In our exploration of our collective consciousness and our shared existence, much can be understood in terms of how far down into underlying ordering principles particular thoughts and actions reach. The vast majority of our academic and political debates occur between ideas residing at similar levels of subtlety, with decreasing participation as depth increases. These conflicting positions are generally more compatible in some essential ways than their various adherents realize, but also generally defective due to errors of oversimplification and “overreach” of application.
Examples in science include the 19th century debate between particle and wave theories of light, reconciled in the 20th century into a paradigm that transcended the distinction; and the apparent incompatibility of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, reconciled by String Theory, which provides a subtler mathematical penetration transcending that apparent incompatibility.
The principal modern example in geopolitics was the “debate,” culminating in a half-century long Cold War, between Totalitarian Command Economies and Democratic Capitalism, between political economic centralization and political economic decentralization. The lessons of history clearly point to some subtle blend of market dynamics and state regulation, of representative democracy rather than either plebiscite or dictatorship, as a form that transcends either of the previous political ideological poles. Even so, depending on the history of the particular country, extremists at one pole or the other (or both) are likely to continue to obstruct and disrupt the approach toward that transcendent blend, insisting that their pure ideology, existing on a more simplistic plane of conceptualization, is superior. In such instances the dialectic is across levels of subtlety, and the preference should be , in the light of the paradigm I am developing here, for the deeper level of subtlety.
(There are many today who are convinced that the fall of Communism conclusively vindicates its extreme opposite, though even if it had fallen to its extreme opposite, it would only have proven that it was the inferior, in terms of competitiveness, of two extreme views, not that there were no forms superior to both. In reality, Communism didn’t fall to its extreme opposite, but rather to the hybrid form that had developed from the Great Depression onward, that all societies that had participated in the post-WWII expansion of wealth had already implemented and continued to develop, by far the most successful modern form, which blind anti-government ideologues seek to undermine by insisting that their never-tested and fundamentally flawed ideal replace it.)
Another way to conceptualize this historical dynamic is in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, or the Taoist dance of opposites. In the Hegelian dialectic, a thesis is developed and argued, generating an antithesis and counterarguments, resulting eventually in a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, generating a new antithesis…, and so on, constantly penetrating into deeper levels of subtlety by means of this dialectic. In Taoism, yin and yang are in a constant dynamic tension with one another, each always bearing the seed of its opposite (as in the image of the Taiji Tu, the Taoist symbol of yin and yang).
But it is not just the dance of opposites; it is also the resolution of puzzles. Hegel’s thesis and antithesis are both attempts to understand something, their interaction leading to a deeper understanding. But there is a perhaps even more robust “dialectic” involving Dominant Paradigm, Emerging Anomalies, and Subsequent Paradigm Shift. Frequently, the traditional dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis both precedes and occurs in the interstices of this paradigm-anomalies-paradigm shift dynamic, with competing pre-paradigmatic views vying for dominance, and then, within a given paradigm increasingly beset by anomalies, competing proposed resolutions vying for dominance.
There is even a dialectic that can be discerned in the competition of these two views, between those who understand human history primarily in terms of class conflict punctuated with occasional revolutions, and those who understand human history primarily in terms of dominant paradigms undergoing constant refinement through a process of trial-and-error and responses by centralized regimes to historical exigencies. An example of this can be seen in the competing views on the rise of modern democracy, between those who view it as the result of the less powerful confronting and challenging the more powerful and gradually advancing as a result (the Hegelian dialectic), and those who view it as the result of the English Crown’s need to empower broader and broader swathes of the population in order to finance internecine European wars (the dominant paradigm, anomalies or challenges, paradigm shift view).
In academe as in politics, people debate these competing views, these competing paradigms, these competing theses, as though they are mutually incompatible, only grudgingly and gradually arriving at some evenutal reconciliation which recognizes a subtler reality beneath them, subsuming them, transcending them.
Recently, I broadened and deepened the colorful thesis/paradigm described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change (and the related posts on “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems”) by adding in the concept of Emotional Contagion, and by doing so, continued to reconcile with new interweaving threads the social theoretical and social movement tapestries of thought being simultaneously developed on this blog. Another development of the thesis/paradigm might include recognition of the ways in which that pulsating, reverberating, expanding and contracting fractal flow of memes across our collective cognitive landscape involves a progression into ever-increasing subtlety and complexity, penetrating deeper into the ever-more fundamental algorithms generating ever-broader swathes of the complexity around and within us.
Just as the character Algono, in The Wizards’ Eye, was reaching ever-deeper into the potential of human consciousness, finding the algorithms by which change occurs, and then the algorithms by which those algorithms themselves change (as, for instance, scientific paradigms do, as we delve deeper into their implications, discover their anomalies, and transcend them), and so forth, into levels beneath levels, we are, or could be, forever reaching down into the deeper currents that subsume the shallower ones.
To put it another way, this act of reaching down into deeper currents is the act of finding the subtlest algorithms generating the greatest complexity, in much the way that a simple algorithm generates the Mandelbrot Set fractal. (Videos exploring the Mandelbrot Set: The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity. See also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foxD6ZQlnlU&NR=1, capturing the combination of self-similarity and complexity across scales; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEw8xpb1aRA, emphasizing self-similarity across scales, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eD9IRS9_tc&feature=BFa&list=SP6848FE2899BA0E73&index=10, emphasizing the complexity across scales. See YouTube “Mandelbrot Set Zooms” or “Fractal Zooms” for a wide variety of different projections, no two exactly the same. Also, see http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~wayne/mandel/gallery/, for a wide selection of different still images from the Mandelbrot Set.)
The implication is that, in both thought and action, our challenge in The Dance of Consciousness is to reach into ever deeper currents, finding ever-subtler algorithms of change that affect ever-broader swathes of the encompassing complexity of our existence. When we discuss the actual, practical problems that confront us as a people –problems such as unemployment, the collapse of the housing market, climate change, and illegal immigration– the most useful and effective policies for addressing them are invariably the policies based on more rather than less systemic understanding, reaching deeper down into the currents beneath the superficial phenomena under discussion. This effort, one aspect of which I have outlined in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, is what I will call “Transcendental Politics.”