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.
I recently posted on three of my Facebook pages (my personal page: http://www.facebook.com/steve.harvey.313; my Colorado Confluence page: http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence; and my Politics of Reason, Humility, and Goodwill page: http://www.facebook.com/Reasonandgoodwill) the following:
For those on the far-right who like to claim that “the founding fathers” all meant for this country to be as they envision it, here’s an interesting passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin (page 315): “Another…proposal Franklin made to the Pennsylvania convention (in 1776) was that the state’s Declaration of Rights discourage large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth as ‘a danger to the happiness of mankind.’” What vitriol our modern faux-patriots would heap on Franklin, one of the most revered among those same “founding fathers” in their own day, were he alive to participate in political discourse today!
My point was less to promote Franklin’s specific position than to promote the notion that the “founding fathers” had amongst them a broader range of ideas than is sometimes supposed, and that we should honor them not by constricting our discourse to a false presumption of what “they” thought, but rather should honor them by discussing a range as broad as they did. Franklin was by far the most revered generally, and amongst the “founding fathers” themselves, in their own day (until Washington won the War of Independence, and knocked Franklin down to the second most revered), and that he had proposed an idea that would be denounced by the members of a particularly virulent right-wing ideology today that claims to be most in sinc with the “intent” of “the founding fathers” speaks volumes about how constricted our national discourse has become.
The guilt for this ideological narrowing of our national mind doesn’t belong to the right alone; the left has its own sacred cows, its own ideological false certainties that are insulated from reason and evidence and further examination. But I do not find that left-wing corpus of false ideology to form the major thrust of our national collective consciousness, and certainly not its most counter-factual and counter-rational elements.
Though many on the right decry the “creeping socialism” of American domestic policy, the large administrative state along with its regulatory and redistributive functions, its public investments in public programs, is not the result so much of left-wing ideology as of pragmatic problem solving over a period of generations. It was, in fact, the broadening of the American mind through lived history, through trial and error, through the organic processes of social institutional growth and deepening in response to the challenges of shared life.
The principle force in the narrowing of the American mind is on the right, tightly constrained within a set of very narrow and inflexible assumptions largely divorced from historical, economic, legal, or, in general, social systemic evidence, analysis and lived experience. This set of ideological shackles takes several forms: 1) a false and ideologically convenient reduction of the Constitution to “the confirmation of everything we believe whether that’s what the Constitution actually says or not,” 2) an “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” (in the words of The Economist magazine) political agenda, and 3) an uncompromising fanaticism, served by a simultaneous rejection of scholarship and hollow pretense to be supported by it, to name a few.
On many right-wing sites and pages, a rational argument (if presented by an infiltrator such as myself) simply can’t be followed, in an almost Keystone-coppish spoof of discourse, a political ideological rendition of “who’s on first?” Amidst the bizarre barrage of school-yard taunts and infantile pejoratives, simultaneous defenses and indignant denials of implicitly racist or quasi-racist attitudes, can be found an underlying thread of pure, unadulterated, unexamined irrationality and ignorance. Reason is not only rejected, but reduced to the status of undifferentiated subjective opinion, “your reason,” as if logical argumentation applied to reliable evidence is no more reliable than random bigotries, just one more set of arbitrary opinions among many, and not the one to their liking.
Overly aggressive right-wingers insist that George Zimmerman should never have been arrested because he, the armed pursuer and fatal shooter of an unarmed teen engaged in no illegal behavior at the time the pursuit began, was merely defending himself and his property, while the unarmed victim of the shooting, reaccting to being pursued struck out at Zimmerman, was not.
On one anti-immigrant site, arguments included the notion that since some illegal immigrants commit predatory crimes, not being more aggressive in the enforcement of immigration laws is an insult to the victims of such crimes. When I pointed out that this is precisely the same logic used to support overtly racist beliefs, by holding an entire race or ethnicity accountable for the real or imagined crimes of any of its members (a tactic that can be used to impugn any large group or race or ethnicity, since as a matter of statistical probability there will certainly be crimes committed by some members of any such group), the reaction was, of course, a string of dismissive and highly inappropriate pejoratives, and an insistence that their views can’t possibly bear any resemblance to racism, because they are indiscriminate in their hatred of illegal immigrants. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of categorical prejudice having broader applicability than its “racist” incarnation (leaving aside the issue of whether there isn’t, really, a specifically racist element to their antagonism), but were relentlessly bellicose and belligerent in their inability to do so (uttering such apparently timeless gems as “retard,” “idiot,” and, yes, “illegal lover,” the last while denying any similarity in form to racism…!).
There are, of course, the homophobes, the Islamophobes, and the various other incarnations of the “us v. them” mentality, full of hypocrisy and inconsistency. These are people who claim to be the ultimate defenders of the Constitution while simultaneously insisting that to allow Muslims the same First Amendment freedom of religion rights accorded everyone else would be a travesty against our nation. (One of their arguments is that Islam isn’t a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest.) These are the people who complain about an overly intrusive government who simultaneously insist that government must discriminate against people on the basis of private sexual orientation. It’s a paranoid and bellicose attitude toward the world.
The Obama-haters form a cross-section all their own, frequently overlapping with other variations, but a distinguishable sub-set in its own right. Whether one supports or opposes President Obama’s policies is not the defining distinction here: It is certainly possible to oppose those policies without belonging to this particular variation of this particular cultural pathology. But, for many, hating Obama is a religion, and the justifications highly exaggerated or fabricated, and imbued with a seething hostility. Some justify this by the similar dislike by many on the left of the previous president, George W. Bush, though I find it hard to equate outrage at a president who treated the world as our enemy (and did so in eager defiance of international law and human rights) with a president who merely tries to use government to meet the needs of the most needy among us. (Indeed, treating the world as our enemy is precisely one component of this right-wing mania, while meeting the needs of the most needy among us is precisely what they most vehemently oppose.)
Irrational bigotry, anti-intellectual dogma, unreflective and fully insulated false certainties, are the fabric of this ideology. But it is not just another cult, another little outgrowth of that ever-present but rarely dominant mindset found among religious fanatics and overzealous ideologues. It is a coalescence, a mutation of both of those categories merging into one, an overzealous ideology for religious fanatics; a religious fanaticism for overzealous ideologues. And, like an astronomical phenomenon with a growing gravitational field, more and more of right-wing American society has been sucked into its vortex, from fundamentalist religious fanatics, to grease-painted anti-government lunatics, to all varieties of xenophobes and hostility-driven personality types (though, again, to be fair, one far smaller and less threatening nest of hostility-driven ideologues is still thriving on the left as well).
Of course, as with all of the most virulent, anti-humane movements of world history, it is staunchly anti-intellectual. It has branches that reject some major and not particularly scientifically contentious scientific theories such as Evolution and Global Warming. It has branches that dismiss modern economics and want to replace it with a dogma derived from the work of a century old non-empirical Austrian economist instead. The complex and sophisticated accumulated knowledge of our civilization is considered irrelevant to this faction, because only that which supports the preferred predetermined conclusion is admissible.
It belongs to the class of ideologies and movements that includes the Inquisition, Bolshevism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge, the Ku Klux Klan, and McCarthyism. Some aspects of it are directly descended from the same lineage of national ideologies that opposed the ratification of the Constitution, defended slavery and opposed abolition, and defended Jim Crow and opposed Civil Rights. It is in many ways milder than these predecessors and cousins, but more insidious for being so.
It isn’t just that these rather unsavory political attitudes and emotional dispositions form one major faction within our society, but rather that they have been (and may or may not still be) growing in influence while simultaneously insulating themselves from any intrusion of fact, reason, or human decency. In the 1970s, we saw TV’s Archie Bunker (wonderfully portrayed by the very talented Carrol O’Connor) as a relic of a soon-to-be transcended past, the bigot so archaic and comical that it was not a matter of great concern. But Archie Bunker was both less virulent and more marginal in his day than our neo-Archie-Bunkers are today, whose bigotry is more insidious and sublimated, and whose numbers, perhaps, are waxing rather than waning.
I am always a bit skeptical of any claims of exceptionalism, whether American exceptionalism, or the constantly repeated and rarely accurate belief in some exceptional aspect of one’s own time and place. My own version of it, voiced here, needs to be taken with a grain of salt as well: Bigots have plagued every generation. Their numbers and influence have often been greater than they are today, and their actions more violent and predatory.
What is exceptional about the present version, what worries me about it in a way that the past incarnations might not have, is that it is a mutation of that attitude and orientation that makes both its possessors and a far larger number of potential new recruits more easily taken in. It is a version that denounces racism while preaching it, that appeals to the baser nature of human beings while providing what to those so inclined is a credible cloak of respectability.
And it is a vibrant and robust current historical trend that stands in stark opposition to the deepening and broadening of human consciousness in service to humanity. When those among us who are hopeful and humane, who would rather see us become more rather than less wise and compassionate as a people, look at this trend, we see the antithesis of the future we know in our hearts is both possible and perhaps inevitable. We see Scrooge before the transformation multiplying and growing more intransigent, and Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits safely locked away. We see the perhaps momentary, perhaps more enduring, victory of malice and avarice and ignorance and irrationality.
The narrowing of the American mind may not be exceptional, but it is legitimate cause for concern. And those among us who favor the blossoming of human consciousness instead need to think long and hard about how to confront it, and work long and hard and smartly doing so.
On a Facebook post extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, a fellow named Bryan made the following comment:
Viewing human dentition, arrived at after about 7 million years of evolution (based on the new fossil finds last year), it would appear that meats were always part of the Almighty’s diet plan for our species. The veggie-only folk are certainly entitled to their opinion about how to feed THEMSELVES, but their argument that it is the preferred method for the species is both inaccurate and self-serving.
Bryan, we evolved as animals adapted to the African savanna, following the logic of evolution, which is that those genetic variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future. One of the products of that process was the human brain, mostly evolved to manipulate the complex small muscles of our fingers, but incidentally facilitating the development of language, which set into motion a similar evolutionary process: Those cognitive variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future.
In other words, we are not just anatomical beings, but also conscious beings. Citing our anatomy as though we are under some obligation to choose behaviors and customs suggested by it sounds reasonable to people who aren’t, because we defy our anatomy all the time, and to marvelous effect. We train some among us to perform complex surgical procedures, or apply other medical treatments, to combat perfectly natural deadly or debilitating diseases or conditions. We invent instruments to enable us to do things that our anatomy does not enable us to do.
Our craving for fat and sugar is probably due to the combination of our need for some small amount of both and their relative scarcity or difficulty of obtaining in the African savanna, such that our primal predecessors could never get too much of either. Should we abide by that anatomical dictate, and eat as much fat and sugar as we are anatomically predisposed to desire?
No, of course not. Anatomy is what formed us; consciousness is what guides us. The latter does not have to acquiesce to the former in ways that the latter discovers to be dysfunctional or otherwise undesirable.
Having said all that, I don’t tend toward high-minded moralism, and don’t seek some morally perfect universe. If I did, I would probably be adamantly opposed to the consumption of meat. There are many reasons why, as conscious beings, that is a sensible position. The healthiest of all diets, if one is careful about satisfying all nutritional requirements, is one without meat. Food production maximization per acre of land excludes raising animals for meat (which is a nutritionally inefficient use of land). The slaughter of animals that feel fear and pain to satisfy a mere desire of our own should give us pause. It’s really a very reasonable position. And we are capable of reason, regardless of how our teeth are shaped.
By the way, I eat meat.
This isn’t the kind of thing that I would usually reproduce here as a post, except that there’s something about it that strikes me as getting to the crux of the matter (“the matter” being the continuing development and implementation of human consciousness, in all matters): We need to be careful to distinguish reason from rationalization. And the way to do that is, like the delightfully relentless child, to keep on asking “why?”
Bryan cited human dentation as proof that we are “meant” to eat meat. Why? What does it mean that “we are meant to” do or be something in particular? Who meant it? (Bryan, apparently, would answer “the almighty.”) Why do we have to acquiesce to what that real or imagined “meaner” meant for us? How does it stack up against what we, individually or collectively, ”mean” for us to do here and now? Are our concerns for optimal use of available land, compassion for creatures that feel fear and pain, and human health all irrelevant if someone can argue that we are anatomically constrained to disregard all of those concerns?
This is one more incarnation of the tension between reason and rationalization, between analyses based on minimal assumption and assumption supported by minimal analysis. And that, I believe, is the tension that defines the distinction between much of progressive and conservative thought. (I’ll add one caveat: There are some aspects of progressive and conservative thought in which the roles are reversed; the optimal “ideology” is one which captures the reason that appears in each while weeding out the rationalization that appears in both.)
What serves us better than rationalizing preferred conclusions, entrenched habits of thought, on the basis of irrelevant or cherry-picked or fabricated supporting evidence, is to recognize that our current understandings and knowledge is less dispositive than we would like to believe, and to strive to apply reason to evidence, leavened with and inspired by disciplined imagination, in service to humanity. When we do that, we aren’t likely to argue, for example, that human dentation prevents us from changing paradigms in a way which better utilizes available land, better serves our health, and better exercises our compassion.
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.
On this 100th aniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, it seems fitting to write a tribute to that historic event, but one which takes what lessons it may offer and applies them to our own ship of state today.
A story on the PBS Newshour yesterday (Friday, 4/13/12; http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june12/titanic_04-13.html) about an interesting New Yorker article (“Unsinkable: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic,” by Daniel Mendelsohn; http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/16/120416fa_fact_mendelsohn) got me to thinking about the parallels between that ill-fated vessel, and our perhaps equally tragic nation. The parallels Mendelsohn drew were to Greek tragedy, to the themes of hubris, of Man v. Nature, of something glorious and admired and full of a sense of its own exceptionalism going down in flames, or icy waters, as the case may be. It is about too much smugness and too little pragmatism.
As Mendelsohn aptly put it: It’s too perfect, too much like a story, the “unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage. Like Oedipus, the flawless hero, swept up and sucked down by forces that grab hold of all those who eschew humility, the great Titanic was doomed by its own sense of perfection, or the sense of those who had invested their identities into it. It was about the limits of technology, about class and injustice, about the bracing, icy reality confronting the dreamed up ideal. It was, of course, the ideal of unsinkability rather than the reality of unpredictability which sank.
The United States is, in many ways, “the Titanic Nation,” this great ship of state launched by the culmination of European development, by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, full of a sense of its own exceptionalism, bigger than life, ”unsinkable.” We are still on our maiden voyage, for the first couple of centuries in the history of a nation is still its infancy. And we are careening toward the icebergs of our hubris, of our uncompromising belief in our own exceptionalism, in our scoffing at the demands of pragmatic reality in deference to the oversimplified ideal we believe will always trump it.
Despite what many say, despite what many cling to, despite the satisfaction it may give to entertain the notion, in the final analysis, America is not an ideal; it is a nation, a product of history, a living, breathing, thriving and striving and faltering and self-correcting society, a work in progress, an on-going challenge to be met with a modicum of humility and a heavy dose of pragmatism. And it is the increasing rather than decreasing loss of this awareness that sends us hurtling toward unseen icebergs, destined, perhaps, to collide with them and rip ourselves to shreds in the process.
But we have not collided yet. We have not sunk yet, and do not have to. We can regain our humanity, our recognition of being nothing more or less than a nation struggling with the challenges of thriving in a complex and subtle world, a nation guided by wonderful values and founding principals, but a nation that is not invulnerable because of them, or beyond improvement in deference to them. Sometimes, we need to correct our course, to re-chart our trajectory, to avoid the obstacles that those who designed and launched us could not possibly have anticipated. Their design, and the course they charted for us, remain our foundation, but they do not remain the limits of who and what we are.
There are those in America today, too many, too loud, too smug, too full of hubris and folly, too natonally self-destructive, who insist that we must not evolve, that we must not develop our political economy to confront the challenges of today, that we must not adapt and grow and steer our course through the ever-dangerous waters of history. There are those who offend the spirit and character of the brilliant but historical and fallible men who drafted our Constitution by reducing it to a shallow sacred document, stripping it of its meaning, stripping it of its intent, and seeing in it only a mirror of their own blind ideology, whether its specific clauses actually mirror that ideology or not. (See. e.g., Right-Wing New-Speak.)
There are those who insist that a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosopher got everything right, and the entire empirical and analytical discipline of economics as it has developed ever since has gotten everything wrong, and who claim that theirs is the only reasonable position imaginable, all others being error. There are those who are as lost in their own blind ideologies, as insulated from reason and evidence, as any Medieval Inquisitor ever was, and who insist that that is what America is, that that is what America was meant to be. And they are steering us straight toward those icebergs of human folly, of ignorance, of hubris, of believing that an act of admirable engineering, whether technological or social institutional, whether a historically unprecedented giant ocean liner or a historically unprecedented national Constitution, once accomplished, need no longer be piloted in response to the realities as they are encountered, and can not possibly fail if only left to barrel ahead blindly.
As the economist and dynamical systems analyst Brian Arthur noted in his wonderful book, The Nature of Technology, these feats of engineering, of historical innovation, are not faits accompli, but are rather always works in progress, always tested and honed and refined by the reality of life and the challenges that it poses. The brilliance of our nation is not that we got it right once and for all, and only must adhere to that perfect, unsinkable design, but rather that we accomplished something admirable on which we can build, which we can continue to steer, which will take us farther than we ever imagined if only we continue the work rather then rest on ancient laurels.
We are, indeed, a Titanic Nation. But ours is one Greek Tragedy whose ending hasn’t yet been written. We are the ones who will write it. We are the ones who will determine whether it is written by our hubris and folly, or by our wisdom and humility. We are the ones who will either steer it into the icebergs that lay before us, or will continue to navigate our way among them, refining our institutions and developing our humanity to confront a reality that was not part of or foreseen by our original design, but rather is a part of what continues to make us . . . or break us.
As I like to say, let’s write our story well.
I’ve borrowed the title of President Obama’s second book as the title of this essay because the message is the same, if in a somewhat different flavor. After posting a link to A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How” toward the end of a long Facebook thread, an FB friend commented, “I still imagine activism to be succinct.” The following was my response:
The more succinct our activism is, the less conscious it is. Biological evolution, for instance, is the most succinct form of “activism” imaginable: It is the struggle for reproductive success, and for surviving long enough to facilitate reproductive success. Completely “unconscious,” and extremely slow and haphazard (though cumulatively brilliant). Human consciousness is the basis of another evolutionary process, with cognitions rather than genes being the packets of information that are reproducing, mutating, competing for reproductive success, and thus evolving.
We do have branches of human endeavor that are less bound by “succinctness,” that don’t need to fit their memes on a bumper sticker, but the gulf between them and the zeitgeist is almost infinite. The two are insufficiently articulated. One challenge is to articulate the realms of academe and politics better, so that our politics are better informed. That does not require that everyone take the time to understand the scholarship, but merely that a broader acceptance of the relatively greater legitimacy of scholarship over arbitrary opinion is cultivated.
To me, the bumper-sticker mentality IS the problem, which cannot be solved primarily by reproducing and reinforcing it. I am not struggling to ensure that liberalism or progressivism prevails, but rather to ensure that reason and imagination in service to humanity prevails, and the latter is a process that cannot be excessively abbreviated without being destroyed. I find many liberals and progressives only marginally less a part of the problem than folks like (an angry and narrow-minded conservative commenting on that thread), and I am not content to struggle only to ensure that a marginally less banal ideology prevails over a marginally more banal ideology.
The belief that such goals are impossible is belied by history. People may be irrational and lazy, but over the course of the last five centuries, science and scientific methodolgy have grown from tiny embattled zygotes to major facets of our shared existence, affecting our technologies, our economy, and our broadly shared worldview. People may be belligerent and bigoted, but over the past few centuries humanism and the notions of natural or human rights have grown from almost non-existent to major cornerstones of the modern world’s explicitly pursued ideals. And these things happened through the efforts of people with imagination and passion and a belief in the possibilities.
I’m not content to invest all of our resources directed toward intentional social change on maintaining the status quo with merely marginal fluctuations. Yes, we must continue to do that, and, yes, we will and possibly should continue to invest the lion’s share of our resources in precisely that tug-o-war between competing ideological camps. But we can and should –and, I think, must– divert some small fraction of our resources, of our time and treasure, toward something more ambitious and far-reaching, toward something more fundamental and imaginative, toward reaching and passing through yet another threshold in the evolution of our shared existence. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.
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.
In the Perspective section of last Sunday’s Denver Post, Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote an excellent piece exploring the two competing development visions for Denver’s Union Station (Who’s on the right track with Union Station plans? http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19312116). What I like about this article isn’t just the informative discussion of a single issue of current significance, but rather how it focuses on one instance of a more general challenge we face: Public Entrepreneurialism.
In all of the ideological noise, the competition of those who consider government the enemy and those who consider corporations the enemy, we don’t discuss enough the shared enterprise we are in, in which both government and corporations are problematic but indispensable players. Treating the public sphere as a popular entrepreneurial challenge, with one of the issues being how best to articulate that public entrepreneurship with the private sector to maximize our welfare through the most robust and efficacious utilizations of both, is exactly what we need more of. This is a wonderful discussion of that oft-forgotten but critically essential aspect of public participation and discourse: How we can act together in productive ways to improve our social institutional landscape. Let’s hope that is the kind of conversation we have more of in the future, displacing the one we already have far too much of.
Public entrepreneurialism is a concept that can join the pantheon of entrepreneurialisms, along with commercial, political, and social entrepreneurialism. Commercial entrepreneurialism requires no elaboration: It is what is normally referred to by the term. The development and implementation of a commercial idea in pursuit of private profit is commercial entrepreneurialism, and it plays a vital role in the ongoing evolution of our social institutional landscape.
Political entrepreneurialism involves political leadership outside of the established and official political landscape, in service to fomenting fundamental political change rather than preserving or operating through the status quo. Gandhi, King, revolutionary leaders and leaders of radical political movements, are examples of political entrepreneurs. They might leverage assets, mobilize resources, and divert profits of other enterprises toward the political goal. Clearly, commercial entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of political entrepreneurialism.
And, similarly, political entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of social entrepreneurialism. Social entrepreneurialism isn’t about changing regimes or merely expanding the franchize; it is about altering the culture. Changing the political landscape may be a means to that end, but, for social entrepreneurs, it is not an end in itself. Political entrepreneurs are often also, to varying degrees, social entrepreneurs: Certainly, King was a social entrepreneur to a very large extent, and Gandhi to a lesser extent. (Gandhi’s goal was primarily political: Indian independence. King’s was primarily social: The end of racism.)
But political entrepreneurs do not need to be social entrepreneurs: Many revolutionary leaders are simply trying to topple the current political power structure and replace it with what they believe to be a preferable one, because they believe the preferable one better serves either the public interest or their own interest, or the interests of those close to them, or some distribution among these, depending on the degree to which they are acting idealistically or cynically, and selfishly or altruistically.
All three of these forms of entrepreneurialism, on average, involve a higher proportion of charismatic authority than other forms of leadership (see What is Leadership?), though rational and traditional authority may well be invoked as well. Social and political entrepreneurship probably rely more than commercial entrepreneurship on charismatic authority (though commercial entrepreneurs are often charismatic; think Steve Jobs), if only because the rewards of the former two are less immediate and less fungible: Those who follow, or work for, a commercial entrepreneur can do so for the promise of income without being otherwise persuaded, while those who follow political and social entrepreneurs generally have to be convinced of the ideals for which they are working.
Public entrepreneurialism is something different from all of these, articulating them into a single enterprise, and doing so from or through the established power structure rather than in opposition to it. It involves the mayor who has a vision for his or her city, the governor who is focused more on long-term development than short-term indicators, the president who has a vision for the country that guides his or her policies as much as or more than the ephemeral tides of political exigency.
It also involves those who try to influence them, not to change the nature of the game, but to play the game that exists more beneficially. Commercial entrepreneurs exist on a continuum ranging from the purely profit-motivated to the socially idealistic and visionary, and political and social entrepreneurs exist on continua ranging from extreme radicalism to subtle tweaking of existing institutions. Those who occupy the ranges closer to the latter poles become more involved in public entrepreneurialism, in partnership with others who occupy the more visionary range of elected and appointed office and bureaucratic careers.
Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was less radical, less rejecting of the status quo, than Malcolm X; the American Revolutionaries less revolutionary than their French counterparts. The former were more willing to retain much and make changes mostly on the margins, moving the sophisticated package of human history along a slightly diverted trajectory rather than trying to destroy what was and replace it en masse with what they believed should be.
Public entrepreneurialism is characterized, for instance, by the vision touted by recent Denver mayoral candidate James Mejia, involving developing the river front in much the same way that San Antonia did in the latter’s creation of its famous River Walk; and by the vision espoused by now Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during his campaign, in which he discussed a vision for Colorado that revolved around articulated roles for political, social, and commercial entrepreneurs (see A Positive Vision For Colorado).
Public entrepreneurialism can emphasize different aspects of our social institutional landscape: The economic, the cultural, the aesthetic, the charitable. It can focus on improvements in education, or in the delivery of social services, or in the production of wealth, or in the promotion of fairness and justice and human decency; but, at its best, it involves at least a little of all of these, emphasizing one more than others in each project, but pursuing projects which, taken together, emphasize all of these values.
We are indeed in a shared enterprise, one which we can participate in by “railing against the machine,” or one which we can participate in by “rallying agents of the organism.” The former is often more emotionally gratifying, assuming the role of someone external and superior to that which is. The latter is more productive and realistic, recognizing that we are indeed a part of something larger than ourselves, something that has a history and a value worth preserving and developing. Public entrepreneurialism can be bold, idealistic, even radical at times. But it is the kind of change realized through the realization that no viable change occurs that does not leverage what is to create what can be.
I believe in the human endeavor. I believe in our ability to become ever wiser and more compassionate as a society. I believe that the technological and social institutional innovations we’ve come to take for granted, many of which were unimaginable just a few short generations ago, are ripples on the surface of an unfathomable sea of possibilities, and that what we accomplish in generations to come, like what has come before, will appear in retrospect not just to be more of the same, but rather profoundly revolutionary and transformative, and acceleratingly so.
But there is nothing automatic about the direction this punctuated evolution takes, and no guarantee that it will be benign rather than malignant. In what ways and to what extent, in service to which emotions and inclinations always vying for dominance within and without, we free the genius of the many, this captive giant fuming within her prison of oppression and repression, of intolerance and intransigence, will determine what wonders and what horrors we unleash.
Will we find new, more sterile and yet more virulent ways to enslave minds and souls, to shackle the human spirit by overlords of fear and bigotry, using our genius against itself in acts of brilliant inhumanity? Or will we harmonize more deeply and fully, through soaring but disciplined imaginations, with the malleable but coherent dream of which we are but a part?
Our minds form an ecology of their own, with flora and fauna of our fancy reproducing, evolving, giving way to new forms. We thrive best when we harvest most of that cognitive diversity, articulating the novel into the complex, sublime whole, accommodating more, suppressing less. So it’s no surprise that a sociologist such as myself, who perceives us less as a collection of individuals and more as slightly individuated moments of a shared consciousness, would become an advocate for mental diversity and mental freedom, for that mind we share does not best thrive by imposing as much conformity as fear and convenience counsel, but rather by tolerating as much non-conformity as wisdom and compassion allow.
If this movement, and this organization, were just about helping those in mental or emotional distress to find greater harmony within and avoid the ravages of a brutally destructive psychopharmacological paradigm imposed from without, that would be more than enough to inspire me to join in the effort. But it’s also about all of us together finding a richer and subtler harmony among ourselves and beyond ourselves, about that mind we share spiralling toward enlightenment, and about the increased wealth of joy and wellness we can produce together, from which we all can draw.
It’s to that latter ideal that all of us who believe in the human endeavor ultimately aspire.
(For essays and vignettes related to this one in various ways, see, e.g., Kick-Starting A ClearMind, Symptoms v. Root Causes, An Eddy In The Stream, The Politics of Consciousness, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Hollow Mountain, and A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.)
One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?
The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.
If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?
This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)
To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.
Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.
Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.
Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.
With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.
On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.
Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.
At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.
The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.
The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.
But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.
So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.
And may the deities continue to defecate on it….