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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.

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Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence

Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.

In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.

One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.

It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.

II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…

The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.

In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.

But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation.  The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.

This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.

That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).

III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.

Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.

The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.

This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)

The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.

If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?

The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.

Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.

The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.

IV. The Proposal

I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.

The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.

This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).

This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.

The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.

PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1” of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).

The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.

Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.

History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.

I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

As I’ve been developing in numerous posts (see, e.g., Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human TechnologyThe Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, The Politics of Consciousness , 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, Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), our social reality is comprised of intermingled, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing, cognitions and the emotional content that accompanies them (“memes” and “emes”). In Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II, I emphasized our potential to create new marvels of human existence, new social institutional technologies, new attitudes, a new attitude conducive to ever-growing consciousness.

Many of us have grown wary of such claims, having seen “the Age of Aquarius” dawn and disappear more rapidly than the Broadway musical in which it was sung. People who are grounded, who are realistic, who take stock of history and of economics and of human nature, are often, perhaps generally, swept into an ever deepening cynicism and pessimism as their years roll by. We look at most of those who still believe in the possibility of achieving new heights of consciousness, and see a flakiness, a superficiality, an eagerness to grasp at ethereal fantasies that history has proven so elusive as to be delusional, and we wisely disassociate ourselves from that form of thought and aspiration.

But there are other lessons of history as well, lessons that are written with what appears to be invisible ink, for we are blind to their ubiquity and significance. These lessons make clear the constancy of change, and even how profound it can sometimes be, when looked at in the context of the broad sweep of history.

Let’s start with the most obvious, even if routinely too rapidly dismissed as trivial. When we think of human history, we divide it into epochs according to changing technologies: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age…, and now, The Computer Age. We all recognize that humanity has progressed technologically, and has  passed through a succession of technological thresholds, each ushering in what in many ways is a new age.

We bracket this off from the notion of changes in human consciousness primarily by considering “technology” something distinct from “consciousness,” a lesser cognitive animal, not reaching down deep enough into who and what we are to be considered a form of “consciousness.” Kindness and brutality, reason and irrationality, occupy separate spheres, deeper and more fundamental than the mere mechanisms by which we express them. These mechanisms are ripples on the surface of our shared reality, rather than its defining characteristics.

But how true is this? Technologies are implicated in our consciousness in ways deeper and more essential than we often realize. For one thing, they occupy a broader range than we generally acknowledge: Technologies are not merely programmings of natural (non-human) phenomena to human benefit, but also programmings of human behavioral and social phenomena. Contracts and Constitutions, money and markets and various legal and economic innovations by which they have developed, scientific methodology and legal procedure, our media of communications and information processing and the particular forms that they take, are all technological innovations.

Technologies are also made of the same stuff as the rest of human consciousness, and are inextricably intertwined with the rest of human consciousness. Through scientific methodology, for instance, we have produced instruments both in service to science itself, and in service to other production functions in which we are engaged. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory, to name a few, all owe a debt to the social technologies of scientific methodology and mathematics, and to the physical technologies that have become their tools. We are capable of understanding the subtleties of nature in ways never before imagined, and only very generally glimpsed by the most transcendent of historical philosophers and sages, now with a mathematical precision that occupies spheres few today have had the pleasure of visiting, but many fully realize exist.

But, surely, even these admittedly significant developments in our understanding and manipulation of nature do not penetrate into the realms imagined by those who believe that fundamental transformations of human consciousness are possible and attainable? After all, we use them in service to exploitation and dominance, not harmony and liberation, ever-more voraciously consuming the host body of the Earth upon which we are increasingly robust parasites, and seemingly advancing not at all toward a more compassionate and just state of collective being…. Or is it really that simple?

Never before in industrial society has there been such an extensive and deepening sense that we have to change our paradigms to align our collective existence better with the natural context in which it is found, and with the evolving sense of social justice that has blossomed rather dramatically in the developed world as a whole (America being a notable hold-out in many ways). True, many pre-industrial, tribalistic societies that lived “closer” to nature adhered to ideologies far more cognizant of the need for harmonious coexistence. But this went hand-in-hand with the actual limits on the capacity for exploitation; few such societies did not reach out for the products of more exploitative technologies when they came into view.

Many are more impressed with how inadequate these changes remain, with so few so shallowly committed to such minimal modifications in our existence, still generally driving individually owned fossil-fuel propelled vehicles, living in excessive houses and consuming excessive resources. This is true: We are on the first steps of a long road, one along which our journey will continue to accelerate as urgency continues to impress itself on us. It may be too late; we may destroy our host before we either temper our appetites sufficiently to save it or achieve the technical abilities necessary to abandon it and colonize new ones. (I am not commenting on the desirability or undesirability of the latter prospect, but only recognizing it as one imaginably plausible way for humans to survive indefinitely). But, while we exist, it is probably wise to continue to consider the possibility that we will continue to exist, and to contemplate how to navigate the possible paths into the future.

Some may acknowledge what I’ve written above, that we have undergone transformations in our understanding of and relationship with nature, and that we may even be beginning a process of institutionalizing checks on our own avarice in service to our sustainability, but still contend that none of it reaches into who and what we really are, into our own human nature, and that therefore none of this represents true changes in human consciousness, but merely changes in the clothing that consciousness wears.

In a sense I agree with this, though, on the margins of this discourse, I am going to push the envelope in ways which some will consider too fanciful for any practically grounded conversation. Yes, thus far and into the foreseeable future, it would be correct to say that there is some immutable defining nature to being human, one that we have never transformed, and, according to the most prevalent conventional wisdom, either will never be able to transform, or perhaps should never be tempted to transform.

Some radical thinkers dismiss the notion of “human nature,” rightly reacting adversely to the overly reductionist ways in which it has generally been conceptualized, but wrongly (and absurdly) missing the fact that, given that there is a category of species called “human,” and given that there is no real ambiguity about which creatures are and are not members of that category, it must therefore be the case that there are some defining characteristics which distinguish all members from all non-members and which describe all members without fail. Therefore, the question is not whether there is any such thing as “human nature,” but rather what its precise scope is.

(The notion that it is no more than a set of physical, biological parameters ignores the fact that there is no real divide between our physical/biological aspects and the rest of what we are, and that therefore to fabricate such a distinction is just another departure from reality. One interesting example is that certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are common to all cultures, and mean the same thing in all cultures. More profoundly, language itself is common to all cultures, a fact examined more closely  by Psycholinguist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct.)

My marginal aside is that we may in fact soon be capable of transforming that fundamental, “immutable” human nature itself, through genetic engineering (I am only identifying the possibility, not commenting on its desirability). This of course raises all sorts of issues, such as how decisions would be made concerning this next level of manipulation of nature, and whether it could ever be wise to try to ride the Pegasus of our technical abilities to such Olympian heights, or whether it would dash us to our collective destruction in disgust at our hubris. That is a discussion I leave for another time.

My marginal aside is telling in a more fundamental way: Part of our nature includes the ability to transcend itself, as we currently know it, in multiple ways, whether for good or for bad, and to do so ever-more dramatically. We even have a deeply embedded meme reflecting this: Our cognitive divorce of “human” from “natural,” as if they are two distinct things, rather than one subset of a larger sphere of phenomena. We fundamentally believe that we have transcended nature, that we are distinct from nature, that we can be in conflict with nature. Personally, I consider this a delusion, even were we to genetically engineer new variations on the entity known as human: It’s all “natural,” because there is no exit from that which is “natural.” It is all-encompassing.

It is not the “unnaturalness” that is key here, but rather the accelerating ability to transform ourselves and our environment. And that may be an integral part of our “nature.” We transform our social institutional and technological landscape, both constantly, in a cumulative, gradual progression, and through thresholds of dramatic metamorphosis. We reduce, for those to whom our social institutions permit access, the ravages of disease, and do so through increasingly sophisticated means. One such emerging technology is particularly illustrative: Stem-cell research. Not only does it hold it great promise, but also meets with great resistance, some feeling that it tampers too much with life (destroying embryonic life) to warrant its service to life (saving mature and fully realized lives).

Embryonic stem-cell research is also telling because it illustrates how comfortable rational people can become with such dramatic manipulations of nature. Most rational people recognize, implicitly, that our prohibition against killing human beings is based on a protection of conscious beings (or beings who have been and will again be conscious), not a mere moral abstraction. A cluster of cells is, to such minds (at least to mine), less deserving of such protection than a fully conscious large non-human mammal that would actually experience terror and pain and lose a life that the being had some cognizance of, because it is consciousness rather than membership in the human in-group, that is worthy of such respect and compassion, the degree of deference being a function of the degree of consciousness rather than the particular category of membership.

But if we can become comfortable with cultivating embryos to treat diseases, can we also become comfortable with (hopefully cautious and restrained) manipulations of our genetic architecture, reducing aggression, increasing cooperation, and, in general, making humans less the haphazard product of the logic of reproductive competition and more the product of our dreams and aspirations as conscious beings? Would it really be so horrible? (The caveat here is not that it would be inherently wrong to do so, but rather that it is too easy to inadvertantly wreak havok on the sensitively balanced natural systems which we are, and of which we are a part, by doing so. Our degree of caution and restraint would have to be commensurate with the heat of the fire we are playing with, which, in practice, is rarely the case.)

Whether through such (legitimately scary) dramatic manipulation of nature’s building blocks, or through more subtle and less intrusive means, humans are clearly capable of, and even defined by, our ability to transform ourselves. We have successfully transferred a great deal of our violence into social institutions that maintain some checks on it, that make it more reflective and less reflexive, even if woefully imperfectly so. We have systems of justice within our nations (some better than others), and systems of diplomacy and rationalized warfare among them (still mostly in a barbarian stage of development, but, though in a historical lull and belied by the brutality of its failures, long developing toward increasing institutionalization and pacification). The glass may seem well more than half empty to those who are rightly aware of how brutal and animalistic we remain, but it clearly contains some significant drops to those who examine the greater attitudinal brutality so ubiquitous throughout human history, and the growing yearning as the centuries pass for something more conducive to human welfare.

It’s true, as one aspect of The Variable Malleability of Reality, that we change our most superficial aspects most frequently and easily (e.g., the technologies we employ, and the arrangements by which we coexist), and, the deeper into our essence you delve, the more beyond our reach our nature becomes. But changes on the surface can and do ripple outward and downward, incidentally affecting our deeper natures by changing the context of our lives, and providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools with which to change ourselves more dramatically, both superficially and ever-more profoundly. We are, in fact, for good or for ill, on the threshold of having come full circle, the echo of natural history (human history) acquiring the capacity to manipulate that biological evolution itself at the genetic level (we have long affected it through agriculture and animal husbandry).

Human consciousness does not, and should not, change with the snap of a finger. Lofty aspirations with short time horizons are quickly dashed, and their adherents justly (if perhaps unkindly) ridiculed. But it does change, and dramatically so. And we are participants in it.

However, it does not always change for the better, particularly in the short run. America, or at least one prominent and consequential current within America, is currently deeply embedded in a period of regression, entrenching its bigotries, rejecting reason and imagination and compassion, embracing extreme individualism and a shallow and brutal political economic ideology. This, too, is real, and has enormous significance to our collective welfare. I will address it in an upcoming essay, “The Mutating Memes (and ‘Emes’) of Organized Ignorance.”

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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.

“The genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” This is a line from my novel (A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology), uttered by the wizard Evenstar to his disciple Algono, both expressing one of the underlying dynamics of nature about which the novel is ultimately about, and foreshadowing a metaphorical representation of it: A fiery giantess trapped in a mountain (a volcano myth; see The Hollow Mountain), representing the pent-up power of Mother Nature herself.

Nature (more specifically, the terrestrial biosphere) is a product of the genius of the many, of time and numbers, of a “selfish gene” (to use biologist Richard Dawkins’ term) replicating, mutating, and competing (or struggling) for reproductive success, in a process of non-linear diversification and proliferation (i.e., there are ebbs and flows to both). This diffusion of thriving, of experimentation, of massive quantities of failed variations interspersed with occasional successes, winnowing down the spectrum of forms to those which can articulate themselves into the transcient biological and geological landscape of their time and place, is the progenitor of human existence. And, as might be expected, the progeny (humanity and human history) resembles but is not identical to its parent (the biosphere and “natural history”).

I have already described this resemblance in a series of essays (Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Politics of Consciousness , 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). This is not another reiteration of that theme. Here, I am focusing on a single aspect, an underlying dynamic: The relationship between the Many and the One (see E Pluribus Unum and Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for related discussions). More specifically, this post is about the aggregation of the many into a more or less robust unity, focusing especially on the robustness of information processing.

Arguably, the robustness of information processing is precisely what defines the genius of the many, as exemplified in the progressions of biological evolution and human history (parallel phenomena on different time scales, with a different breadth and depth of forms). Genes are packets of information, and evolution is how they are naturally processed (accidental mutations fit themselves, successfully or unsuccessfully, into their environments, modifying the environment in which both previous and subsequent accidental mutations must fit themselves, in an evolving matrix of informationally defined forms). And the same is true for human technologies and social institutional forms, including the various ways in which organized divisions of specialized labor are accomplished: It is all information-based (see Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, for a discussion of these interrelated generators of human historical progress).

The informational foundation of our existence is not just what we normally identify, such as the product of universities and research institutions, or the communication of information through our various media, but also the full range of human activities: all of the norms, values, techniques, rituals, arts, recreations, jokes, gestures, expressions…, in short, all that constitutes human life.

In human affairs, there are two fundamental facets to the genius of the many: One that is the product of averaging, and one that is the product of aggregating. The first aspect is best illustrated by the fact that if you have a thousand people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the average of their guesses will be far closer than any individual guess, and, in fact, will be remarkably close to the actual number. The second aspect is best illustrated by the robustness of a division of labor in a market economy, in which the organic articulation of separate expertises and activities produces greater aggregate wealth. This essay is primarily about the second facet, but it is important to remain aware of the first as well, that the “averaging” of our diverse opinions and assessments also contributes to our collective genius, and that, in many circumstances, seeking more moderate positions is recommended by such awareness. But it is through the aggregation rather than the averaging of our individual consciousnesses in which the most robust expressions of the genius of the many can be found.

Embedded in our technologies and social institutions is something analogous to the human genome, but encoded in cognitions rather than in genes, and more fluid (or faster flowing, and acceleratingly so as a result of its own feedback loop) due to the speed and intentionality of cognitive communication, mutation, adaptation, and competition for (cognitive) reproductive success. Our intentionality is a part of this process: To the extent that we, individually and collectively, prefer some outcomes over others, our will, and how we exercise it, affects this evolutionary process for better or worse. The two predominant variables affecting the quality of the effect our will has on this process are the degrees of reason and goodwill employed in our efforts: A deficit in either leads to less desirable aggregate outcomes, while an abundance of both leads to more desirable aggregate outcomes, in proportion to the extent of the deficit or abundance (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, for a discussion of how we can and should organize in service to these two values). 

In a sense, embedding reason and goodwill into our social institutional landscape, and cultivating them as the predominant (metaphorical) flora and fauna of that landscape, is the recursive function of the genius of the many in service to human welfare (by which I mean not just the relative absence of devastating hardships, but also the increasing presence of conditions which give full expression to the human spirit and the joyful celebration of life). As the quote from my novel says, freeing the genius of the many is both the means and the ends of this goal, because it both produces and defines human welfare. Thus, we value individual liberty both as an end in itself (enabling each of us to more fully pursue and celebrate our own lives), and as a means to the end of aggregating into a more creative and productive society.

A slight digression is required here, to distinguish liberating the genius of the many, on the one hand, from liberating individuals from oppression on the other. The two are related, but not identical. The former depends both on the liberation of individual creativity and initiative, and the aggregation of that individual creativity and initiative into a collectively productive force. The latter is a more unbalanced concept, focusing only on the individual and not on the articulation of individual efforts into a collective and mutually enriching enterprise. The latter is the blind ideological expression of a historical recalibration, in which the tendency of societies to be overcentralized and oppressive was confronted and eroded, and the ideology favoring individual liberty rose in prominence in those societies which most successfully confronted this previous historical imbalance.

Unfortunately, in contemporary America, the pendulum has swung too far, creating an ideological obliviousness to our interdependence and mutual responsibilities to one another. We need now a new conceptual framework, which recognizes both the value of individual liberty, and the value of organizing into a collective enterprise for mutual benefit and in service to humane values and ideals. The genius of the many is not liberated by disintegration into mutually indifferent individuals, but rather by recognizing the complex and subtle relationship between the individual and society (see, e.g., Liberty & InterdependenceLiberty & SocietyLiberty Idolatry, and The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism). Indeed, true liberty is something subtler and richer than mere freedom from government; it is a function of our mutually liberating collective enterprise, which endows us with the conceptual and material means to live fuller, more expressive, and more gratifying lives, with a wider spectrum of possibilities available to us.

It is true that the genius of the many does not always serve this end, that its product can be temporarily diverted toward its own containment. It is sometimes tapped in service to goals that do not seem to serve human welfare at all, such as building great monuments to ancient rulers (e.g., the pyramids), or enriching the few on the backs of the many. In the former instance, such ostentatious displays are both the oppressive aggrandizement of the rulers who commission them, and are a symbolic consolidation of our collective genius, an expression of the degree to which a society has managed to organize itself sufficiently to mobilize enormous resources in service to the mere advertisement of that ability. It is analogous to the Irish Elk, which, according to a still debated theory, went extinct due to having evolved ostentatious antlers in males, as a way of advertising to females their ability to squander their surplus nutritional intake (and thus their prowess in being able to obtain and consume that surplus) on a mere symbol of such prowess (the antlers having reduced their competitiveness vis-a-vis other species, eventually leading to their extinction).

But this diversion of the product of the genius of the many, in human societies, is generally in service to the few, or in service to blind militancy. It gradually leads to the collapse of the society that indulges in it under its own weight (much as the Irish Elk did under the weight of their antlers), rather than the invigoration of that society by virtue of the continuing liberation and mobilization of the genius of the many. A good modern example is the Soviet Union, which mobilized enormous resources in service to a militant totalitarianism, but in an unsustainable way.

In other words, diverting the product of the genius of the many away from human welfare, and away from liberating individual initiative and creativity, expresses and consolidates a current degree of liberation of that genius, but often curtails further liberation of it, and even contracts the existing degree of liberation. One theory of the rise of modern democracy in England illustrates this most clearly: According to the theory, the constant internecine wars of Medieval Europe create a constant pressure on monarchs to mobilize sufficient resources to fund those wars. The pressure was greater than it was in other parts of the comparably developed world, because European states had resisted (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire) consolidation into a strongly centralized large empire, leaving kings to vie with other kings close enough to pose an immediate and constant threat to the throne itself. The English solution to this problem was the gradual granting of increasing rights, first to nobles, and then expanding outward, in order to liberate the individual initiative and effort sufficient to produce enough taxable resources to fund these wars. In other words, to compete through utilization of rather than display the genius of the many requires liberating more of it rather than merely channeling it into the production of monumental works.

While historically, (implicit and explicit) competition with other (internal and external) polities was the generating force of the progressive liberation of the genius of the many, we have within our power the ability to replace that motivating force with one more directly committed to the maximization of human welfare. We can compete, in other words, not against each other, but against suffering and in service to our collective well-being.

So the question is: How do we organize ourselves to best liberate and mobilize this genius of the many in service to human welfare, broadly understood? Again, the two essential ingredients to such organization are reason and goodwill. We must increasingly focus our efforts on serving humanity rather than merely serving either ourselves individually (or locally) or serving some blind ideology which evolved in haphazard response to the end goal we can now explicitly define and pursue. And we must do so by subjecting all policy choices to the crucible of systematic and procedurally disciplined “reason.”

Government is our agency for such collective decision-making. We have two basic challenges facing us vis-a-vis government: 1) Ensuring that it serves our collective welfare rather than the welfare of smaller, privileged sub-groups; and 2) ensuring that we enable it to do so most effectively. These are somewhat in tension with one another, because democracy, which evolved in service to the former demand, can limit or obstruct the mobilization of specialized knowledge and expertise through a division of labor that best serves the latter demand. The challenge for us, and the vehicle for most effectively liberating and channeling the genius of the many, is how to most efficiently and effectively articulate these two mechanisms into a single coherent system.

Our national ideology has enshrined both of these values (democracy and division of labor through a market economy), but has conceptually divorced them from one another, obstructing their articulation. In the popular American view, the economy may benefit from specialization and a division of labor, but government benefits from direct popular control of decision-making. We may want to hire our surgeons on the basis of their training and expertise, but we don’t want to entrust such responsibilities to our governmental representatives. The problem is that governance is, like surgery, an information-intensive task, requiring the mobilization of precise knowledge and analysis in service to well-designed public policies. And the challenge we face in governing ourselves accordingly is not dissimilar to the challenge face in other principal-agent relationships: We have an agent to whom we must delegate some specialized functions, but in such a way that we ensure that that agent is acting in our interests rather than its own (at our expense).

The most efficient way to accomplish this is to align the interests of the agent with those of the principal, so that when the agent pursues its own interests most robustly, it incidentally is also serving its principal’s interests most faithfully. This is what social institutions generally attempt to accomplish, through market mechanisms, hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments, diffuse social approval and disapproval, and internalized values invoking one’s own “conscience.”

On the other side of the relationship, the complacency or disengagement of the principal permits the agent to run amok. In order to improve our articulation of the interests of the principal with the expertise of the agent, we need a principal, a polity, that is as engaged as possible, actually tracking the outlines of the information that the agent will be mobilizing, just as the parent of a child about to undergo surgery might want to be as well informed and involved as possible, even while recognizing that they have to entrust their child’s life to the surgeon’s expertise.

In America today, we suffer the combination of a polity that blindly entrusts its own self-governance to a government it feels disassociated from, while simultaneously distrusting that same government and wanting to impose on it its own uninformed will. What we need instead is a polity that has access to and an interest in the details of what it means to govern ourselves intelligently, and works with our agents to utilize their expertise in service to our informed and engaged collective will.

To most effectively liberate the genius of the many, we need to organize ourselves from top to bottom, filling in the chasm between “people” and “government,” forming layers of engagement, and channels of information flows, so that our various potential contributions to intelligent self-governance flow “inward” to our agents, while the outlines of the relevant expertise to which we must frequently defer flow “outward” to the polity. (Again, my outline for how to go about doing that can be found at The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). By doing so, we can most effectively and organically institutionalize the incorporation of both reason and goodwill (or collective will) into our political decision-making processes, more fully liberating the genius of the many, and, by doing so, more fully liberating the human spirit.

(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. MethodologyA 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 FaceA 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.

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Not long ago, I created a page describing A Proposal for a project that I consider the core dual mission of the progressive movement: 1) Mapping out the social institutional landscape, including all known public policy experiments here and elsewhere, all known suggestions, and all identifiable new ideas, evaluated on the basis of sound analysis applied to reliable data in service to human welfare, allowing for ranges of uncertainty and legitimate debates; and 2) working toward creating a national (and perhaps eventually international) system for communicating this universe of information, not only to those already inclined to make the best informed and best intentioned political choices, but also in ways that resonate with existing frames and narratives that are to varying degrees resistent to doing so.

From various angles, and somewhat haphazardly, I’ve been exploring the various dimensions and aspects of this mission on this blog, even before I clearly identified the mission itself. A crucial piece of the puzzle is the relationship between individual action and social change, a relationship which generally suffers from either oversimplification or underemphasis, or both. As I noted very recently, too many political activists believe that their only job is to get preferred candidates elected, and then are angry but unchastened when that inevitably proves insufficient (An Open Letter To Angry Progressives). The critical question for each of us, too often unasked, is what do we each need to do to best contribute to the realization of the progressive mission described above?

One starting point for addressing that question is consideration of The Variable Malleability of Reality, a careful recognition of how changeable each aspect of the social institional landscape is, and how to work through those interconnected threads of variable malleability in service to effecting widespread and profound positive change. The necessary attitude with which to address that systemic challenge is a combination of realism and idealism, or “Cynical Idealism,” knowing and acknowledging what is, in order to create what can be.

But another aspect of the question of the intersection of individual action and social change is a more personal one, an identification of just what exactly “personal responsibility” means in the context of social responsibility, or being an agent of positive social change. While no one has to be saint to be a sincere participant in our shared efforts to improve the world, the on-going commitment on the part of each of us to walk the walk as well as talk the talk is more vital than we often acknowledge. 

In one series of posts, I explored this nexus between the personal and social aspects of the challenge, recognizing that those of us who want to dedicate ourselves to improving the world really do need to try to improve ourselves as well (The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & WithoutThe Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, The Ultimate Political Challenge). Referring back to the “Proposal,” the challenge of cultivating a gravitational pull to the progressive agenda, making it a more attractive force than its ultimately anti-social competitors in the political arena (Liberty IdolatrySmall Government IdolatryLiberty & Interdependence), involves modeling the spirit of the movement, showing people that it not only is what we can aspire to together, but also what we can be individually.

An earlier, related set of posts explored the ways in which our individual foibles aggregate into political ineffectiveness and dysfunctionality (The Politics of Anger , The Foundational Progressive Agenda). Numerous other posts delineate how such foibles have matured into a new incarnation of populist anti-intellectualism, combined with extreme individualism, giving us the worst of both worlds in the form of “The Tea Party” (“Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”). Other posts continue to trace the historical continuity between this movement and its anti-progress, anti-intellectual predecessors (The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical AnalogySocial Institutional Luddites).

Following a discussion of such ideological foibles in general (The Elusive Truth , The Hydra’s Heads, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Pro-Life Dogma v. Life-Affirming Sentiment), I identified the basic duality involved: Ideology v. Methodology. The two institutions most committed to a careful pursuit of truth, science and law, rely first and foremost on a methodology, on procedural reductions of the influence of bias and caprice. While we have a process in politics for resolving conflicts, we don’t have a process in place for reducing bias and caprice. This is a dimension of the challenge which requires concentrated attention, and which inspired the proposal mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.

Despite the anti-intellectual rejection of the notion (while, ironically, always claiming to represent the more rational position), no enterprise suffers from an improved methodology, and no effort to confront the challenges of the world suffers from the increased application of reason. Reason isn’t everything: Passion and imagination both are vital ingredients as well. But reason is crucial, and plays an integral role in any enterprise, including the enterprise of self-governance.

A Framework for Political Analysis provides a very sketchy look at one aspect of the analytical paradigm that I developed during my work as a sociologist. I’ll need to develop this more fully in future posts, with a more complete description of how to use the techniques of microeconomics; game theory; evolutionary learning theory; linguistics, semiotics, and epistemology; and network analysis (along with tools from complementary fields, such as evolutionary psychology and cognitive science and evolutionary ecology) to explore the social institutional landscape that is characterized by various combinations of hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies (along with the primal social institutional material of emotions). While not everyone, necessarily will want to get into the weeds of these esoteric academic methodologies, awareness of them, and allowance for their ability to produce insights beyond those produced by casual observation and precipitous ideological assumption, certainly has a place in our collective efforts to continue to improve the human condition.

Some of the fruits of that methodology indicate its value. As I described in The Politics of Consciousness, human history is, in the abstract, a story of interacting evolving memes, aggregating into paradigms, which gradually accumulate anomalies (in the cultural context in the form of doubts and discontents; in the scientific context, in the form of inconsistent observations), which eventually generate paradigm shifts. In a series of subsequent posts, I explored various aspects of this dynamic, and contemplated some of its implications for the future (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).

In Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, I explore the ways in which adaptations large and small ripple through the social institutional and technological landscape, triggering adaptations and modifications in both forward and backward linkages. In The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, I continue the focus on the role of technology (drawing heavily on Brian Arthur’s recent book, The Nature of Technology), exploring the cumulative dynamical architecture of purposively programmed phenomena carved into and growing in conjunction with the social institutional landscape. In Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, I outline and speculate upon the interplay of the title two defining elements of the social institutional and technological landscape. In The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), I take a more precise look at one particular thread in that evolving social institutional and technological landscape, something that this project would seek to do, over time (perhaps over generations), comprehensively, compiling an encyclopedic dynamical mapping of the entire social institutional landscape. In The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, I delve into the complex ecology of the interface of natural, human, and technological systems. In Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, , and A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity, I consider the role of modern communications and data processing technologies in continuing the process of unleashing “the genius of the many.” In Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, I describe this driving force of social institutional evolution.

I also posted on specific aspects of the social institutional landscape, more relevant to the challenge of forging the best public policy. Economics is, of course, a topic of primary concern, and one which we all need to become better educated about. To that end, I’ve posted on various aspects of economics, including how to contemplate the question of public spending, monetary and fiscal policy, and economic priorities (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 ).

Similarly, I’ve explored other aspects of the social institutional landscape, including international relations (Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige , Problems Without Borders , “Democracy IN America,” But Not BY America, The Brutality of War is Relevant), environmental issues (Environmental Open Forum, Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year, What One Marine Bacteria Might Mean to the World, Back to the Future, Sort Of: Sod Houses & Environmentalism, Energy and the Environment), child and family issues (The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services, Community, Family, and Crime Prevention, Solving Rather Than Punishing Problems), educational issues (Real Education Reform , The Importance of Mentors), health care issues (Sound Mind, Sound Body, Sound Society; Sound Good?Is It Wrong to Require People to Buy Health Insurance?), immigration issues (A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue), and social/moral issues (Pro-Life Dogma v. Life-Affirming Sentiment). Many other posts flesh out various other aspects of our social institutional landscape (Should Political Libel Be Legally Prohibited?Predators, Prey, and Productive Praxis, Free Will, Determinism, Quantum Mechanics, & Personal & Social ResponsibilityThe Meaning of “Representation”Why Fame Is Attractive“Is Religion A Force For Good?” ).

Finally, as several of the above posts linked to indicate, I tried to apply this improved mapping of the social institutional landscape to issues of public policy. Some of the overarching statements of general attitude and policy include “A Choice Between Our Hopes and Our Fears”, A Positive Vision For Colorado, What’s Right With America, and “A Theory of Justice”.

This blog is a somewhat haphazard nascent contribution to the paradigm I describe in the first paragraph, and in A Proposal. The paradigm is comprised of sets of interrelated memes, covering a broad territory, and involving various branches of the human endeavor, including: 1) methodologies both of how we form our understandings, and of how we attempt to implement them as public policy; 2) the products of the former methodologies, in terms of mapping out our social political landscape and its underlying dynamics; and 3) the myriad challenges we each must confront as individuals to become most effective in contributing to the development of this paradigm, and of its expression in the form of improved public policy.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

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There is much about the Tea Party mentality that is similar to anti-progress attitudes of the past, such as the fear that any improvement in the production or distribution of wealth comes at the expense of those who are invested in the status quo, and that the local and immediate interests of those who are inconvenienced or made worse off in the short run should trump the global and long-term interests of the many who would benefit from advancements in the production and distribution of wealth.

Throughout human history, in varying balances, there have been those who cling to a familiar past and those who reach for an improved future. The progress made despite the former has included a shift in balance in favor of the latter. Whereas traditional societies anchored themselves in ossified rituals and beliefs, modern societies have increasingly embraced the possibility of progress. But, as many have noted, modernity is “a candle in the darkness” (Carl Sagan’s phrase to describe science, still today), flickering in the midst of howling hordes of gods and demons, superstitions and arbitrary certainties, that continue to hold us back.

Early in the industrial revolution, British artisans protested mechanized production by destroying the power looms that were displacing them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite). There are two important things to note about  this: 1) Progress does indeed cause dislocations, and, unless we take pains to address it, localized losses amidst generalized gains; and 2) to the extent that these victims of progress, whether their victimization is real or imagined, succeed in obstructing progress, we all lose in the long run, for the improved techniques that were obstructed would have created far greater wealth and opportunity in the long run than the archaic techniques that were preserved.

The Tea Partiers are modern Luddites, taking mallets to social institutional rather than technological innovation. As I discussed in several previous posts (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , 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), both technological and social institutional innovation are part of cultural evolution, the reproduction, mutation, and selection according to differential reproductive success of “memes” (i.e., ideas). And as I’ve also discussed in several previous posts (“Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry), the political fundamentalism of the Tea Party is akin to the religious fundamentalism from which it mutated, and to the Inquisition which is the historical model of such fundamentalism, clinging to archaic orthodoxies that do not stand up to rational scrutiny (see Real Fiscal Conservativism for an economic analysis of this vis-a-vis the Tea Party), and fighting against the heresies of progress.

We are simply embroiled in one of the on-going battles of human history, constantly reincarnated, and constantly obstructing our ability to do better. It is incumbent upon us to open as many eyes as possible to this fact, and leave those who prefer to be champions of avoidable human suffering to become increasingly marginalized and reviled, while those who prefer to be champions of human welfare and true spiritual growth can join all other reasonable people of goodwill in the shared enterprise of forging a progressive path into the future.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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Understanding what causes memes to reproduce most robustly is an important aspect of moving our social institutional landscape in directions that best serve humanity. Moving “minds and hearts” doesn’t always move them in positive directions: Many minds and hearts have been moved recently in some very self-destructive directions. But they were moved by recourse to a proliferation of a combination of haphazard and sophisticated messages which appealed to people’s frames and narratives, which tapped into the metaphors that comprise our minds and resonated with them. Doing so is an essential part of the challenge.

When we debate what can and can’t be done, what does and doesn’t work, one of the fundamental dimensions to be considered involves the variable malleability of reality. I can easily divert a small trickle of water following a rainfall, not so easily a large river, and probably not at all a planet in orbit around a star, particularly one that is light years away. When I’m attempting to affect the world, or any part of it (including another person), I need to look for those things that are most amenable to modification, and use them as leverage to address those things less amenable to modification. The time frame involved, mass, momentum, accessibility, available materials and technologies, existing social institutional and organizational vehicles and techniques, the rates and processes of change of the system or element that is the object to be altered, are all relevant variables contributing to malleability.

When you pick a goal, you need to identify a means to achieve it via those aspects of reality that are malleable enough to create an in-road to success. One of the biggest mistakes people often make when they talk about public policy, for instance, is to suggest something that a large number of decentralized actors have to spontaneously decide to do. For examples: “the solution to the crime problem is for parents to impose more responsibility on their kids,” or “the solution to war is for soldiers everywhere to refuse to fight.” The list is endless. The problem is that the suggestion not only fails to change the reality, it also fails to identify a meaningful strategy for changing the reality. It is a wish rather than a plan.

It makes as much sense to say, “the solution to the crime problem is for criminals to stop committing crime,” or “the solution to collective action and time horizon problems is for everyone to just automatically act in our collective long-term interests.” It’s meaningless, because it recommends as a solution an equally intractable intermediate challenge (sometimes merely restating the problem itself), rather than considering how to address it. How do you get parents to be better parents, criminals to commit less crimes, and people to act more cooperatively and farsightedly? These are the questions to be addressed. 

The difference between identifying decentralized wishes and viable strategies is organizational and social institutional. I alone can divert that small trickle of water I mentioned above, but I would need to organize an effort and mobilize resources to divert a river. The challenge is to identify first the collective action problems involved, then ways in which it might be addressed, followed by how to get more people interested in realizing change and how they can contribute to doing so, and finally to design and implement policies which move us in the right direction.

Many dramatic changes in our social reality can be realized, but only by investing heavily in an analytical understanding of the systems which comprise it, and seeking the “pressure points” in those systems where manageable applications of focused human effort can have a rippling effect through the fabric of those social (and surrounding) systems. More parents can be assisted at being better parents, more criminals rehabilitated or, better yet, prevented from ever going down that path with early interventions and proactive policies, and more people in general channeled into more cooperative and far-sighted endeavors, by understanding what motivates them, what affects their decisions and choices, and creating institutional contexts which produce better rather than worse outcomes.

For those who insist that it can’t be done, all that is required is to point out that it has been done, frequently and on very large scales. Virtually every developed nation on Earth invests more in the challenges I just described than the U.S. does, and virtually every developed nation on Earth does a better job of meeting these challenges than the U.S. does. It’s no coincidence. 

By far the most important political arena, the most important “pressure point” for social change, is the human mind, affected by formal and informal instruments of education, propaganda, and socialization, as well as by changes in the legal and economic context in which we live. “Will and Grace” arguably did as much for gay rights (along with all of the proliferating soap opera gay couples, and concomitant cultural shifts) as any law that anyone could have passed, because the change in attitude eases in the change in law, while a change in law grunts mightily against resistant attitudes. It’s a dialectic, to be sure, and laws help to change attitudes as well, become faits accomplis that are eventually accepted as the norm. But it is the cascade of changes in attitudes and understandings that is the real goal, and the real triumph.

One place to look for the dynamics of how such change occurs is to nature itself, and how life evolved: Those genes which were best at replicating themselves are the ones that persisted into the future. Humans are a product of that process as well, and, despite the resistance to the notion from various quarters, much of what we are can be best understood by understanding how that process, that lathe of heaven upon which we were rotated and carved over the millenia, made us what we are.

Human history spins on a similar lathe, an echo of Nature’s primary one (see, e.g.,  The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).

There are caveats: Just because change, even “progressive” change, can be effected doesn’t mean that it will increase human welfare to do so. The social institutions we sometimes too blithely condemn are more subtle and sophisticated than we are sometimes willing to acknowledge, because they are the product of a secondary lathe of heaven, the one which involves the reproduction and natural selection of memes, and they reflect the ways in which humans imperfectly align the interests of self-interested individuals in order to serve the interests of self-interested individuals. Not just those “in power,” but to a limited extent, and with great injustices of distributions of gains, their constituents as well.

The mistake many people make is in presuming that if they could just erase all that is and replace it with what they think would work better, the world would be a better place for it. In fact, whenever people have had some success in doing that, they have created only suffering and destitution. Arguably the most successful political revolution in World History (The American Revolution) wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a war of secession, which incorporated some very subtle and marginal modifications into the existing scheme of things, to great effect.

We must work with the material on the ground, understand it (by far the most difficult and important step of all), refine it, develop it, cultivate it to better serve the needs of social justice, economic robustness, and sustainability. This involves an appreciation for, and ongoing analysis of, the social institutions and social institutional materials that have been generated over millenia of cultural evolution, as well as a deftness in discerning where to tweak it, where to redirect it, where to channel it in new ways and utilize it in new combinations, in order to better serve the interests of humanity.

There are errors on both sides; the error of doing nothing on the pretext that it can only do harm, and the error of doing anything on the pretext that it can only do good. Trying to change that which can’t be changed, or is more resistant to change than the efforts mobilized have taken into account, leads to results often worse than those from which the change was made. The Russian and French Revolutions were bloody messes, and the Russian Revolution, at least, probably made just about everyone’s life worse, in perpetuity. The problem was that it replaced tyranny with tyranny, as so often happens, informed by the “good-guy/bad-guy” fallacy, and certain that replacing the bad guys with the good guys would solve all problems. But it failed to replace bad ideas with better ideas, and so only perpetuated and augmented the problems already deeply rooted in the social institutional landscape.

What the Tea Partiers call “socialists” are for the most part people who are pretty much right where we should be, preserving most of the institutional framework in which we live, but tweaking it in significant ways to address the unaddressed problems that have been festering for decades. The Tea Partiers themselves are extraordinarily addicted to stagnation and regression, clinging to a fictionalized past in order to create a dangerous new future, and obstructing any and all sensible attempts to make any improvements in our social institutional framework. Those at the other extreme, who would err on the side of sweeping away too much of our established social institutional framework, are such an insignificant minority, and so powerless to advance their agenda, that they are at present hardly relevant to the discussion.

The challenge now is to find the mechanisms, the pressure points, the means of social persuasion and institutional catalyst that will allow us to move the center of gravity to a more functional and useful place, where the debate revolves around questions of what works and what doesn’t work, what can be accomplished and what can’t be accomplished, costs and benefits, means and ends, inspiration and aspiration, hope and progress. We have a long way to go, but it’s not beyond our ability to get there.

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