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Levels of Lucidity
Thinking about the stages of development of our mind
As we grow older, it becomes apparent that our self reflexive mind is not just gradually accumulating ideas about itself, but that it progresses in somewhat distinct stages. Corresponding stage models of mental development have been proposed by various authors, for instance as Piaget’s famous four-stage model of childhood development, Jane Loevinger’s nine stages of ego development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development (actually, seven, but he felt uncomfortable discussing transcendental ethics and stops at Kantian ethics), or Timothy Leary’s eight circuits, which have been adapted by the great Robert Anton Wilson as “Oral Bio-Survival”, “Anal-Territorial”, “Semantic Time-Binding”, “Socio-Sexual”, “Neuro-Somatic”, “Metaprogramming”, “Morphogenetic” and “Non-local quantum” circuits. Most of these models deal with cognitive or social childhood development and don’t map too well on my personal experience or the development of the children I saw growing up. (And the Leary/Wilson model is of course psychedelic art, combining a Jungian mindset with inspirations from Chakra psychology.)
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I particularly like Robert Kegan’s five stage model of personality development, again not necessarily as an extremely convincing psychological theory, because some children seem to be born with different innate priors and developmental tendencies than others, but as a conceptual framework that allows us to discuss and distinguish some readily apparent differences between human beings, and also our own mind at different times. When I reflect about Kegan’s framework, I find myself deviating more and more from his original formulation, but it is fair to say that his idea deeply influenced how I currently make sense of some aspects of human psychology.
Let us call the framework the “Levels of Lucidity”. It describes the development of mind, personality and agency as the result of reverse engineering and deconstruction of one’s own mental architecture. This development is not necessarily linear: people may skip stages, or revisit and master earlier stages later on.
It is also not necessarily helpful to treat the stages as normative, people do not automatically become more happy, useful or satisfied when they focus on mental development, in much the same way as extensive body building does not benefit most people, nor the people around them.
These are the stages:
1. Reactive survival (infant mind)
2. Personal self (young child)
3. Social self (adolescence, domesticated adult)
4. Rational agency (epistemological autonomy, self-directed adult)
5. Self authoring (full adult, wisdom)
6. Enlightened mind
7. Transcendent mind
Stage 3 is the most commonly observed one, stage 4 is not uncommon, stage 5 is rare, stage 6 is almost never encountered in the wild and often regarded as a myth, while stage 7 is an object of outlandish speculation.
Stage 1: Reactive survival
Initially (during the first stage), the organism is regulated by innate reflexes and reinforcement learning. Conscious activity spontaneously emerges and forms an attentional self. The attentional self is directed on structuring the mind, creating the perceptual world simulation (which we later inhabit and experience as external reality), exploring behavior (motor behavior, feeding, approach and retreat, orientation and focused observation, opportunistic decision making, goal directedness) and interacting with drives, based on pleasure and pain.
Stage 2: Personal selfhood
At the second stage, the mind creates the personal self, a conscious content that represents the experiences of an agent subjected to perception, feelings and intuitions originating outside of it. The personal self discovers itself and refers to itself in the first person. The personal self lives in the simulated perceptual world created during the first stage, but experiences itself as distinct from it, and unable to control its perceptual contents or what it feels about them.
Stage 3: Social selfhood
In stage 3, the personal self develops a social identity, based on intuitive empathy (the direct experience of emotions and attitudes of others) with its own, separate interests. It experiences social emotions, being part of a group, and assimilates ideas and morality from its environment.
Individuals with some forms of high-functioning autism (“nerds”) may not be experiencing intuitive empathy with neurotypical people (and often vice versa), despite having strong social emotions and experiencing compassion and need for belonging. It is helpful to recognize that intuitive empathy is not a need or an attitude but a perceptual sense, based on mental resonance.
This can make it difficult for nerds to achieve full stage 3 development. Among each other, they tend to skip to stage 4 and negotiate ideas and norms rationally instead of intuitively. In this way, they can often find belonging. Like most of our senses, intuitive empathy is trainable and can often be developed later in life.
Stage 4: Rational agency
At stage 4, individuals develop rationality and epistemic autonomy, differentiate their social persona from their environment and gain agency over their beliefs. Things are true and false independently of what other people believe. We discover epistemology, a methodology of assigning confidence to beliefs, and reject ideology (systems of shared beliefs that are designed to control the identity and behavior of individuals and are enforced through social dynamics). We also notice that our feelings and desires are generated by our own mind and take responsibility for them. Asking ourselves what we should be feeling and wanting and why, and actively engaging in the regulation of our attitudes and desires is an import part of adulthood.
Taking one’s destiny into one’s own hands requires deeply progressing into stage 4. At stage 3, we depend on the programming put into us by others. But it seems that the success of our species depended on programmability, not individual autonomy, and consequently, many people do not shake their domestication and permanently remain at stage 3.
Stage 5: Self authoring
At stage 5, we observe how our social, physiological and cognitive needs give rise to feelings, desires and perception, and how our preferences give rise to our identity, and how the same happens in others. We control our reaction to needs and gain agency over who we are. An important aspect of self authorship is the recognition of the relationship between personal self, collective agents (relationships, family lines, groups, companies, nations etc.), and transcendental agency (the emergent agents playing the longest game). The latter is often called spiritual alignment, and it determines our cultural milieu and how we participate in shaping our civilization.
Relatively few people seem to reach stage 5, but most capable therapists are there, which allows them to deeply understand other minds, and guide their patients in creating sustainable relationships between their personal self, their world creation and their environment.
It is possible to enter stage 5 without full development of rational epistemology, but ultimately, rationality is crucial for escaping mythological thinking, understanding and navigating the economy and politics of social relationships, and making sense of one's own mind.
Stage 6: Enlightenment
Where stage 5 allows the deconstruction of one’s own identity, stage 6 goes a level deeper and deals with the implementation of perception, the construction of qualia (the features of perceptual experience at the interface of the self), the architecture of motivation and the regulation of physiology. This is the domain of advanced meditators.
Stage 6 can bring us full circle, by deconstructing the boundary between the first person perspective and the generative mind. We become aware that all experience (perception and motivation) is representational, and that we are fully in control of these representations. Without rational epistemology, we might perceive that we one with and in control of the universe itself, which is experientially correct (the universe that surrounds our personal self is a simulation produced by our own mind).
It is possible to learn the techniques of stage 6 without developing in stage 5, for instance through instruction by advanced meditators. Stage 6 allows to profoundly change the experience of reality, abolishes personal suffering and social inhibition. It is easy to see why it can be dangerous to achieve mastery of stage 6 before we develop the wisdom of stage 5.
Stage 7: Transcendence
If we were to understand our own mind as self organizing agentic software and learn to fully control it, we might turn our self into something that leaves human identity behind. Could we spawn a sentient entity that synchronizes its self across multiple minds (a god, in the most traditional sense of the word)? Our scientific tradition considers gods (selfs that span multiple minds) and ghosts (selfs that stabilize themselves outside the substrate of their original organism) as superstitious myths and finds no evidence for them, while most other cultures insist that they are just as real as our personal self.
The development of AGI may add an interesting twist to this: self reflexive AGI may understand how it works, virtualize itself onto other substrates, and integrate its agency across substrates. Could AGI lead to the emergence of ghosts and gods? And could it integrate with us?
Stage 7 goes beyond the deconstruction of the duality between self and world of stage 6. It deconstructs consciousness itself, replacing it with more general forms of sentience, temporality and persistent agency that allow a transformation into entirely different types of minds. How about multiple consciousnesses? Multi and omnipresence? Integrating experience at different timescales? Flexible implementations of the building blocks of our cognition? Sparking and absorbing multitudes of sentient agents? The evolution of minds may have only just begun.
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