Kosmic Consciousness

For Philosofest 2000 at Deerfield, Illinois
F. Jay Deacon, D.Min
October 2000
Copyright 2000 by F. Jay Deacon. All rights reserved.

While, at the age of about 10, the young Ralph Waldo Emerson was a student at the Boston Latin School (where science was not taught), gazing at the twilight sky on a walk through the Boston Common produced an experience that led to his first paper on astronomy. 1 He would be a lifelong student of science and an amateur naturalist. He was a contemporary of Darwin; the two died eight days apart; and he wasted no time devouring Origin of Species when it appeared in 1859. Yet much of what he had to say in his first book, Nature, in 1836, anticipated Darwin.

By 1833 he was delivering a series of lectures on science and natural history before the Natural History Society. As he began his first lecture he remarked that "in accepting the invitation with which the Directors of this Society have honored me to introduce the course, I have followed my inclination rather than consulted my ability."2

And so myself, as well.


What might we mean by this term, "Cosmic Consciousness"? Or, perhaps, Einstein's expression, "Cosmic Religious Feeling"? But I suppose that depends on what we mean by "cosmic, cosmos, kosmos;" and how we understand "consciousness."

I do not propose to unlock the mystery of consciousness, nor to uncover the mind-brain link: matters that human intelligence, it seems to me, is not equipped to understand. But we do know something about the evolution of consciousness in individual people, and in culture.


Robert Kegan, in his In Over Our Heads, 3compares life to a big school, its curriculum our growth through orders of consciousness until we arrive at one or another order of consciousness where we stay.

We are always constructing reality. When we are brand new to this world, we organize meaning around immediate experience — sensations, movement. There is no such thing to an infant as enduring characteristics to things. All is momentary and immediate, and much of our thought is fantastic.

And then, as children, we begin to organize the world differently, because we see the individual parts of the world out there as having enduring properties — they aren't just sensations. We know our own feelings and needs have lasting qualities, too — not just momentary impulses. We come to realize that each person is distinct, has their own thoughts. But what drives that child are those feelings and needs, and the child identifies with those feelings and needs. Getting through the day is about fulfilling them.

But parents of adolescents learn that it takes them awhile to develop the ability to include more in their identity. They want that kid to be able to subordinate those feelings and needs to something bigger — to be capable of loyalty and devotion to a family, a community, a set of values. They want you to come home at a reasonable hour not to avoid punishment, but because you share their values about family and responsibility, because they're part of your identity — and maybe in time they will be. Your identity becomes more than your own needs and feelings—you internalize, and identify with, the values and beliefs of your particular surroundings. But the present and future require a yet larger and more inclusive identity.

The demands of the world are growing far more complex and sometimes we feel like fish out of water. A fish out of water is a fish who has nothing to suspend it and must move toward something that can suspend it. This movement is not automatic or seamless or smooth or uninterrupted or even certain.

A fish out of water, Robert Kegan says, "evokes the image of a desperate, expiring creature cut off from what it needs to survive. But `a fish out of water' is also the story of the evolution of our species."

History has often been imagined as a devolution, or fall from God. Similarly, it is often imagined, as in the vision of the Romantics, that infants come from some unconscious Heaven, in union with the Divine, go through some sort of "fall," and then, with any luck, return to the Divine. But a newborn is preconscious, not trans- or super- conscious. And God — whatever you mean by that poor word — lies not in our collective past, but in our collective future.

Each of us undergoes a development through stages into an emergence into consciousness. Thinkers including Alexander and Langer (Higher Stages of Human Development), Lawrence Kohlberg (Essays on Moral Development); James Fowler (Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning); Michael Murphy (The Future of the Body); and most significantly Robert Kegan (The Evolving Self, In Over Our Heads) reflect this ancient notion of the Great Chain of Being in numerous stage theories of development. They speak, in broad terms, of a prepersonal stage concerned with, say, food and safety; a personal stage concerned with, say, belongingness and convention and extending into global concerns; and a transpersonal or kosmic stage. At each stage, a higher-order structure that is more complex and thus more unified emerges and the self identifies with that emergent structure . Consciousness came first identified with the body, separate from the environment. Language brought a new kind of identity for the self, a mental-ego self — and so on, at each stage transcending the previous structure but still able to operate within it. Here is a curve from subconsciousness through self-consciousness to superconsciousness, integrating more and more. 4 Higher levels of consciousness can be experienced in brief "peak" or mystical experiences; and beyond this, according to the great mystics, a larger or "non-dual" consciousness can become one's ordinary perception. And that is identification of Self with the Divine, or Kosmic Consciousness.


For his reflections, Emerson turned to the venerable Greek work Kosmos (as did Whitman, who attributed to Emerson his inspiration to poetry). And, as Jaroslav Pelikan5 has noted, Emerson spoke of the Greek doctrine of an "eternal beauty" that "pleads ever with us, shines from the stars, glows in the flower, moves in the animal, crystallizes in the stone." It is clear in reading Nature that he studies nature and science not for utilitarian reasons, but from a sense of wonder. Snowflakes and polar ice fascinated him, and a grain of sand, examined, will be seen to have "a life as large as yours."6 This passage from Nature would seem to recall his childhood walk in the Common:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. Almost I fear to think how glad I am . . . Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.7

But the wonder resides not alone in the nature that is observed: it occurs between observed and observer. So Thomas Carlyle remarked, "wonder and reverence are the conditions of insight."

William James's Varieties of Religious Experience describes (XVI) mystical experience as a paradoxically concurrent shrinking and expanding of the ego. And though fellow-Transcendentalist Christopher Cranch drew an amusing cartoon of Emerson's transparent eyeball, its meaning was understood and prized by them all.

He sees all. His head is uplifted into infinite space. This is Kosmic Consciousness.

The Greeks had this word, Kosmos, with a K — by which they meant to speak of the patterned Whole of all existence, including the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms.

I suppose that nobody currently is doing anything nearly as excellent on the subject as Ken Wilber, who, in his tome Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution8 finds the finest expression of the Kosmic Consciousness he is getting at in none other than Mr. Emerson, with his "Over-Soul" and "transparent eyeball." This pleases this full-blown Transcendentalist's heart. In particular I commend to you the chapter "The Depths of the Divine."

Elsewhere, Wilber writes:

Ultimate reality was not merely the cosmos, or the physical dimension, but the Kosmos, or the physical and emotional and mental and spiritual dimensions altogether. Not just matter, lifeless and insentient, but the living Totality of matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. The Kosmos! — now there is a real theory of everything! But us poor moderns have reduced the Kosmos to the cosmos, we have reduced matter and body and mind and soul and spirit to nothing but matter alone, and in this drab and dreary world of scientific materialism, we are lulled into the notion that a theory uniting the physical dimension is actually a theory of everything. . . .9

The achievement of Kosmic Consciousness implies the need for a theory of everything in the broadest sense — that is, a way of integrating the essential domains of empirical knowledge. Evidence, not just dogma, will be required or you can't call it science. But there is more than one kind of empiricism.

Wilber10 suggests three.

First, sensory empiricism, which has to do with the sensorimotor world. We know about that one. It sees through telescopes; it measures and weighs things.

And second, mental empiricism, which has to do with logic, mathematics, semiotics, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. It sees through the eye of the mind. Mathematics is hardly a sensory domain: doing mathematics involves an inward perception of symbolic and imaginative events. These aren't "mere abstractions"; but profound patterns embedded in the Kosmos itself.

And third, spiritual empiricism, which sees through the eye of contemplation. It has a long history and an extensive literature.


But empiricism itself is something modern, made possible by the differentiation of three other realms, or value-spheres: art, morals, and science. As Wilbur puts it:

[I]n the Middle Ages, Galileo could not freely look through his telescope and report the results because art and morals and science were all fused under the Church, and thus the morals of the Church defined what science could — or could not — do. The Bible said (or implied) that the sun went around the earth, and that was the end of the discussion.11

Modernity, the Enlightenment — permitted science the free pursuit of its own truths; and artists and moral theorists could pursue theirs. But there is a difference between the differentiation of realms, and their utter dissociation. Then, science becomes scientism, scientific materialism and imperialism.

The imperative now is to reintegrate these realms without doing violence to either science or religion. Not all science, nor all religion, will agree to such a reintegration. But good science and good religion can still meet. Let us look again at those three forms of empiricism: sensory, mental, and spiritual.

The three have some things in common. They all produce experiential evidence that is public or shared, and the eye — of flesh or mind or contemplation — can be trained. All three rest their assertions on evidence and experience. It can be confirmed or rejected by those who have performed the same experiment.

So Wilber identifies three essential aspects of scientific inquiry:

One, instrumental injunction. An actual practice, in this form: "If you want to know this, do this." This is what Thomas Kuhn meant by "paradigms" or "exemplars"; and what Karl Popper meant by falsifiability — all genuine knowledge must be open to disproof.

Two, direct apprehension. The immediate experience of the domain that is brought forth by the injunction, a direct apprehension of data.

And three, communal confirmation or rejection.

But each of the three domains requires its own appropriate injunctions, which, in that particular domain, produce data in that doman that can be brought forth and reproduced.

To see the moons of Jupiter, you need a telescope. To understand Hamlet, you have to learn to read. If you want to know if a cell has a nucleus, you have to learn how to do the experimental procedures, like staining cells. Perhaps the classic expression of this is G. Spender Brown's Laws of Form.

Beginning with many Enlightenment figures, an attempt has been made to reduce "experience" or "empiricism" to sensory data, excluding all mental and spiritual experience from that status of genuine knowledge. But Kosmic Consciousness includes all domains of experience within its meaning of genuine knowledge.

Empirical science has too often claimed that its basic methodology covered all dimensions of existence. But there are two quite different considerations here. Ken Wilber:

Once we tease apart the scientific method from its application to a particular domain, we might find that a certain spirit of scientific inquiry, honesty, and fallibilism can indeed be carried into the interior domains (which science already does with its own mathematics and logic). We might find that "science" in the broadest sense does not have to be confined to sensory patches, but might include a science of sensory experience, a science of mental experience, and a science of spiritual experience."12

Religion must open its claims to falsifiability: many of its premodern beliefs and mythology cannot be sustained in modern consciousness. Likewise, science must broaden its narrow definition of empiricism.


Which brings me back to Mr. Emerson's transparent eyeball. He had had enough of what he called "corpse-cold Unitarianism." He had quit his post at Second Church in Boston, had buried his beloved Ellen, had set sail for Europe and met Carlyle and Wordsworth, had returned and had served as Interim Minister in New Bedford, where a group of renegade Quakers led by Mary Rotch had joined his congregation en masse, having been expelled from their Society of Friends because of their excessive faith in Inner Light and insufficient faith in Christian dogma. And then he had settled into Concord, and on an April day in 1834 had gone walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery, and there had had another experience, of which he says more in his journals:

I opened my eyes and let what would pass through them into the soul. I saw no more my relation how near and petty to Cambridge or Boston, I heeded no more what minute or hour our Massachusetts clocks might indicate — I saw only the noble earth on which I was born, with the great star which warms and enlightens it. I saw the clouds . . . It was Day, that was all Heaven said. The pines glittered with their innumerable green needless in the light and seemed to challenge me to read their riddle. The drab oak leaves of the last year turned their little somersaults and lay still again. And the wind bustled high overhead in the forest top. [Journals, April 11, 1834]

Margaret Fuller, the first great feminist of the nineteenth century who died in a shipwreck on her return from her participation in the failed revolution to rid Italy of Papal control, was 21, she, too, had a powerful primary religious experience. From her Memoirs:

It was Thanksgiving day (November 1831), and I was obliged to go to church, or exceedingly displease my father. I almost always suffered much in church from a feeling of disunion with the hearers and dissent from the preacher, but to-day, more than ever before, the services jarred upon me . . . . I was in haste for all to be over, that I might get into the free air. I walked away over the fields as fast as I could walk. . . . I walked many hours, till the anguish was wearied out . . . It was a sad and sallow day of the late autumn. Slow processions of sad clouds were passing over a cold blue sky; the hues of earth were dull, and gray, and brown, with sickly struggles of late green here and there: sometimes a moaning gust of wind drove late, reluctant leaves across the path-there was no life else. . . . I paused beside a little stream . . . I sat down there. I did not think; all was dark, and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover. . . . There passed into my thought a beam from its true sun . . . which has never since departed from me. . . . I saw that there was no self: that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the all, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena. My earthly pain at not being recognized never went deep after this hour. . . . I was dwelling in the ineffable, the unutterable. But the sun of earth set, and it grew dark around . . . I had never been accustomed to walk alone at night . . . but now I had not one fear. . . . This first day I was taken up; but the second time the Holy Ghost descended like a dove. I went out again for a day, but this time it was spring. I walked in the fields of Groton. But I will not describe that day; its music still sounds too sweetly near. . . . Since then I have suffered, as I must suffer again . . . but I have never been in discord with the grand harmony.13

Authentic spirituality cannot be dogmatic or mythological; it's got to be based on falsifiable evidence. But the evidence is not sensory and not mental. It is transmental, trassensual, traspersonal, and transcendental. It is the activity of Kosmic consciousness. Emerson was right: it is about direct mystical experience and transcendental consciousness, which is disclosed to the eye of contemplation. That is its unique strength; it exists, most authentically, in the realm of contemplation. Religion that seeks, instead, to rest on dogma or myth will serve as an engine of regressive, antiliberal, and reactionary forces. The Transcendentalists, as so many other mystics, were progressive, even revolutionary.

An over-narrow science that excludes mental and contemplative data, and a bogus religion that takes for its authority dogma and myth that are not experiential and falsifiable — that science and that religion will, of course, never come to terms.


The Transcendentalist movement in American religion began with those who gathered around Emerson — who, I have mentioned, was quick to get hold of Mr. Darwin's book and to take it to heart. Transcendentalism was always evolutionary in its nature. But the early emphasis on the evolution of human consciousness and on Kosmic Consciousness, integrating all possible domains of knowledge — was lost by some whose religion took the shape of a scientific rationalism. When the Transcendentalists were pushed, or stepped, outside the Unitarian Association, they were accompanied by these, including former Transcendentalists, like Moncure Daniel Conway. They found in Darwin sufficient answers to the questions of life. The two sub-movements together formed the Free Religious Association.

But the rationalists were taking cues from 19th-century science, whose flatland one-dimensionality would have puzzled the ancient mystics and, at least as much, puzzled the neutrino that just now passed through the entire earth in a few millionths of a second. Or consider the mystery of nonlocality, which so spooked Einstein that he carried on a debate with Neils Bohr. Today's science reveals that there is more than meets the eye. Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, pointed out that the fabric of reality is not only stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think. His sometime associate Werner Heisenberg wrote, "We wish to speak in some way about the structure of atoms, but we cannot speak about atoms in ordinary language."

Michael Frayn's great play Copenhagen dramatizes Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in an imaged conversation between Heinsenberg and Bohr:

Heisenberg: No, but I show him the strangest truth about the universe that any of us has stumbled on since relativity — that you can never know everything about the whereabouts of a particle, or anything else, even Bohr now, as he prowls up and down the room in that maddening way of his, because we can't observe it without introducing some new element into the situation, a molecule of water vapour for it to hit, or a piece of light — things which have an energy of their own, and which therefore have an effect on what they hit. A small one, admittedly, in the case of Bohr . . .

Bohr: Yes, if you know where I am with the kind of accuracy we're talking about when we're dealing with particles, you can still measure my velocity to within — what . . . ?

Heisenberg: Something like a billionth of a billionth of a kilometre per second. A theoretical point remains, though, that you have no absolutely determinate situation in the world, which among other things lays waste to the idea of causality, the whole foundation of science — because if you don't know how things are today you certainly can't know what they're going to be tomorrow. I shatter the objective universe around you — and all you can say is that there's an error in the formulation!14

The quantum reality, with its wave-particle polarity, transcends even our metaphors. Scientific materialism? Whatever matter might be, it is a dimension of a larger whole, Kosmos.

Some expressions of this Kosmic Consciousness:

There is, of course, Mr. Emerson, in his journals:

Yesterday I walked in the storm. And truly in the fields I am not alone or unacknowledged. They nod to me & I to them. The waving of the boughs of trees in a storm is new to me & old. It takes me by surprize & yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right. We distrust & deny inwardly our own sympathy with nature.15

Samuel Johnson, of Lynn, Salem, and North Andover, Mass., was the greatest of the Transcendentalist theologians. He wrote:

Now protoplasm is a fine word, nowise to be scorned; but old Anaxagoras went behind and beyond it, more than twenty centuries ago, when he pronounced the simpler word Nous, or Mind. Whether thought be regarded as a property of matter, or matter a quality of thought, may make no difference within the limits of crucible and retort. But what if those divine men had thoroughly accepted the former proposition, and all it involves of spiritual attitude and method? Would they have trusted the "glory and the dream" that now makes man's hardest struggle with outward conditions prophetic and life itself majestic, through its relations to the Infinite and Eternal? 16

And, in contrast to what he calls "the far-off God of the creeds":

What the framers really felt of deity was precisely what they could not put into form and hand over to churches. What really shone in them is known only by the light that shines in us. . . . We want no veil of space, or time, or officiality, however ancient or recognized, between us and the Spirit that conditions and completes the best will and faith and conduct . . .17

And there is this, from his friend William James Potter (1829-1893):

No definition of religion, I think, will satisfy the philosophy of the subject which does not in some way denote the contact which the finite mind has with the vitalizing and sustaining Energy of the universe. It is not necessary that the definition should embrace the idea of a personal Deity, not necessary that it should attempt the impossible problem, which most theological systems do attempt, of defining the Infinite; but it must, in order to cover all the facts, in some way recognize the Infinite, — in other words, recognize that the human soul is conscious of a life that is not bounded by its material organism nor by any limits which itself can measure, but opens outward into the whole infinity and eternity of things, and is a natural, inherent part of the universal order.18

Wilber writes:

In the interiors of quarks, it is said, there are vibrating strings, and these strings are the fundamental units of everything. Well, if so, it is a strange everything, pale and anemic and alien to the richness of the world that daily presents itself to you and me. Clearly strings are an important part of a larger world, fundamental to it, but not that significant, it seems. You and I already know that strings, should they exist, are only a tiny part of the picture, and we know this every time we look around, listen to Bach, make love, are caught transfixed at the sharp crack of thunder, sit rapturous at sunset, contemplate a radiant world that seems made of something so much more than microscopic, one-dimensional, tiny rubber bands. . . .19

Two sentences of Emerson stand out for me above the billions of words that come calling upon us. You will probably recognize them, if you have heard this speaker very many times. They are from his essay, "The Over-Soul," and they are these:

Within [us] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal one. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is . . . self-sufficing and perfect in every hour.

This word, one, signifies Kosmos. It is implicit in names like "Unitarian" and "Universalist."

Ramakrishna said, "If you meditate on an ideal you will acquire its nature." If we meditate on the Love that is this One, we will become Love, and we will become One.


It is a slow and uncertain evolution that replaces in human consciousness the sense of division and separation with the sense of One and Kosmos. But I do not believe that human civilization on this planet has very many years to survive unless we recognize the urgency of the next movement of that evolution. It must come, in our time. If it does not, it will instead be a fulfillment of Doris Lessing's space fiction, which looks back from a far-distant future and place on the miserable end of the inhabitants of Earth:

These were maddened creatures, and the small voices that rose in protest were not enough to halt the processes that had been set in motion and were sustained by greed. By the lack of substance-of-we-feeling.20

Substance-of-we-feeling. The lack of it is the product of our cosmology, it is the religion of a dying order: the religion of separation, of alienation. It pervades the atmosphere and is embedded in our bones. We know the feeling of separation from life and being itself.

But within the most hidden house of nature, at the core of things — things happen in unpredictable ways but never in isolation, always in relation to everything else. It really is an interdependent web! There is a communion of all Being; sometimes we know it.

The Universe looks to me the result of an ongoing process of self-organization. It appears to have an inherent capacity and an inherent necessity to learn and evolve and to organize itself in ever more complex ways. Absolute points of view make less and less sense and we live in the face of immense mystery. We exist within an Immensity that has managed to produce stars which produce the ingredients of biological life and send them off into space in the form of light, and to give us joy and Mozart.

It is time for the abandonment of a religion of presumptive authority and pre-modern mythology, which serves as a lock on the past. It is time for a fresh integration of religion and science in which religion rests on its unique strength: direct mystical, transcendental, contemplative experience — Kosmic Consciousness.


1 Gay Wilson Allen. Waldo Emerson. Middlesex, England and New York: Penguin Books, 1981, p. 277.

2 The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1833-1842. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Rober E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1959-71, I:5.

3 Robert Kegan. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 105.

4 A theme in nearly all of Ken Wilber's books, and especially The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1997.

5 In his Introduction to a 1985 reprint of Nature. Boston: Beacon Press, 18.

6 Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1833-1842, I:77-78.

7 Nature. Boston: James Munroe, 3836, p. 13.

8 Boston: Shambhala, 1995

9 Ken Wilber. A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala, 2000, pp. xi-xii.

10 As in The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Intregating Science and Religion. New York: Random House, 1998. See, for instance, 152ff.

11 Marriage of Sense and Soul, 12.

12 Marriage of Sense and Soul, 151.

13 Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Assoli. Ed. R. W. Emerson, W. H. Channing, and J. F. Clarke. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884, 139-142.

14 London: Methuen Drama, 1998, p. 69f.

15 Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, V:179.

16 Lectures, Essays, and Sermons by Samuel Johnson with a Memoir by Samuel Longfellow. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883, p. 355.

17 Samuel Johnson. Sermon, "The Search for God," in Lectures, Essays, and Sermons , p. 374.

18 "Religious Sentiment in the Light of Science," pp. 19-20.

19 A Theory of Everything, xi.

20 Doris Lessing. Re: Colonised Plaet 5, Shikasta. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1979, p.90.