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Universal Intelligence

The harmony of natural law...reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.

Albert Einstein
The World As I See I

There is something about the universe -- an elegant order in the way everything fits and unfolds, an inexplicable beauty in its living patterns, and the mysterious depth and expressiveness of it all -- that reminds us of the brilliance we see in the works of great artists, scientists, engineers, and saints.

Some people believe that human intelligence is the pinnacle of natural evolution and can outdo anything nature has to offer -- and that there is no God, and that nature has nothing remotely resembling consciousness or intelligence. Others say that nature's (or God's) brilliance is greater than any human intelligence -- ultimately awesome in its scope and endlessly surprising in its details -- and that human intelligence is a small but elegant expression of this larger intelligence and has much to learn from it.

More often than not, I find myself in this latter group -- those who sense some kind(s) of universal intelligence. To some degree, this is a matter of faith. To some degree, it seems that the evidence surrounds us.  

For those of us who see things this way, I suspect it honors universal intelligence more if we contemplate it, share our sense of it, and tap into it rather than argue about it with others who see things differently. In any case, this article describes how I see it.

Christians see a higher intelligence they call God's plan, or the will of God. Taoists see a higher intelligence they call the Tao, the Way of Nature. Meditative traditions speak of cosmic consciousness. Most indigenous peoples consider all of nature to be intelligent and alive. Scientists speak of natural laws -- and some are now researching what they call complex, adaptive systems -- systems that respond to the world around them, in ways that look a lot like learning. The whole process of evolution is clearly a learning process, a developing of new variations that work better, or work in new environments. Some people see evolution as the dynamic unfolding Great Story of the Living Universe and consciously celebrate and learn from it.

I bundle all these phenomena into one package and label it "universal intelligence."

When I'm feeling esoteric, I might describe it something like this: We live in a sea of information, a web of interconnection, a field of what some Buddhists call inter-being -- a dynamic state of interactive, resonant existential communion. There are universal patterns, powers and wisdom at the core of our being, and the universe vibrates with our every act and thought. What happens in one place and time is linked to everything else far more intimately than we could ever imagine. Synchronicities and analogs abound. Certain patterns keep cropping up: We see BRANCHES in trees, rivers, roads, fields of study, computer circuitry. We see CYCLES in planets, electrons, food chains, wheels, the flows of water and carbon through the biosphere, and the recycling bin. It is no accident that we use the word VISION to describe perception, imagination, insight and prediction. Patterns like these (branches, cycles, vision, etc.) are alive with useful meaning. At every level, the universe is rich with lessons and resonances as it in-forms itself, intimately co-being and co-evolving, learning and remembering. Intelligence is everywhere. There is information and wisdom here we can tap into. There are flows and textures and energies, resistences and assistances, that we can join and follow, or grow stronger and wiser wrestling with.

Among those who see such intelligence operating in the world around us, there is endless speculation about its nature. Is universal intelligence built into nature by a human-like Creator and then left to unfold -- or a sign of a Creator's continual, contemporary engagement in creation? Are the natural patterns that we think of as intelligent merely analogs of our own intelligence, or are they somehow the same thing, writ large? Are we anthropomorphically projecting our experience of consciousness into the dumb matter of the world, or is our own intelligent consciousness somehow an expression or facet of some larger intelligent consciousness? Are we dreaming God, or is God dreaming us? I, myself, entertain several seemingly contradictory beliefs at once about all this, and keep it all balanced with a generous ballast of "maybes."

For my purposes here, though, we don't have to agree on the nature of universal intelligence. Despite all the disagreements about that, few will disagree that there is something ultimately mysterious and creative about the order of the universe. Even top scientists who see nothing "spiritual" in the world around them agree on that. At the very least, the word "intelligence" provides an excellent metaphor to describe that reality.

So for now let us not argue over the exact nature of this thing I call universal intelligence. Rather, let us explore our relationship to it.

In the explorations that follow, I simply assume that there is an order that is larger than us, which has its own logic and direction which we are not in charge of. If this is true, then working against this higher power will demand more effort than working with it, and will generate little, if anything, of lasting value except learning -- which is always available -- and sometimes catastrophe. This would suggest that we subjugate ourselves to this higher intelligence. However, experience suggests that we can, to a certain degree and with great caution, manipulate this higher intelligence for our own ends -- which we do through science and engineering by applying natural laws and through religion by praying. But natural order is complex beyond our capacity to know fully, and if our manipulations are at all arrogant -- presumptuous that we know what we're doing -- we will likely end up creating a mess like the Sorcerer's Apprentice. A third -- and, to me, more satisfactory -- strategy than total submission or manipulation is to respect, befriend, cooperate with and creatively move in harmony with this infinitely powerful and complex intelligence, to the best of our ability.

Humility is, naturally, an excellent place to begin in our efforts to cooperate with universal intelligence. Humility in this case simply means an honest appreciation of our own limitations and a real respect for the ancient and awesome wisdom of the greater intelligence(s) in which we're embedded. Humility means starting from a place without arrogance, with flexible certainties, a place of respect, curiosity, wonder and willingness to learn -- in every situation we can manage it.

"Letting go" is another part of cooperating with universal intelligence -- being unattached to outcome, realizing we're not in control. Not being in control doesn't mean that we don't have a significant role. Indeed, our influence is part of what shapes the unfolding of whatever happens next. But that is influence, and not control -- sometimes more, sometimes less, and always participatory, not unilateral. (This also means leaving behind blame and shame and reconceptualizing responsibility as our [or another's] actual role in events in which all of us have roles. Taking responsibility for the past would mean consciously acknowledging that what we did -- whatever we did -- played a role in what happened. Taking responsibility for the future would mean consciously choosing a role and playing it out as best we can, knowing that we are only one of many players.)

In what I experience as my best times, I feel more like a conduit for a larger, all-inclusive intelligence, or like my life is an active part of something larger that is trying to happen. When I'm in that state of awareness, there is a sense of being guided. It isn't so much that I'm told what to do in so many words (although that has happened occasionally, too), but rather that I can feel when I'm "on track" or "off track." It is a gut feeling that what I'm doing is the right thing (or not) at this time. Often it is more than a feeling of "being in the flow," but an apparently objective fact. Ideas, resources, opportunities, and other openings inexplicably appear in ways that facilitate rapid progress in a particular direction -- as if someone or something were clearing the way for me.

But sometimes "the way opens" (as the Quakers say) in directions that seem to me wrong. So I end up having to make judgments and choices anyway. How do I know that this impulse is aligned to universal intelligence while that other one is not? I'm not even sure we can talk about universal intelligence as something we can "know."

So I certainly don't believe that any of us can legitimately claim to know what its marching orders are, even if we wanted to follow its dictates. I see our challenge as more complex. In the spirit of co-intelligence -- as noted above -- I prefer to view what seem to be the patterns and promptings of universal intelligence not as something to submit to or manipulate, but as something to join in partnership with, in a sort of dance, as one would with a good friend or lover or comrade. We influence each other. My intentions have a role in shaping The Plan, and my actions have a role in realizing The Plan, but I never know exactly what The Plan is, although I often think I sense its patterns in my life and in the life of the world around me. I open myself to universal intelligence, and let my inevitably limited perception of it inform -- but not control -- my reason, my passion, my intuition, my action.

One part of that Plan -- that intelligence -- is crystal clear: Universal intelligence is definitely concerned with more than me. It is concerned with the operation and well-being of the Whole -- a Whole so large I can't fathom it. So opening myself to universal intelligence automatically influences me to keep my intentions for myself in perspective. And from that perspective, I know that when I try to benefit myself at the expense of someone or something else, it's not going to work out as neatly as I think, because the Plan simply doesn't operate that way. On the other hand, the closer I get to benefiting The Whole, the more aligned I become with the operations of universal intelligence. And, since I can't know The Whole, that translates into doing the best I can while giving universal intelligence lots of space to do what it does. In fact, I can become an ally with universal intelligence by providing contexts in which things can co-creatively self-organize, rather than forcing them into pre-determined outcomes. That doesn't mean just standing back (although that's often what's called for); it means going with the grain of life, not against it. This can be quite active, like helping children learn what they really want to learn instead of forcing them to learn what they're not interested in (or neglecting them) -- or creating an open space conference where all the issues hidden inside the participants can emerge and get dealt with, rather than organizing a conference where experts tell people what to think. This is working with universal intelligence, giving universal intelligence the space it needs to do its thing through whatever aliveness is present.

Then we can truly do wonders, because that's what universal intelligence specializes in.

See also:



Process and Participation

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