Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
The cloudscape glowed in the streaming light of the sun, whorls and tufts poised in a floating dance of fluid form. Strains of ethereal music drifted with strands of luminous mist among hovering puffs and whimsical foam behemoths.
Draped only in these wafting wisps, dazzling muses lounged on the tiers of a fountain carved from the froth. Feathered wings unfurled with an occasional flourish. Cerulean locks swirled in the gusty breeze. The spray of light laughter laced the air. Whether basking in a rain of radiance, or beneath the celestial canopy sparkling with thickly sprinkled specks of fire, there was always a gathering on the cloud-paved plaza, a mingling of sounds rising and falling like distant waves caressing a rocky shore.
“Welcome, Lord Evenstar!” the Chorus sang in unison, as Azhanli, alighting on the lip of the fountain, lowered her passenger onto the tier just below her own. Azhanli had asked the ancient wizard to join them, and ferried him there herself, for he had shared in the story to be told today, and would tell it again in the tongues of men when the world of Sarena’s vision had come to pass.
Azhanli was to conduct this day’s Chorus, for she too had been a part of the tale about to be told. Perched on the fountain’s edge like a sphinx posing her riddle to those gathered round, she orchestrated the various voices chiming in. Mellifluous chatter coalesced into a symphony of nuanced tones and gestures.
The whirling mists responded. At first, mere shadows of shapes emerged, and windswept whispers barely heard. The skin tingled with hints of crisp morning air. Twilit tints peeked through the veil of shifting vapors. Then a salty spray could be discerned, and hollow, echoing calls.
Plumes hardened into rugged cliffs, their heights haloed by dawn’s first blush. The cloud-carpet before them melted into a dull tide clad in tatters of fog, paying ceaseless homage to the chiseled sentinels of the land, salaaming in furies of foam at their feet. Gulls glided above the roiling surf, screeching a forlorn and ominous ode to the mysteries of sea and shore. The dark shroud of night had been just cast aside, revealing the naked spirit of day.
But brilliance blossomed without delay, clothing that spirit in splendor. The Ilyarian plaza became a shimmering panorama, flowing by as if seen through eyes aloft on the wind. Islands and coastal palisades rose starkly from the ocean waves like monuments to the gods. The sun-flecked sea danced in ecstasy below. Nestled within the land’s lush folds life sprouted and throve, rivers plummeted from mountain springs, leaves quivered on swaying boughs. And people strove, weaving tales of Nature’s own.
The soaring overture dove toward a sunbaked country far from the rolling swells, to a wedge of red rock overlooking a small village. A lone figure stood there, cleaving the warm dusty wind like a figurehead maiden mounted on a stone prow. Long black hair fluttered, a banner on the battlements, a sail in search of distant shores. And eyes dark and bright as starlit skies gazed into the golden haze of the horizon, reaching out across the vast expanse before them….
(For more vignettes excerpted or derived from my novel, “A Conspiracy of Wizards,” please see The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, “Flesh Around A Whim”, and The Cloud Gardener. Also see The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”. To purchase an electronic copy of the novel, click the link below.)
As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.
As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.
But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)
So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?
Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”
To explore that ”lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.
What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).
But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.
What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.
Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.
What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.
In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”
But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.
Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?
This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?
Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.
Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.
If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct ”echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?
Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.
We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.
So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.
As the Denver Post noted in two columns in today’s (Sunday, 3.18.12) Perspective section (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_20183851/are-college-students-learning-holding-higher-education-higher and http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_20183853/holding-higher-education-higher-standard), the value of a college education suffers from the lack of emphasis on the teaching ability of college professors. The fact is, universities hire and retain professors on the basis of their research and writing skills and efforts (“publish or perish”), rather than on the basis of their teaching skills and efforts. “Teaching colleges” are an exception to this rule, focused on teaching rather than research, but perhaps lose something in the bargain as well. Arguably, immersing young people in an evironment that is home to the most brilliant minds in the world, laden with cutting edge insights and the highest levels of cognitive activity, has a benefit not to be lightly dismissed. But the transmission of that brilliance to the students who fill the lecture halls needs to be accomplished in a manner a bit more intentional than mere osmosis. If we want our young adults to receive a high quality college education, we need to ensure that there is a system in place designed to deliver it.
American universities not only fail in the degree to which they ensure that they are effective educational (as well as research) institutions, but also in the degree to which the highly specialized enclaves of cutting-edge thought cross-fertilize one another. Careers are built on complete immersion in very narrowly defined and information-intensive academic microcosms. There are many benefits to this, but some costs as well. We have conceptually fractured reality into its tiniest components, but have done little to conceptually reassemble it. This affects not only the breadth and depth and quality of the insights achieved through this process, but also increases the distance between professors and students, turning too many professors, as Ms. Bullard noted in her collumn in The Denver Post, into “a disheveled man…mumbling half to himself.”
It’s tempting to capture these dual challenges with pithy oversimplification, stating that the remedy to these two problems is more specialization along the teaching/research continuum, and less specialization among the various content areas. Unfortunately, though I like the simplicity and balance of that statement, it fails to capture the reality of what I am proposing: I am really suggesting that we build more and better bridges, and more fully develop the regions that form their destinations.
We need a new emphasis on the specialization of teaching, but not a specialization which is completely detached from the academic vibrancy and richness that is the modern university. One way to accomplish this might be to hire teachers to teach, and research professors to do research, and to allow the two groups to overlap and articulate with one another both organically and by design. Those brilliant professors who are great researchers but lousy teachers can spend all of their time doing research. Those who are both great teachers and great researchers can spend some of their time on both, as is currently the case, but with a more balanced emphasis and more balanced rewards for excellence in each endeavor. Those who are great teachers but not particularly talented researchers, or not particularly interested in doing research, can be hired on exclusively as teachers.
It would be a professional expectation of all university teachers that they demonstrate the highest levels of expertise in their field, completely comparable to those of their research counterparts, and to be fully versed in what their colleagues are doing, including their colleagues who are engaged only in research. But it would also be a professional expectation that they become broadly, as well as deeply, educated, that they are aware of developments in other disciplines, even completely unrelated disciplines (“unrelated,” that is, by conventional modes of thinking).
Part of what professors specializing more in teaching could bring to modern universities is more cross-fertilization, more bridges among disciplines, helping students to learn not just the discipline that defines the primary class material, but also the connections between that discipline and others, between its insights and insights being developed in very different subject areas.
But teachers need to teach one another as well as those students who are seated in the classrooms and lecture halls. And research professors would benefit from more catalysts to the imagination and to the processes of inspiration and insight coming from other, sometimes very different disciplines. So I would add one more layer of innovation to our universities: A “Department of Interdisciplinary Synthesis.”
While we do not want to lose the benefits of the intense specialization which is so robustly producing such finely tuned and precise insights into the nature of the world and universe we occupy, we should seek to gain the further benefits of how these insights articulate with one another, form surprising areas of interdisciplinary coherence, generate surprisingly robust and useful understandings that not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but leap across disciplinary spaces that have heretofore been considered as wide a gulf as that between galaxies.
One basis for such interdisciplinary synthesis is Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis (what is often thought of as “Chaos Theory”). Rather than a focus based on subject area, it is a focus based on the choice of lens through which to understand subject areas. Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis has applications throughout all of the social sciences (see, e.g., my series of essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), physics, biology and the life sciences, meteorology, philosophy, literature, and the fine arts (including music and visual arts), to name a few. It is, in a sense, a naturally-occurring cross-fertilizing cognitive enzyme.
Other such “enzymes” undoubtedly exist as well. Discovering and utilizing them would be a very valuable academic enterprise, one which currently occurs mostly on the margins of ultra-specialization rather than in the center of an effort to build bridges among those islands of thought. We live not only in a mind-bogglingly complex and subtle reality, the understanding of which benefits from extreme specialization, but also a coherent reality, the understanding of which benefits from synthesizing the products that extreme specialization. And the challenge is not only to produce and synthesize these products of human genius, but also to disseminate them, and allow them to extend more broadly into the population and to articulate more thoroughly with the genius of the many.
Due to the appreciation of the fractal images I use here and on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence), and the interest in fractals and the Mandelbrot Set that that appreciation has generated, as well as the relevance of fractals to my overarching evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems paradigm (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, and particularly The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for an explanation and description of the connection), I’ve decided to post here a few different video “zooms” of the set.
These are not just visually interesting and beautiful displays: They are the exploration of the underlying patterns of complexity found in nature. The Mandelbrot Set is an extremely intricate fractal generated by iterations of a simple (though mathematically sophisticated) mathematical algorithm. Zooming in on any part of the swirling pattern reveals a degree of complexity equal to that on the larger scale, across limitless levels. I selected such images to represent Colorado Confluence because I believe (as many of my essays on Colorado Confluence explicitly expound upon) that life in general is of an essentially similar nature, swirling patterns of complexity within complexity, and that our challenge, in this human endeavor of ours, is to continue to ever-better align our consciousness and our efforts with these subtle and intricate systems of which we are a part. Enjoy!
Notice the coral-like formations in this one!
There are many, many more Mandelbrot Set zooms out there! Look for the most beautiful ones, and comment here or on the Colorado Confluence FB page with the URL.
One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?
The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.
If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?
This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)
To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.
Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.
Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.
Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.
With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.
On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.
Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.
At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.
The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.
The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.
But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.
So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.
And may the deities continue to defecate on it….
Preparing for an interview for an executive director position with a national environmental advocacy organization, I asked myself why I was passionate about environmental issues. The funny thing about such passions is that sometimes you have to reach down into yourself to find them, to find their source, to remember why you want to live a life that is something more than mere existence, a life dedicated to more than one’s own comforts and immediate (e.g., familial) concerns and responsibilities.
I grappled with the question, searching for the answer that was real and true. As with all things in my life, the core answer involves my sense of wonder (see The Value of Wonder). In my late teens, I used to write a lot of poetry expressing metaphysical or personal yearnings and contemplations, generally couched in the imagery of nature. Throughout my twenties and to a lesser extent through my thirties, I spent enormous amounts of time, usually alone, in wild places, hiking, camping, cross country skiing, canoeing. The sights, scents, sounds and sensations experienced in those times and places are the essence of life for me, the source of a profound spiritual euphoria.
Of course, my interest in environmental issues is motivated by more mundane considerations as well. It matters, to those who are concerned with human welfare, that even a systemically non-catastrophic environmental contamination can be personally catastrophic to those and the families of those whose health may be devastatingly impacted by it. It matters to those who look beyond the present and consider the future that we are, at an ever-accelerating rate, outpacing with our industrial activities in service to our growing populations and appetites the Earth’s ability to rebound and recuperate, destroying the planet on which we depend for our continued survival. It matters that accelerating global warming will cause increasing and increasingly catastrophic and costly challenges that would be far wiser to mitigate proactively far more assertively than we are currently doing.
But, almost more important than all of these tangible reasons to be passionate about our enviromental concerns, is the fact that we are a part of something unique and beautiful in the universe, this living planet of ours, an entity from which we, and our consciousness, emanate, and of which we, and our consciousness, are a part. That euphoria I described above isn’t just another recreational pleasure, but is rather something deep in our souls, some major part of our souls, given physical expression in the beauty and wonder of Nature.
It’s not that I subscribe to the notion that there is some actual, essential distinction between the products of human artifice and the natural context from which they emanate. The same hubris that considers Nature something to be conquered considers humans to have somehow removed themselves from it. We haven’t, we can’t, it makes no sense. Humans and all that humans produce and do is as much a part of Nature as is an ant colony or a bee hive. (See, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The issue is not our “naturalness” or “unnaturalness,” but rather how we articulate our social institutional and technological systems with the other complex dynamical systems of which we are a part.
Our social institutional and technological landscape is a beautiful blossom of Nature, and merits the same appreciation as the larger whole of which it is a part. Human consciousness certainly ranks high among Nature’s wonders, and, despite the temptation to attribute a status of exceptionality and superiority to that to which we belong or identify with (e.g., “American Exceptionalism,” religious fundamentalism, racism, ethnocentrism, species centrism, intolerance or devaluation of the “other”), human consciousness is a quintessential example of the beauty of the living planet of which it is a part, from which it emanates, rather than some external thing existing upon it.
But the naturalness of our existence, and even of our industry, does not mean that it is benign. The diseases which kill us are natural too, and yet we seek to save our children from their ravages. Few if any would argue that it is not right and just to do so. Some of those diseases involve parasites and some involve viruses (among other causes of illness), both of which have parallels at the global level, considering the Earth as the organism, and the things which threaten its continued survival as the illnesses.
Humans have become parasites on the body of Gaia, consuming that body more quickly than it can recover from the ravages imposed. We are killing our host, which, for a parasite, is suicide, unless it can migrate to another host (i.e., colonize other planets). But even if it accomplishes this expansion, it will kill host after host, perhaps surviving, but doing so by means of wreaking a devastating path of destruction in its wake.
Given the fact that we have not yet identified anywhere in the universe another living planet, that we are nowhere near possessing the technological ability to turn a dead planet into a living one (especially given the fact that we seem only able to turn a living one into a dead one, even though it is the only one we have), and that we require a living planet to sustain us, it is far from clear at this point if we will even have the choice of becoming a galactic scourge rather than merely dying with the host that we are killing.
As conscious beings, we can contemplate these facts, and can choose, through our processes of collective action (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), to strive to be symbiotes on this planet rather than parasites, to discipline our industry to operate in harmony with the larger organic systems into which it is interwoven, preserving the health of the living planet rather than mercilessly exploiting it to the fullest of our potential, and killing it in the process.
Those processes of collective action are where the viral parallel comes in, because the “viruses” that affect how we articulate with the larger context of which we are a part are cognitive ones, spreading through our body politic and determining who and what we are (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). These “viruses,” these contagious memes that define our consciousness and, through it, our social institutional and technological landscape, can be beneficial or malignant, or some combination of the two. And they can operate on deeper or more shallow levels, catalyzing more profound and far-reaching changes, or merely forming ripples on the surface of our constantly fluctuating social reality (see The Variable Malleability of Reality). The challenge we face is to spread the viruses that catalyze beneficial changes in consciousness, moving us in the direction of identifying with this living planet of ours, of identifying with all humanity, and of living lives in service to the compassionate, imaginative, rational, pragmatic, disciplined, and expansive celebration of life.
We are forever at a war with ourselves, and among ourselves, over whether we are just grasping, covetous animals, or conscious beings, and, if the latter, just exactly how conscious. Everything else we do, everything else we believe, everything else we are, should be disciplined and liberated by a growing, loving, joyful commitment to being and becoming fully conscious beings, living in service to one another, and to this beautiful planet on which we thrive.
In a modification of my last post, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, in which I described how memes and paradigms form and spread and combine into social institutions, I added on a few paragraphs describing the fractal geometry of that social institutional landscape, which form the first few paragraphs (following this one) of this post.
The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, aficionados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized professional knowledge through games and entertainments to particular opinions or judgments. Rumors, observations, shared jokes, novel insights, technical innovations all swirl and sweep through humanity like gusting breezes through endless grasslands.
Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, or proliferating due to their economic or military utility, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.
Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.
If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have innumerable distinct colors and shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, the hues shifting as the memes evolve, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with its unique set of genes (and subsequent physical affects of variable environmental factors), by its unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity for a static but in-depth version of the imagery described above.)
But distinct memes themselves are changing as they flow, being modified in individual minds or synthesized with other memes to produce new ones, displacing or disproving others, in a constant dance of creation and destruction interspersed with the flowing patterns of modification, dispersion, expansion, and contraction. Memes are catalysts, interacting with human predispositions, existing cognitive architectures, and the natural environment to produce new forms, new technologies, new social institutions, and to render old ones obsolete or out of favor.
As discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, some of those memes are intentionally cobbled into purposive systems, or “technologies,” programming or channeling some set of natural or behavioral phenomena in service to desired ends. Those that program natural phenomena are the ones conventionally thought of as “technologies,” enabling us to do things we were once unable to do, and to produce wealth and comfort and opportunity (as well both intentional and unintentional damage to human beings, their physical infrastructure, and the natural environment) far in excess of what we once were able to produce. These technologies and technological domains (e.g., electrical, digital, etc., as well as, as explained below, market, contractual, etc.) interact with the more haphazardly accumulating and evolving meme-clusters of the social institutional landscape. Technologies can be thought of as the engineered architectures carved out of the social institutional “natural environment,” the latter comprised of the wilderness of foundational linguistic and cultural forms as well as the economic, political, and ideological accretions diffusely growing in conjunction with our various purposive systems.
(The distinction between “engineered architectures” and the rest of the social institutional landscape can be a bit hazy, since the rest of the landscape is a function of human purposive action as well. The difference is that the architectures are consciously invented components, such as the airplane or the US Constitution, while the rest is everything that organically grows around and in conjunction with them, such as social norms, cultural motifs, and folk beliefs. In a sense, it might be correct to say that the entire social institutional landscape is composed of microcosmic “architectures,” if examined closely enough, since it is the accretion of individual purposive actions. Indeed, technologies are to the social institutional landscape what the social institutional landscape is to Nature itself, an increased focusing and intentionality -in a sense, a distillation- of diffusely accreting ”purposiveness.” This is one more aspect of the fractal recursiveness of The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)
While technologies programming physical phenomena are what we most commonly think of when we think of “technologies,” there are undeniable social institutional technologies as well, such as currency instruments (facilitating multilateral, global, on-going exchange, and the enormous economy based on it), enforceable contracts (allowing people to bind one another to mutually beneficial collective action that would have been difficult or impossible in the absence of such instruments), scientific methodology (allowing a more robust and reliable growth in knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the natural world than had been previously possible, and, in fact, underwriting an explosion in the proliferation and sophistication of new technologies), and legal procedure (allowing a more reliable and vigilant system of determining truth in disputes between individuals or between individuals and the state). The United States Constitution, in fact, is the codification of an intentionally invented social institutional purposive system.
New social institutional technologies are constantly being explored, experimented with, implemented, and either proliferate or languish according to their relative reproductive success. In fact, governments are factories of such technologies, passing laws and regulations, creating administrative agencies, establishing new systems and markets, signing treaties with verification and enforcement provisions, forging new social institutions to deal with emergent or suddenly more salient issues and challenges (such as the creation of the United Nations in the wake of World War II, or of tradable carbon market instruments in the context of the Kyoto Protocol. See, e.g., Political Market Instruments).
But just as new technologies in the conventional sense can be created in people’s garages or in small start-ups formed by highly educated young people, so too can new social institutional technologies emerge in contexts more humble than those of the halls of government or international treaty conferences. Many diffuse technological innovations, of both the conventional and social institutional varieties, have occurred in conjunction with information technologies, which have come to form such a vital framework within our social institutional landscape. The Netroots movement is an excellent example of diffuse social institutional innovation in conjunction with emerging physical technologies, contributing substantially to the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.
A particularly good example of a set of robust social institutional innovations contrived by a very small cadre of political entrepreneurs is described in the book The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado, by (pre-eminent Colorado political broadcast journalist) Adam Schrager and (former Republican Colorado state house representative) Rob Witwer. The book describes a confluence of new state laws (both campaign finance and term-limit limitations), a very small group of highly motivated and capable extremely wealthy individuals (“the gang of four”), and the targeted channeling of huge amounts of money by them into non-campaign organizations such as political 527s, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, each with its own advantages and limitations, to affect state legislature races, transforming the Colorado political landscape in the process.
The Tea Party movement, as well, clearly has both some grass roots political entrepreneurial characteristics to it, as well as more centrally orchestrated aspects, both involving some social institutional purposive systems, channeling the deep well of jingoistic “Political Fundamentalism” in the United States, and the reactionary anger to the combination of the Obama victory in 2008 and the perception of Big Government (“socialist”) actions and policies, tapping into inchoate bigotries and xenophobia, all in service, ultimately, to corporate interests (“small government” meaning non-regulation of corporate behavior, which in turn means foisting costs of production in the forms of externalities onto the public).
The question facing those who want to affect the dynamical fractal geometry of our ever-changing social institutional landscape in purposive and guided ways is how best to do so, where and how to flap the butterfly’s wings in such a way so as to cascade through the system in reverberating, self-amplifying winds of social change. As I put it near the end of The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology:
Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness form the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.
I invite and implore all readers to continue to contemplate this question, to consider how best to dance with these complex systems in ways which yield greater human welfare and liberation, greater realization of our humanity and our consciousness. In the meantime, please consider my own evolving “A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill” (or the short version: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified) as one possible starting point. This social institutional world of ours is both a product and source of our genius, in an articulation of coherence and individuation, of interdependence and liberty, of collective and individual consciousness. It is the collective mind upon which we draw, and which draws upon us. It is a narrative we write and act out together in a sprawling improvisation, more subtle and complex than any that has ever been bound into volumes or performed on a stage. Let’s write it well.
Changes in the social institutional and technological landscape ripple through the system, demanding and facilitating adjustments and modifications throughout, which in turn demand and facilitate adjustments and modifications of their own. Choices we make affecting the framework within which this occurs help determine how robust this process is, what kinds of positive and negative consequences it generates, and in what ways and to what extent it affects the human and natural world.
One recent set of technological innovations has had epoch-making implications. Accelerating developments in Information Technologies (computer and communications technologies combined) have rippled through the economy and culture, changing the way we communicate, seek and disseminate information, access entertainments (and the entertainments available), and even conceptualize the nature of reality (with complex dynamical systems analysis, a child of computerized mathematical modeling techniques, transforming several of our underlying scientific paradigms).
These developments have partially displaced and challenged the viability of newspapers and the postal service, vastly increased the liquidity and volatility of financial markets, vastly increased the robustness and diffusion of both the flow of information and the unreliable “noise” that accompanies it, and has become an indispensable tool in virtually every economic, academic, professional, and technological human endeavor.
Other examples abound. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to an enormous demand for oil, which turned the Middle East into a region of vital geopolitical significance, and led to a vastly increased rate of environmental contamination and destabilizing climate change. The invention of the airplane led to the development of a widespread rapid global transportation system, and transformations in warfare, economics, and epidemiology.
Even slight modifications can have rippling consequences. Improvements in the thrust of jet engines, for instance, have necessitated improvements in the strength and heat resistance of composite materials (both giving rise to a demand for their creation and providing new engineering opportunities elsewhere, which gave rise in turn to other systemic demands and opportunities). These together made larger jet airliners both technologically and economically feasible, resulting in new demands on airport designs, requiring more space and creating new challenges for municipal governments seeking to establish international airports, all in turn merging into a vibrant international air traffic system.
Not only technological, but also social institutional innovations have similar effects. The invention of currency, for instance, freed markets from the necessity of a double coincidence of bilateral wants imposed by a barter system. (In a barter system, two people each must have something that the other wants more than they want what they already have, whereas currency allows an unlimited ongoing multilateral exchange via a medium that stores and transports value in the abstract). The consequences of this social institutional innovation have been enormous.
The establishment of the American Political system, codified in the American Constitution, drawing on and marginally refining existing forms and emerging ideas, is another example of a highly consequential set of social institutional innovations. It has proven to be a highly robust general model, not just in the United States but around the world. And it too unleashed myriad complex, rippling, unforeseen and unforeseeable dynamics.
Governments have always been vital agents in these processes. From the great architectural monuments of ancient history (e.g., the pyramids and the Great Wall of China) to our most robust modern technologies (e.g., computers, and myriad technologies emanating from space exploration), governments have been uniquely situated to mobilize massive resources in concentrated purposive endeavors that could not have otherwise been accomplished.
Not all such endeavors have necessarily served human welfare, and not all government functions that do are necessarily massive in scale. But the vital role of governments as concentrations of human organizational action for purposes other than profit or cultural expression is undeniable. The challenge is to free ourselves from the stiflingly non-productive debate over whether government has a vital role to play in the human endeavor, and focus our energies instead on the meaningful and multi-faceted question of what precisely that role is.
The answer lies, of course, in understanding the nature of the social systems within which it is embedded, and how the tandem processes of social institutional and technological evolution can most effectively be simultaneously invigorated and channeled by collective decision-making via the instrument of government. To do so, we face several interrelated challenges, some in tension with one another. At a bare minimum, we must liberate and lubricate the processes by which innovation and its rippling effects occur, while catching and mitigating negative effects (i.e., effects ultimately destructive to human welfare).
Despite the conservative myth that government is in general an impediment to economic growth, the exact opposite is true (and has been proven true repeatedly by historical experience). The obsessive ideological commitment to starve and shrink government is the true impediment to economic growth. This is so because it creates a bottleneck in the system, decreasing the fluidity with which innovations ripple through the social institutional field by eliminating our ability consciously to adapt to them, to facilitate and channel them. It impedes the development of human and material infrastructure which has played such a vital role in the astronomical acceleration in the production of wealth that characterizes the modern era.
Moreover, it forces an unconsciousness onto these robust, highly consequential, constant and constantly accelerating transformations rippling through our social institutional landscape. It relies on an empirically discredited certainty that these transformations automatically always serve human welfare as long as we close our collective eyes tightly enough. It relies on a set of idolatries (see “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry) rather than on living minds taking on living responsibilities, within a legal and political framework that has developed from the Constitution, and faithful to the Constitution. It eschews the responsibility that comes with freedom and self-governance, the responsibility of thinking, and understanding, and acting in a world that poses constant challenges to those who exist within it, and cannot simply be relegated to blind ideologies and false certainties posing as patriotism.
Social institutional and technological evolution occurs not only through chain reactions of adaptations and innovations rippling through our social system, but also through our own collective adaptations to it. Coordination of efforts and imposition of consciousness and foresight upon them have always been vital, if insufficiently employed, ingredients. Government is nothing more or less than one such organizational overlay of human consciousness on these processes, providing one more vehicle to harness and channel the dynamo that we have created, and that has created us.
As I’ve often said, the agency problems involved, that form the basis of the ideological rejection of government, are both real and normal, common to all principal-agent relationships, though such relationships are a vital and robust aspect of modern social organization. The principal-agent relationtionship between a polity and their government, along with the diverse interests and beliefs of the principal, and the uneven distribution of resources with which factions within the principal can influence the agent, form part of the complexity of the challenge of using government to maximum advantage. They do not mean that government is any more problematic than any other social insitutional arrangement, however, since all such arrangements have similar or analogous problems embedded in them.
It’s time to stop wasting our human cognitive resources on the enervating debate over whether this organizational overlay called “government” is “good” or “bad,” and instead focus on the more meaningful question of how best to use it.
(Formerly titled “Improved Communications Technologies & Techniques + Personal, Organizational & Methodological Discipline = Historic Social Change”).
For those who are serious about working for social progress based on reason and goodwill, despite the momentary resurgence of regressive “Political Fundamentalism”, the confluence of factors is currently conducive to a major paradigm shift. The power of decentralized mass media (“social media”), combined with improvements in our knowledge of relevant disciplines (e.g., cognitive science, microeconomics and game theory, learning theory, complex dynamical systems analysis, network analysis, epistemology and epidemiology, evolutionary ecology, etc.), as a tool for intentional and potentially revolutionary social change, is a theme which requires the weaving together of several separate threads of thought I’ve been developing on this blog.
I’ve posted previously about the processes of cultural evolution and revolution, involving “memes,” groups of memes called “paradigms,” and the revolutionary effects of the accumulation of anomalous memes within a paradigm, leading to “paradigm shifts” (The Politics of Consciousness). And I’ve continued that theme down several avenues, including a discussion of the acceleration of the cultural evolution effectuated by two products of that evolution itself: scientific methodology, and evolving communications and data processing technologies (Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).
In another, related, series of posts, I’ve written about the power of decentralization for liberating and mobilizing “the genius of the many” (a term for evolving decentralized but coherent sets of memes and paradigms) to an extent never before possible (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), itself a product of the processes discussed in the “human social evolutionary ecology” series. (See also http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html). And in two series of posts largely unrelated to these, I discussed the importance of creating a methodology akin to that of science or law for disciplining the development of political beliefs (Ideology v. Methodology, A Proposal, The Elusive Truth), and the importance of each of us truly committed to social change becoming equally committed to individual change, adopting a personal discipline that will make us the most capable and compelling of messengers (“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). There are some posts, as well, which combine these latter two themes to some extent (The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Ultimate Political Challenge).
But, though these disciplines and methodologies, to some extent yet to be developed, are the key to robust sustainable social progress, we do not have to invent either the products or procedures of reason applied to politics from scratch. We have the academic disciplines I listed above (as well as all others) to draw on. I hope that some of my posts have helped to disseminate a glimpse of their relevant fruits, which is as much as any of us can unilaterally accomplish (e.g., The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face, A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Real Education Reform, The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services).
“The genius of the many” extends the concept of division and coordination of labor to the development of human consciousness; the ecology of memes that transcends the individuals whose brains are its physical medium (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia). A simple example of the genius of the many is that if a thousand random people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the mean of their guesses will be closer to the correct number than any individual guess, including the one made by the most mathematically capable of doing so.
Ironically, the far-right, relying on caricatures of reality, reduces all progressive thought to a hierarchical top-down “statism,” whereas the philosophy I am espousing is just the opposite: A coordinated bottom-up aggregation. The far-right, conversely, advocates for a tyranny of the lowest common denominator, never mobilizing more genius than the least informed among them is already in possession of, and imposing that state of relative ignorance on all of us in the form of information-stripped public policy.
One academic discipline not only informs the progressive policies we should be seeking to design and implement, but also the challenge of bringing more people on board in the effort to design and implement them. George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, explores the underlying metaphors upon which our minds are structured, the differences between conservative and progressive metaphors, and the techniques of messaging that should be employed to activate the narratives of empathy that exist compartmentalized in almost every mind –including conservatives’ minds– in advocacy of progressive policies. Combined with other advances in cognitive sciences (e.g., Evolutionary Psychology, such as espoused by Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct and How The Mind Works; Semiotics; Frame Analysis), this body of thought provides an encouraging foundation for accelerating the reproductive success of progressive memes and, by doing so, the coming paradigm shift that will favor them.
If enough of us dedicate ourselves to these personal, organizational, and procedural disciplines, utilizing to as great and effective an extent as possible these new decentralized media of mass communications, then the power of that movement will be unstoppable. I have frequently quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”) and John Maynard Keynes (“[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives”) as a reminder that the momentum of history is on our side. Bigotry and various forms of violence (including institutionalized mutual indifference, and politically organized ignorance) keep rearing their heads and wreaking havoc in the short run, but they are not what defines the historical progression of humanity, which has, overall, been characterized by gradual, inconstant, unequally distributed gains in both prosperity and social justice (and though sustainability has still been woefully insufficiently addressed, there are indications that the momentum of reason will favor it as well, though whether in time to avert disaster remains to be seen).
Those of us who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill are the ones with the wind of time at our back. Those who oppose reason and goodwill are the overabundant debris resisting that wind, stinging and bruising us as we rush through and past them.
Here I am, conveying this matrix of interrelated memes, this paradigm, on a blog, and on Facebook, utilizing the very media that form one component of what I am discussing, in order to discuss it, to disseminate the information and attempt to persuade others to do so as well, and to refine our efforts in accord with these opportunities and lessons. We can see the acceleration of innovation resulting from some of the variables described above in many spheres of life: “Chaos Theory” (aka “complex dynamical systems analysis”) and numerous non-computer-related technological advances that have resulted from it (in fields such as medicine, engineering, meteorology, etc.), fractal geometry, the internet, the computer revolution, wikis, vastly reduced economic transaction costs, vastly accelerated processes in almost every sphere of life.
Social systems, which have been in so many ways so resistent to reduction through scientific methodologies (though not as resistant as conventional wisdom maintains), are opened up in a variety of ways, as themselves comprising the quintessential complex dynamical system, amenable to the new analytic techniques that come with that paradigm. Social systems are a complex network of linkages and impulses across them, triggering cascading state changes among nodes and clusters of interlinked nodes, reverberating, self-amplifying, mutually reinforcing or suppressing, not unlike the brains that provide the physical medium of their primary constituent unit (memes, or cognitions).
I am not suggesting that we now have the magic bullet, the panacea that will resolve all problems and meet all challenges. Nor am I suggesting that our efforts will suddenly yield spectacular results. Even in our accelerating world, dramatic change takes time, and is dramatic only in retrospect. Few people have recognized any non-military revolution at the time it has occurred, but they occur nonetheless, and are marvels to behold once they become apparent.
Past modern historical occidental social revolutions have been partial and cumulative: the Renaissance recovered some of the grace and aesthetic rationality of classical Greece; the Scientific Revolution gave us a robust methodology for improving our knowledge and understanding of nature; the Industrial Revolution gave us new machines of production and distribution; the very recent and equally consequential Computer Revolution created a quantum leap forward in the speed and capacity of data processing and communication.
At some point, whether now or in the future, these accumulating revolutions will embrace aspects of social organization that have remained thus far elusive, advancing with accelerating leaps forward in the liberation and implementation of the genius of the many in service to humanity. We will look back on that threshold as we look back on those that came before, recognizing that it transformed the world to human benefit in ways that were almost unimaginable prior to it. That inevitable threshold will usher in a new standard of human welfare that becomes completely taken for granted by those who enjoy it, which will be an expanding portion of humanity, both geographically and temporally. Whether that moment has come or not, it behooves those of us who want to speed its (sustainable) arrival to work, in individually and collectively disciplined ways, using the cognitive and technological tools at our disposal, to facilitate that transformation.
The world has been changing dramatically, in cumulative and accelerating ways, and will continue to do so. But those changes have provided humanity with a mixed blessing, creating riches beyond belief to all but those born into them, but also tools of violence, oppression, and depletion and destruction of the Earth on which we depend. There are those who would like to barrel blindly forward, ravaging the Earth and prospering on the backs of the suffering of others. And there are those who want to harness the forces we are unleashing, to create the sustainable and just future that all reasonable people of goodwill should strive for. Our ability to organize to that latter end has never been greater. Now, we have only to see if our determination is sufficient to rise to that opportunity.