jesus were fighting the establishment and died at the hands of the establishment, while Nietzsche, consistent with this stage and his philosophy, created his own demise (syphilis and madness).

Materialism replaced a transcendental being with self-transcendence, an attempt to overcome human nature (Übermensch) by focusing on the ego, or the third ring. Observance is replaced with self-observance. The cult of personality replaced other cults. Confession was replaced by psychotherapy. As personal responsibility is internalised (no punishment and reward), nothing happens after death. Freud, one of the main contributors to this shift, encapsulates in his theory the conflict between a socially determined I (superego) and a physically determined I (id) that need to be negotiated through individuality (ego). It is not difficult to see this schema as the struggle for dominance of an aspect of personality that is an expression of the third stage with the aspects linked to the second and first stages. This, however, did not bring freedom as hoped, but replaced the old forms of conditioning with ego conditioning - in a way, people became slaves to their own wants. As the father of public relations and a relative of Freud, Edward Bernays realised, sublimation of the ‘primitive drives' (aggression and sex) and other tenets of Freudian theory could be used to manipulate  the masses, for commercial and political ends.

As other ideologies, materialism also ends in its opposite[7]. A doctrine that had begun with the aim to humanise the individual, led to dehumanising the world. In a way, materialism reaches the opposite side of the spectrum. While at the beginning the external world was subjectivised, the subjective here became objectified (in some cases, rejecting even consciousness itself). In its extreme, human beings and other life forms are considered to be sophisticated machines, objects. This can be explained by fear of uncertainty and fluidity, and an attempt to find security in the solid matter. However, it created a contradiction, because at the time when personal freedom and personal responsibility were valued more than ever, the existence of subjects (and subjectivity as something unique) were denied.

The disastrous consequences of attempts to tailor destiny according to human-created ideologies (disregarding universal guidelines) became apparent in the 20th century with Fascism and Stalinism. Such an obsession with power has happened before and could happen at any time (the magnitude of destruction is the result of technological advances). The difference is that these ones were the result of a relatively new belief that society can be engineered in accord with utopian images of the future. The reason why so many people were susceptible to such ideologies is that freedom and separation also brought a sense of isolation and anxiety. Similarly, adolescents who need to reach a certain level of autonomy and independence in order to become responsible adults, ‘abandon' and even rebel against their parents, only to conform and identify themselves with their peer group. Whole societies, especially at times of economic downfall, are also susceptible to experiencing this ‘fear of freedom'.

All these extremes, however, generally failed and only slowed down, but did not stop the steady march of individual freedom. It can be hardly a coincidence, for example, that nonconformity in such different fields as mathematics and music, was reached around the same time, in the mid 20th century. Other areas of life were developing in the same direction. After the World War II, parliamentary democracy, in which individuals have a greater role, became more and more the dominant political system. Personal aims and achievements were valued. Philosophy was not concerned any more with producing grand systems but with the individual, while art had the function of personal expression (even art that commented on social events). Unlike the conventional stage that imposed uniformity, the third stage individual morality was based on non-intrusion (not hurting others). Spirituality, that was growing more and more separate from religion, also became highly personalised, as exemplified in the New Age movements.

The major problem with this stage appeared to be instability. Its logical consequence is ending itself, which found its expression in post-modernism. Not only religion, but philosophy, science and art, as they were known before, came to en end. Post-modernism cleared the table, but it is an unsustainable position:

Without an organizing centre, post-modern man is lost, wandering in a wilderness of confusing plurality. But, paradoxically, being bereft of set moral landmarks, he is in a unique position to undertake a new journey. (Keen, 1991, p.110-111)

This resembles an improvisation in jazz (which is not only an expression of a musician's skills, but also shis individual freedom) that seeks a resolution at the end in a more stable tone or aria. The third stage also seeks a resolution in a more stable society, which renders a transition period unlikely (or very brief)[8]. Thus, the fourth stage will be addressed next.

  • [7]. Christianity had started with an ideal of love and ended up as one of the most aggressive religions, Islam had started with an egalitarian model, but in time has created highly unequal societies.
  • [8]. A further comparison with musical tones can be made. Between the tones G, A and H there are semitones (Gis and Ais). But between H and C there is no semi-tone. The third stage can be paralleled to the tone H.

The transcendent stage

No society has yet reached this point, but it is possible to extrapolate what such a society would look like on the basis of individuals and groups that, although operating within a different stage, have moved in this direction, and also on the basis of the corresponding characteristics of individual development.

The main feature of such a society is a turn towards the universal. There is a similarity, in this respect, with the first stage (because of their proximity to the Intent), but this time it is a conscious, deliberate act. For example, personality (‘I') is considered only a form of the self (the equivalent of a mask at the first stage). Individuality is preserved, but it operates within a larger framework that is not imposed, but recognised (the synthesis between freedom and necessity). Rather than the nuclear family, the basic social unit is a community that does not rely on blood relations (or even physical proximity), but on shared experiences, goals and interests. Nationalism and other forms of social segregation lose their significance. This also applies to knowledge - the segregation of various disciplines and approaches (e.g. science and spirituality) is transcended. In the ‘axial age' the Greek philosophers, Buddha and K'ung-Fu-tzu heralded the three dimensions of development (the rings, experience, and intent) and their corresponding methods (reasoning, non-attachment, and commitment). The importance of all of them is finally recognised. This makes such a society less constructed and more permeable and fluid. Religions, including atheism and other ideologies such as Marxism, are not needed (the New Jerusalem does not have churches). They are replaced by spirituality (that may be secular, humanistic) and the awareness of the relation between the individual and the universal. So, although the universal is acknowledged, it is also recognised that such a relation may differ between groups and also between individuals. This means accepting cultural differences, but also a common core: trans-cultural underlying humanity. The image of God (as a social construct) is transcended, without denying the possibility of a universal agency.

An economic system is not based on the exploitation of, but working with the environment and others. Cooperation is balanced with competition on all levels. Art in such a society has a transcendent function (expressing the timeless, catching glimpses of infinity). While the temporal locus of the first stage is the present, of the second the past, and of the third the future, at this stage they are integrated. The social process is seen as a spiral (see below), which is, in fact, a combination of point time (characterising the first stage), cyclical time (the second stage) and arrow of time (the third stage).


In dialectic terms social development can be described first as the move away from the universal and then back towards the universal. The thesis (an unconscious unity) would correspond to the first stage; the antithesis (separation - the process of individualisation and independence) would include the move from the 1st via the 2nd, and reaching its peak at the 3rd stage; the synthesis (a conscious re-alignment with the universal) is represented by the 4th stage, which is also potentially the beginning of a new period.




This graph is only a simplified two-dimensional representation. The curve should be imagined as a spiral around the central axis (the length of its segments do not correspond to physical time, but to an amount of change, ‘eventfulness'). In fact, a coil around the spiral (as it is drawn between 1 and 2) would present the process even more precisely. The shape of this coil and the speed are the result of human freedom. Nevertheless, to move along the curve, the two basic principles (static and dynamic) need to be in relative balance. If the process is too slow, the society can diminish (or be taken over). Too fast a move can lead to disintegration, chaos. The two principles are manifested as conservative and progressive forces that usually alternate. The points at which it is possible to change direction are the moments of supreme responsibility, everything else is inertia.


The curve reflects a well known symbol from ancient times, depicted with two intertwined serpents around god's staff, called the caduceus (still used nowadays as a medical emblem). It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that this symbol resembles the double helix of DNA. In esoteric tradition, the two serpents of the caduceus represent the process of evolution[9], ‘spirit descending into matter and rising again enlightened into spirit' (Watson, 1991, p.307). The serpent has traditionally symbolised knowledge, enlightenment and wisdom (the Western association with evil is relatively recent and atypical). From this perspective, the myth of the serpent inviting Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge, can be interpreted as the start of a new phase of the evolutionary process, ‘a liberation from unconscious limitations and the dawn of self-consciousness' (ibid).

For the sake of simplification, the social development diagram has only one curve, while the caduceus has two (one black and one white), which is more accurate. Both, the coil around the spiral and the spiral itself, have their counterparts that can be called the shadows. The shadow is a corrective mechanism, and not in itself something negative. As the symbol shows, what is dominant at one point becomes a shadow at the next and vice versa. This is similar to parliamentary politics: the opposition is a shadow, but has an important role to keep the government in check. At a certain point, the opposition may become the government, and the governing party opposition. The shadow is necessary, because human beings have a tendency to push the boundaries, as a demonstration of their freedom and control over various faculties. This can be recognised at every stage: physical self-mutilations are wide-spread at the first stage. Various forms of emotional mutilation (public humiliations, ritualised superstitions, chauvinism) are frequent on the second. A fascination with the morbid side of the mind is well documented in the third stage (as exemplified by artists such as Dostoyevsky, Shelley or Poe, and later by some approaches in psychotherapy). The fourth stage is also not immune from these extremes: fanaticism in following certain techniques or doctrines, severe deprivations, radical detachment, or attempts to annihilate the self, are a few examples. These and many other excesses can be kept in check by opposing forces that moderate the dominant trend.

  • [9]. Caduceus has a greater number of bends because it presumably personifies the whole of evolution, while the above diagram refers only to human social development.

The Futures

One of the purposes of the above brief historical account is to show that human freedom increases throughout this process and consequently does its influence on social development. In the past, physical and social determinants have had a much greater role, therefore the social processes were highly conditioned. However, this trend has been steadily decreasing, to be overtaken by choice. At present we are at the crucial point of the lowest determinism. Human beings are for the first time in a situation where they are able to create their own destiny, which greatly increases responsibility. Although this point was already reached some time ago (roughly around the 1960's) the final choice after which the inertia takes over has not yet been made. This means that the future is truly unpredictable. It is postulated that there are four possible directions[10].


Down: falling back into anachronic social structures, run by a religious or ideological oligarchy.  It would be a step backwards that would postpone the real choice for some time, but not indefinitely[11].

Right: moving away from the Intent, which would end in a technocratic autocracy (a nightmarish world, often depicted in futuristic stories and films). This option is likely to eventually lead to destruction, possibly through an environmental disaster or a global war. So, the suffering and efforts of myriad life forms that contributed to our evolution and social development would be in vain. This would be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but it is not impossible.

Up: continuing in the same direction would lead to meaningless, apathetic reality, in which entropy would be constantly increasing, ending eventually in chaos and anarchy. This one is unlikely to destroy the world completely, simply because the means of destruction would malfunction too. However, it would result in a slow decline. To reverse this trend, a new conceptual framework (a new start) would be required.

Left: recognising and aligning the individual and social intentions and actions with the universal (discovering, or in the case of humanism, creating a common purpose).


These choices are shown in the following diagram:




It is impossible to predict which of them will prevail. What is certain is that they are all already germinated. The rise of religious fundamentalism, for example, in some parts of the Middle East and the USA indicates the down direction. Extreme materialism that started in the Reagan - Thatcher era, but is now slowly taking roots in newly developed countries, points towards the right; the post-modern secularism (in the liberal parts of the USA, most of continental Europe, Australia etc.) represents the tendency towards the up direction. Some movements, atheistic and theistic, show signs of the shift towards the left. These are a few examples: an increasing number of individuals and organisations (e.g. some NGOs or environmental agencies) dedicated to raise awareness and tackle global issues in politics; the growth of the so-called third sector (charities, ‘social enterprises') that are driven by contribution to community rather than profit in the business world; certain aspects of globalisation such as the internet that provides free and decentralised information and a vast knowledge base (regrettably not yet widely available); non-theistic spirituality based on the idea of self-generated systems (popularised, for example, by Laszlo or the Gaia movement); the emergence and fast spreading of grass-root spirituality (not aligned to any specific religious doctrine)[12]. Although this last choice may not prevail, it is the most interesting one, so considering its possibilities may be worthwhile.

It is proposed that the options on this route may be grouped into three broad categories. This diagram represents the possible trajectories:



a) Intuitionism (emphasising experience and often seen as an expression of the feminine principle) is likely to lead to a sharp turn towards the Intent. Its consequence could be approaching the Intent from a somewhat wrong angle, like a boat that tries to enter a river perpendicular to its flow, which would run the risk of being thrown back.

b) Rationalism (emphasising reason and usually identified with the masculine principle) is positioned in between the left and up direction and could lead to approaching the Intent very slowly or even moving in parallel to the Intent (because it is likely to be dominated by a non-theistic fourth stage). This direction could solve many practical problems (creating a society akin to a ‘Star-trek' type utopia), but the meaning would remain more or less elusive, and the search would continue indefinitely.

c) The synthesis of the feminine and masculine principles[13] would facilitate an approach to the Intent from the correct angle and aligning with it. The question may be asked what would happen in such a case. Metaphorically speaking, a bridge will be created, and human beings will not be alone any more.

  • [10]. Their names are created as a convenience, and do not have any value or ideological connotation.
  • [11]. Some find returning even further, to a pre-industrial, child-like state, as a way to get rid of consumerist society, attractive. But children are, in fact, easily mesmerised with multi-coloured superstores, junk-food outlets and expensive but worthless toys. Similarly, adults from traditional pre-industrial societies seem to be even more fascinated by flashy cars, golden rings and watches, and other consumer products.
  • [12]. For further details, see Forman, 2004
  • [13]. They are of course not identified with genders. Every person (female or male) has the capacity for both principles, although there may be a preference (or bias) for one of them.