Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
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.
(Formerly titled “Improved Communications Technologies & Techniques + Personal, Organizational & Methodological Discipline = Historic Social Change”).
For those who are serious about working for social progress based on reason and goodwill, despite the momentary resurgence of regressive “Political Fundamentalism”, the confluence of factors is currently conducive to a major paradigm shift. The power of decentralized mass media (“social media”), combined with improvements in our knowledge of relevant disciplines (e.g., cognitive science, microeconomics and game theory, learning theory, complex dynamical systems analysis, network analysis, epistemology and epidemiology, evolutionary ecology, etc.), as a tool for intentional and potentially revolutionary social change, is a theme which requires the weaving together of several separate threads of thought I’ve been developing on this blog.
I’ve posted previously about the processes of cultural evolution and revolution, involving “memes,” groups of memes called “paradigms,” and the revolutionary effects of the accumulation of anomalous memes within a paradigm, leading to “paradigm shifts” (The Politics of Consciousness). And I’ve continued that theme down several avenues, including a discussion of the acceleration of the cultural evolution effectuated by two products of that evolution itself: scientific methodology, and evolving communications and data processing technologies (Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).
In another, related, series of posts, I’ve written about the power of decentralization for liberating and mobilizing “the genius of the many” (a term for evolving decentralized but coherent sets of memes and paradigms) to an extent never before possible (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), itself a product of the processes discussed in the “human social evolutionary ecology” series. (See also http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html). And in two series of posts largely unrelated to these, I discussed the importance of creating a methodology akin to that of science or law for disciplining the development of political beliefs (Ideology v. Methodology, A Proposal, The Elusive Truth), and the importance of each of us truly committed to social change becoming equally committed to individual change, adopting a personal discipline that will make us the most capable and compelling of messengers (“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). There are some posts, as well, which combine these latter two themes to some extent (The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Ultimate Political Challenge).
But, though these disciplines and methodologies, to some extent yet to be developed, are the key to robust sustainable social progress, we do not have to invent either the products or procedures of reason applied to politics from scratch. We have the academic disciplines I listed above (as well as all others) to draw on. I hope that some of my posts have helped to disseminate a glimpse of their relevant fruits, which is as much as any of us can unilaterally accomplish (e.g., The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face, A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Real Education Reform, The Most Vulnerable Americans, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services).
“The genius of the many” extends the concept of division and coordination of labor to the development of human consciousness; the ecology of memes that transcends the individuals whose brains are its physical medium (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia). A simple example of the genius of the many is that if a thousand random people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the mean of their guesses will be closer to the correct number than any individual guess, including the one made by the most mathematically capable of doing so.
Ironically, the far-right, relying on caricatures of reality, reduces all progressive thought to a hierarchical top-down “statism,” whereas the philosophy I am espousing is just the opposite: A coordinated bottom-up aggregation. The far-right, conversely, advocates for a tyranny of the lowest common denominator, never mobilizing more genius than the least informed among them is already in possession of, and imposing that state of relative ignorance on all of us in the form of information-stripped public policy.
One academic discipline not only informs the progressive policies we should be seeking to design and implement, but also the challenge of bringing more people on board in the effort to design and implement them. George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, explores the underlying metaphors upon which our minds are structured, the differences between conservative and progressive metaphors, and the techniques of messaging that should be employed to activate the narratives of empathy that exist compartmentalized in almost every mind –including conservatives’ minds– in advocacy of progressive policies. Combined with other advances in cognitive sciences (e.g., Evolutionary Psychology, such as espoused by Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct and How The Mind Works; Semiotics; Frame Analysis), this body of thought provides an encouraging foundation for accelerating the reproductive success of progressive memes and, by doing so, the coming paradigm shift that will favor them.
If enough of us dedicate ourselves to these personal, organizational, and procedural disciplines, utilizing to as great and effective an extent as possible these new decentralized media of mass communications, then the power of that movement will be unstoppable. I have frequently quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”) and John Maynard Keynes (“[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives”) as a reminder that the momentum of history is on our side. Bigotry and various forms of violence (including institutionalized mutual indifference, and politically organized ignorance) keep rearing their heads and wreaking havoc in the short run, but they are not what defines the historical progression of humanity, which has, overall, been characterized by gradual, inconstant, unequally distributed gains in both prosperity and social justice (and though sustainability has still been woefully insufficiently addressed, there are indications that the momentum of reason will favor it as well, though whether in time to avert disaster remains to be seen).
Those of us who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill are the ones with the wind of time at our back. Those who oppose reason and goodwill are the overabundant debris resisting that wind, stinging and bruising us as we rush through and past them.
Here I am, conveying this matrix of interrelated memes, this paradigm, on a blog, and on Facebook, utilizing the very media that form one component of what I am discussing, in order to discuss it, to disseminate the information and attempt to persuade others to do so as well, and to refine our efforts in accord with these opportunities and lessons. We can see the acceleration of innovation resulting from some of the variables described above in many spheres of life: “Chaos Theory” (aka “complex dynamical systems analysis”) and numerous non-computer-related technological advances that have resulted from it (in fields such as medicine, engineering, meteorology, etc.), fractal geometry, the internet, the computer revolution, wikis, vastly reduced economic transaction costs, vastly accelerated processes in almost every sphere of life.
Social systems, which have been in so many ways so resistent to reduction through scientific methodologies (though not as resistant as conventional wisdom maintains), are opened up in a variety of ways, as themselves comprising the quintessential complex dynamical system, amenable to the new analytic techniques that come with that paradigm. Social systems are a complex network of linkages and impulses across them, triggering cascading state changes among nodes and clusters of interlinked nodes, reverberating, self-amplifying, mutually reinforcing or suppressing, not unlike the brains that provide the physical medium of their primary constituent unit (memes, or cognitions).
I am not suggesting that we now have the magic bullet, the panacea that will resolve all problems and meet all challenges. Nor am I suggesting that our efforts will suddenly yield spectacular results. Even in our accelerating world, dramatic change takes time, and is dramatic only in retrospect. Few people have recognized any non-military revolution at the time it has occurred, but they occur nonetheless, and are marvels to behold once they become apparent.
Past modern historical occidental social revolutions have been partial and cumulative: the Renaissance recovered some of the grace and aesthetic rationality of classical Greece; the Scientific Revolution gave us a robust methodology for improving our knowledge and understanding of nature; the Industrial Revolution gave us new machines of production and distribution; the very recent and equally consequential Computer Revolution created a quantum leap forward in the speed and capacity of data processing and communication.
At some point, whether now or in the future, these accumulating revolutions will embrace aspects of social organization that have remained thus far elusive, advancing with accelerating leaps forward in the liberation and implementation of the genius of the many in service to humanity. We will look back on that threshold as we look back on those that came before, recognizing that it transformed the world to human benefit in ways that were almost unimaginable prior to it. That inevitable threshold will usher in a new standard of human welfare that becomes completely taken for granted by those who enjoy it, which will be an expanding portion of humanity, both geographically and temporally. Whether that moment has come or not, it behooves those of us who want to speed its (sustainable) arrival to work, in individually and collectively disciplined ways, using the cognitive and technological tools at our disposal, to facilitate that transformation.
The world has been changing dramatically, in cumulative and accelerating ways, and will continue to do so. But those changes have provided humanity with a mixed blessing, creating riches beyond belief to all but those born into them, but also tools of violence, oppression, and depletion and destruction of the Earth on which we depend. There are those who would like to barrel blindly forward, ravaging the Earth and prospering on the backs of the suffering of others. And there are those who want to harness the forces we are unleashing, to create the sustainable and just future that all reasonable people of goodwill should strive for. Our ability to organize to that latter end has never been greater. Now, we have only to see if our determination is sufficient to rise to that opportunity.
Political discourse habitually loses the forest for the trees, because too rarely do we discuss human consciousness in political terms, though consciousness is both the soil from which all of our other endeavors grow, and the essence of the fruit which those endeavors strive to bear.
Consciousness is both political and evolutionary: It is fought over every step of the way, but carved on a lathe of trial and error such that it transcends, over time, the battles that comprise it. Economist John Maynard Keynes summed up this apparent paradox most eloquently (and humorously): “[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.”
British Biologist Richard Dawkins framed this process in terms of “memes,” cognitions which, like genes, are packets of information which self-replicate (through communication), mutate (through interpretation, synthesis, and innovation), compete for reproductive success (in individual choices of what to believe and what techniques to utilize, which aggregate into social institutions and technological regimes), and thus evolve.
American Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn, at about the same time (the mid-1960s), framed the process as one invigorated by the emergence of dominant paradigms (from the chaos of competing views), thus allowing focused investigation within that paradigm, the subsequent accumulation of anomalies (findings that are incompatible with the paradigm), and an eventual paradigm shift through attention to and resolution of those anomalies.
Combining these two independently developed theories into a single framework, we can discern in the realms of human consciousness and social institutions (which are two sides of a single coin) one very robust manifestation of the ubiquitous interplay of the parts and the whole –the more local (or microcosmic) and the more global (or macrocosmic)– an interplay that exists across levels from the quanta or superstrings of physics to the universe in its entirety, and across our arbitrarily siloed categories of natural phenomena. The reproductive robustness of memes and the shifting of paradigms are interdependent phenomena, with the robustness of memes being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the paradigms into which they coalesce, and the robustness of paradigms being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the memes that comprise them.
For instance, the “anomalies” of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts are an example of emerging memes that are incompatible with a prevailing paradigm, often displacing now discredited opposing memes that were compatible with that paradigm, thus creating a new set of memes with increasing reproductive success that simultaneously diminish the reproductive robustness of the displaced memes, first by countervailing empirical evidence (and subsequently, for the public at large, by a removal of the stamp of the endorsement of expert opinion), thus leading to an eventual replacement of the entire paradigm. As a result, other memes that comprise that paradigm but are not found in the paradigm that comes to replace it are weakened (though not necessarily eliminated) in tandem with the paradigm itself, even if no other evidence or social processes arose to undermine those memes.
(This also points to the value of attempting conceptually to separate memes and the paradigms to which they belong to some extent, since a discredited paradigm doesn’t necessarily imply that all of the memes that comprise it are similarly discredited, nor do discredited memes within a paradigm necessarily discredit that paradigm in its entirety. So, for instance, there are those who roundly reject the concept of “God,” an amazingly robust meme throughout human history, because they rightly criticize some of the paradigms which have evolved around it, though, as I argue in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, the meme of god and gods may have great positive value to human consciousness if embedded in other kinds of paradigms.)
George Lakoff offered another angle of insight into this set of both political and evolutionary processes in his book The Political Mind. Lakoff emphasizes that the human mind thinks in frames and narratives which can as easily support rational or irrational beliefs and opinions; it is by appealing to the human mind as it really works (by fitting new information into existing frames and narratives), rather than as we would like to believe it works (weighing out competing arguments on their merits, and selecting the most rational one), that particular memes and paradigms (with their implications for how well they serve either reason and goodwill or their opposites) are advanced.
Referring back to paragraph two of this essay (including the quote by John Maynard Keynes), the irrational exploration of “all other alternatives” is a function of how well those alternatives often appeal to our existing frames and narratives, while the eventual triumph of “the rational thing” is a function of how relentlessly utility seeps into those frames and narratives and oh-so-slowly weeds out those that are irrational and self-destructive, creating the paradox of a horrifying prevalence of irrationality in the short run, serving a remarkable florescence of highly sophisticated rational forms in the long run.
The complexity and subtlety of these processes are dazzling, with many apparent contradictions as a result. To begin to explore these complexities and subtleties, please peruse my series of essays that give this paradigm a more precise and comprehensive treatment: Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, 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), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, 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.
Nested within these intertwined progressions of memes and paradigms are bitter battles over what is and is not true. Scientists might discern a heliocentric solar system, but inquisitors can obstruct and punish the dissemination of this knowledge. There is, however, no a priori reason to assume that either the heretics or the defenders of the faith (whether religious or secular), in any given instance, are on the side of truth or utility: Either can be right, and either can be wrong. History is defined by the accumulation of victories of innovative memes over established memes, but this belies the vaster number of innovative memes that did not prevail, often due to their relative superficiality or naiveté. Just as in biological evolution, in which the vast majority of mutations are disadvantageous to the reproductive success of that gene, so too the vast majority of radical new ideas are less useful to human welfare than their well-established counterparts honed by the genius of time and numbers.
Of course, that genius is forever skewed by concentrations of political and economic power, such that existing memes and paradigms may disproportionately favor those already materially favored, and new ideas that may produce less human welfare may be at least momentarily popular if they are either effectively disseminated by and in service to those with more political and economic power, or if they are products of certain kinds of intense reactions to that power, promising to distribute that which is produced more fairly, but succeeding only in destroying or undermining existing institutions in ways destructive to the interests of the poor and disenfranchised as well as the rich and powerful. Often, some combination of these two forces is at work, as in the case of the current Tea Party Movement.
Many, if not most, marginal extensions of the franchise, on the other hand, have historically led to a more robust rather than less robust production of human welfare, enriching the rich as well as the poor. The lessons of history, therefore, suggest that increasing distributional justice generally increases total wealth, increases social justice, and contributes to the social stability that is conducive to both, but that the increase in distributional justice must not be overly dismissive of the complex and highly functional social institutional landscape that has evolved over time, even though it has evolved to favor the interests of some over others.
Modern political struggles are defined by these dynamics: Conservatives (in theory) defend the tried-and-true wisdom of established institutions, while progressives (in theory) strive to extend the franchise and refine the social institutional landscape in service to human welfare. To the extent that we can all acknowledge the wisdom and utility of both agendas, and devote ourselves collectively to their simultaneous realization, we will have increased the efficiency of this evolutionary process, wasting less time and effort on blind ideological disputes, and devoting more productive energy to cautious innovation. This is not to suggest that we are capable of eliminating partisanship or of living by a happy consensus, but rather that reasonable people of good will can be drawn toward a center defined by the application of careful analysis to reliable data in service to human welfare. Let our disputes be increasingly defined by the limits of our reason rather than by the extent of our bigotry.
More than anything else, my own efforts have always been, and continue to be, focused on human consciousness, and on the goal of ushering in a paradigm shift in how we predominantly perceive and address this inevitable political-evolutionary process. In one sense, the paradigm shift I hope for is the mere continuation of an historical trajectory long underway, passing through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the political revolutions (including our own) informed by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the accelerating stream of social, technological, political, and economic innovations that have ensued ever since.
History, Social Theory, Science, and Philosophy all conspire to impress upon us that change is, in a sense, the only constant. Certainly, the human mind reaches beneath that frothing sea of change, and looks for the constants that underwrite it. But those underlying relative constants, too, like the laws of physics, change, at least as far as our awareness of them is concerned, and we must reach further down still, as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Dawkins (and many others) did, to find the relative constants that underwrite those rules of change (See The Wizards’ Eye for a fantasy-fiction representation of this). As the Taoists understood thousands of years ago, whatever we can reduce to words or equations is not the immutable truth. It is essential, therefore, that while we admire the brilliance of our founding concepts, and respect their power and sophistication, we honor them by understanding that they, like those that preceded them, are meant to grow richer and subtler under the patient lathe of historical experience.
It is in this spirit that I suggest that it is time to recognize that “Liberty,” that most precious and fundamental of our values, should not be treated as the ossified talisman that it has become for so many, but should be appreciated for the living concept that it in reality is. “Liberty,” to too many, merely means “freedom from government.” While that was the core of its meaning at the time of the American Revolution, it has evolved, as good memes do, to embrace the mobilization of our consciousness, of our entire social institutional and technological landscape, to actively augment freedom, to produce and distribute a wealth of sustainable opportunities through which human beings, and the human spirit, can more effectively and enduringly thrive.
For those who find this suggestion heretical, consider the words of Thomas Jefferson himself: “[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Even in Jefferson’s time, the government that defined and enforced property rights was seen to augment rather than interfere with individual liberty. With the growth of the discipline of economics, we have come to understand that the government that reduces transaction costs and internalizes externalities in order to facilitate a more robust and efficient market economy augments individual liberty and human welfare as well. Who now doubts that the government that amended the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery and to extend the franchise to women, and that passed legislation to protect civil rights even from private infringements, augmented individual liberty and human welfare by doing so? And who does not recognize that the expansion of government more “socialist” than any before or since in American history, the institutionalization of free and compulsory public education, is not absolutely necessary to the individual liberty and life-long welfare of all of those who benefit from it?
If the state were to be removed from the equation (ignoring, for this conversation, the foreign and private vortices of organized political economic power that would fill the vacuum), people would band together for predation or defense, violent gangs eventually coalescing into local governments, in a sense pressing the reset button on political history, and leaving us with an undoubtedly more tyrannical government than the one it replaced. The state is an inherent part of the formula, for good or for ill. The challenge of using it for good is the one we must face. The threat to liberty is not state action, but rather failure on any level to ensure equality of opportunity and diffusion of political and economic power: A government captured by any faction is tyrannical, but a government effectively designed to act as the agent of the people is liberating.
Of course, the latter challenge is never fully met. The disparate ideologies and interests of the people ensure that some will never feel that their government is acting as their agent. But this country has laid a brilliant foundation for addressing the challenge, by combining representative democracy with constitutionalism, thus enabling the many to prevail, with constitutional limits protecting minorities from their tyranny. Within this context, government is far more our agent than our enemy.
Doing the best we can with the materials we have is the essence of the human endeavor, to which all reasonable people of good will can and should dedicate themselves. Neither obstinate obstructionists clinging with ideological purity to historical memes unadapted to changing circumstances, nor rash radicals dismissing and disdaining our rich and highly sophisticated social institutional heritage, are contributing most effectively to this enterprise.
Let’s join together in common cause, rational people of good will striving to do the best we can. We will continue to debate the details, and form parties around our differences. But let’s leave blind ideology, whether of the Right or of the Left, on the dust heap of history, and instead, with eyes and minds wide open, use our accumulated wisdom, our historical experience, and our improved techniques, to wear a coat that fits us now, rather than be straight-jacketed by the one that fit us as a child.