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.
(The following, originally a comment of mine on a Facebook thread, I first published on CC as a comment on another post but decided deserves a post of its own. It was in response to an angry reaction to the argument that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. I think it hits the nail right on the head.)
Hi Joyce. Pleased to meet you.
There are plenty of websites and pages which are dedicated to particular dogmas, want to preserve an echo-chamber where adherents to that dogma can reinforce prevailing assumptions and articles of faith, and exclude the introduction of any facts or arguments that are inconvenient to them. There are others that, while they may have prevailing biases, remain, to their credit, dedicated to public discourse and the robust exchange of ideas, the life-blood of a vibrant and well-functioning democracy (or “republic,” if you prefer).
There are legitimate debates that we, the sovereign (in our “popular sovereignty”), need to have, over economics, law (including Constitutional law), culture, values, and numerous other issues relevant to our shared existence as a polity, as a state and a nation. The more able we are to engage in that discussion as reasonable people of goodwill, the better off we’ll all be.
And my only argument here is one that no one should find offensive: That the more people who agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that they don’t know, driven by a combination of pragmatic realism and a sense of fairness and human decency, the more able we are to thrive as a society and to prosper as individuals.
Our society is divided by something more profound than the ideologies we normally identify, a chasm that divides many societies in many times and places. That division is between those who, on the one hand, accept the notion that being a responsible citizen requires striving to be a reasonable person of goodwill, and those who reject that notion. Some who reject the notion can be found on the Left; some who accept it can be found on the Right. I feel far greater affinity for, and far more thoroughly enjoy and feel satisfied by discussions with, those on the Right who accept this premise than those on the Left that don’t.
People sometimes argue over which ideologies are responsible for the horrors and violences against humanity of the past, and some do contortions to revise history to insist that it was always the ideology they oppose and never the ideology they adhere to. But, in reality, the horrors and violences against humanity that have occurred throughout history and around the world have found vehicles from all across the political ideological spectrum; sometimes under the auspices of totalitarian governments, sometimes under the auspices of tribal feuds obstructing the ability of national governments to form and function; sometimes under theocracies in which religious leaders have taken power, and sometimes under philosophies that claim there is no god. The one thing they all have in common is that they are perpetrated by people who choose either to impose a dogmatic certainty rather than support procedures of on-going discovery and decision-making, or they disintegrate into the cynical pursuit of self and local interests without maintaining the social coherence to do that in a mutually beneficial way. In other words, they are all perpetrated by people who lack a commitment to either reason or goodwill (or both).
It’s clear that in this country at this time, there are many who lack those two values, and are vehement in their rejection of those two values. They react angrily to any suggestion that we should put aside our ideological differences long enough to agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, each and every one of us aware of the fact that we are not in possession of the final answers on all matters, and each and every one of us dedicated to the on-going challenge of governing ourselves wisely and fairly. They are a vocal minority, but far from a majority. Most Americans are not attracted to people of that nature, whether they are found on the Right or Left or anywhere in between. Most Americans want to be decent human beings, reasonable people of goodwill, working together with others similarly inclined to govern ourselves wisely and fairly.
So we, that majority of us who feel that way, should make it the dominant ideology. We should agree that we are all mere human beings, each certain of things that may or may not be true, engaged in a process together that requires listening as well as speaking, thinking as well as knowing, considering the world from the perspective of others as well as from our own. We, all reasonable people of goodwill, can work toward that end, can advocate for that “ideology,” can encourage others to join such a movement. And we, all of us, would be far, far, far better off for it.
I’ve written before about the potential of “new media” to accelerate our cultural evolutionary processes (processes described in the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), emphasizing the positive potential (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). But there are also dynamics in place which co-opt this meme-accelerator in service to our basest inclinations, systematically favoring the least well-informed and most poorly reasoned memes and paradigms over the best-informed and most well reasoned memes and paradigms.
This consciousness-contracting force is comprised of the following interacting factors, the first of which is laudable in and of itself, but combines with the other two in dysfunctional ways: 1) A shared popular commitment to respecting the right of each to express any position in public discourse without privileging some over others; 2) A wide-spread individual aversion to being embarrassed by having one’s own factual or logical error debunked in public discourse; 3) The pandering of many comment board and blog moderators to those who are so embarrassed, favoring empty sniping (which is accepted as the norm on such forums) over carefully constructed argument (which is considered too discomfiting a challenge to those who want a “safe” place to broadcast their often arbitrary, ideologically-derivative opinions).
I’ve encountered this dynamic repeatedly, targeted both by participants and, in service to popular inclinations, moderators as well, for introducing analytical thought into such forums. Most recently, the Denver Post has taken this dynamic to new depths, deleting three highly factual and analytical comments on my part, at the behest of someone who was offended by the factual and analytical content itself.
The first comment was a list of points contesting a comment by the complaining individual (whose own comment was nothing but a string of ad hominems), citing economic studies, a demographic argument made by The Economist magazine, and historical facts. Other than starting with the word “hogwash,” and ending with the phrase “other than that, you really nailed it,” it was nothing but fact and argument. The second comment was a point-by-point debunking of his response, devoid of any ad hominem. The third was nothing more than a straight-forward and very dry correction of the assertion that the 15% tax rate paid by many of the wealthiest Americans is due to their charitable giving, noting that the 15% rate was the capital gains tax rate that many of them enjoyed, and not an artifact of deductions for charitable giving. Amazingly, the Denver Post on-line moderator deleted all three, at one point messaging me that he saw nothing wrong with my comments, but was deleting them anyway!
I contacted the Denver Post about this, and received assurances that they would discuss it and get back to me. They never did.
This is just the most egregious example of a larger, and more troubling dynamic: The privileging of angry ideological memes over factually informed and well-reasoned memes. Anyone who reads comment boards such as the Denver Post can’t help but notice the dominance of angry ideological voices. What many may not realize is that the moderators themselves actually contribute to ensuring that such voices dominate their comment boards, not because they necessarily agree with or prefer the tone of those voices, but rather because of a mistaken application of a democratic instinct: Protecting voices from factual and logical challenges to them.
In one sense, the larger endeavor we are in, the struggle over humanity’s future, is a contest between the forces of mindlessness and mindfulness, of belligerence and compassion, of bigotry and enlightenment. We must never forget, each and every one of us, that that struggle occurs within as well as without, within our own individual psyches, within our own groups and movements, within our own rationalizations and ideologies. But the two are a challenge that we face without distinction, for we share a mind, and when the forces of mindlessness prevail in our interactions, they also prevail in our own internal cognitive landscapes. The Denver Post, for instance, succeeded not only in silencing reason applied to fact in deference to irrationality applied to fictions, but also in reinforcing the belief that it was right to do so in the mind of one who least could afford to have that belief reinforced.
It is incumbent on each of us to confront these countervailing currents, sweeping through the same media of collective consciousness as I am using now; to level their waves of mindlessness with the interference of equal and opposite waves of mindfulness. As many know, my outline of a sustained strategy for doing so can be found in the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. But this suggested paradigm, like the paradigms it is designed to affect, should be one which benefits from the genius of the many, from the refinements offered by time and numbers. It is now just a nascent thought, waiting to be developed. The only critical thread that must weave itself through all of our efforts is a commitment to continuing to strive to be reasonable and imaginative people of goodwill, working together with humility and compassion to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world. The more successfully we spread that meme, the better off we will be.
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….
1) We live in a world and universe that is mindbogglingly complex, and are gradually realizing that a biological rather than physical paradigm best captures that complexity. The science of chaos, of complexity, is the science of non-linear living systems, and applies to many systems that we have normally conceptualized as non-living.
2) Consciousness is one of the elements of that universe. In the modern tradition of human exceptionalism, we atheists have come to see human consciousness as just a happenstance product of random forces, and yet, we see echoes of it all around us, in evolution (which looks remarkably like a conscious and purposeful progression, the one which, coincidentally, produced something that resembled it: Human consciousness). There’s nothing stupid or absurd about conceptualizing the universe in terms of consciousness (not human consciousness, but something more diffuse and fundamental) rather than in terms of mechanics. In fact, that seems to be the direction in which logic and evidence lead.
3) Our minds are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Even mathematics, that least poetic of conceptual languages, is essentially a set of metaphors disciplined into a complex system of logical thought. To metaphorically conceptualize this living universe, this complexity and subtlety of which we are a part, this coherence which transcends our capacity for comprehension, in the forms of gods and spirits and supernatural forces, is no less “off the mark” than to claim that we live in a dead, mechanical universe. Both are imperfect conceptualizations of an almost infinitely complex and subtle reality.
4) The real problem, on both sides of this equation, is not understanding the nature of our conceptualizations, and of our relationship to reality. We never hold within our minds an exact representation of a precise and unambiguous reality, but rather reduce a complex and incomprehensible reality to dimensions and forms we can grasp. World mythology has produced marvelous packages of complex and subtle thought with which to track that complex and subtle reality. Understanding that our error is in taking our conceptualizations literally rather than in embracing this or that imperfect conceptualization would be the cure to the problem you perceive.
5) In my opinion, someone who only understands a river in terms of hydrodynamics and the hydrological cycle and not at all in terms of singing spirits dancing their way from mountain springs to frothing seas, has a less complete understanding than someone who triangulates a bit more, and understands a river in various ways, through various modalities.
6) Concepts of god and gods and supernatural forces can enrich our understanding of our world, of nature, of ourselves, or they can form reified false idols that divide us and blind us to the complexities and subtleties of the world around us and within us. It is not the concepts that are at fault when the latter occurs, but rather how we use them and how we relate to them.IP: In all of your 6 points you didn’t address the simple premise that the concept of god was started in our Neolithic past. All people had a Neolithic past so the fact that people came up with a god to explain natural phenomena is not unusual. People also lived in caves in the Neolithic era. Why should we hold on to a concept that doesn’t work and is divisive. Religion has killed more people than any other force on this planet, no god, no religion. The world would be much safer and peaceful without god. SH: Lots of concepts began in our Neolithic past, including the concepts of red, orange, yellow, blue, green, etc., and the concepts of up and down, forward and backward, probably love and hatred, right and wrong, joy and sorrow, and many others of enduring value. Whether such concepts retain their utility has nothing to do with when they originated.
Personally, I do agree that we could do better than to cling to Neolithic conceptualizations of god, and even to the very non-Neolithic developments of those original conceptualizations, that have led through the Mesopotamian religions, to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheisms with all of their trappings (and through other cultural pathways to Buddhism, Taoism, various polytheisms, and a variety of tribal religions).
But it is not some conceptualization of god that is divisive; rather it is the illusion of exhaustive absolutes that the world and universe can be reduced to, such as whether there is or isn’t a god, and, if so, which particular version is the one true one.
Some things are relatively amenable to such reductionism, and those things tend to fall within the mathematical and observable ranges of phenomena. Not all phenomena, nor all subjects of human contemplation, fall within those ranges, and so not all are so reducible.
There are two ways of formulating your final statement, taking into account the reality of differing perspectives and conceptualizations: 1) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted my one absolute truth as THE one absolute truth,” and 2) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted the variable reducibility of reality, and accepted complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity as fundamental aspects of reality beyond which we may not be capable of further reduction.”
“Everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is no god” belongs to the first category, and is essentially the same as “everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is only one god, and it is the one described by my religion.”
Clearly, there is no easy cure to our divisiveness, because even the suggestion that we adhere to less literal, more flexible, more subtle and accommodating conceptualizations of reality is divisive, in that all of those who strongly adhere to some absolute dogma or another will fight tooth and nail against any such suggestion!
Or, to put it more simply, the world would be a much safer and more peaceful place without dogmatic certainty, particularly dogmatic certainty regarding what are essentially metaphorical conceptualizations of reality, including the dogmatic certainty of atheism.
You think that it is an absolute and irrefutable fact that there is no god. My dad was a devout atheist, who shared your perspective completely. But his religion was as divisive as anyone else’s.
The irony is, of course, that even my own devout epistemological (rather than ontological) relativism is divisive, in much the same way, because any position vigorously held implies and inevitably generates (if one doesn’t already exist) an antithesis which is also vigorously held.
But, just to be clear, I think that your certainty that there is no god is as arbitrary as anyone else’s that there is a god. We atheists think of our consciousness as unique in the universe, or as some kind of anomaly in an otherwise unconscious mechanical universe.
But observation throws this into doubt: Clearly, what we experience as human consciousness is on a continuum with what other forms of life experience. When we see a spider scurry away to save itself, it looks a lot like a small, scared little creature acting like a miniature version of a human being. We know that it isn’t, but this resemblance isn’t quite completely arbitrary either; it is a product of the same dynamic which produced human beings (the one in which genes in competition with one another cluster together and produce vehicles for their relative reproductive success), and the resemblance is due to being a product of that process following a logic inherent to being such a product.
And what is so fundamentally different between an individual organism and an ecosystem, or a human society? The latter is a diffuse version of the former, with packets of information transmitted across generations forming into systemic, coherent, enduring wholes. Just because we subjectively experience our own consciousness doesn’t mean that something similar in essence isn’t a basic part of the fabric of reality. And the more we explore the underlying nature of that reality, the more support we discover for that conceptualization, scientifically and mathematically.
So why wouldn’t we conceptualize that wondrous, sublime, infinitely complex global, universal “consciousness,” that is the coherence and systemicness of the universe, in ways that are accessible to our imaginations? I disagree with you about the net value of religion: The world would have been greatly impoverished without world mythology, its brilliant stories, its framings of reality in rich and colorful ways.
It’s no coincidence that the ancient society that had the richest mythology also had the richest natural philosophy: Both are aspects of the same human imagination, working with the same materials, in much the same ways. We would not very likely have our wonderful florescence of scientific knowledge without a concomitant florescence of religious wonder.
Not only ancient Greece, but also modern Europe, were characterized by these two working in tandem. The modern European era was born with the Renaissance, which was an aesthetic rediscovery of classical forms, and the Reformation, which was a reinvigoration of religious energy. The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment followed on their heels.
Religion isn’t the enemy: Dogma is. Believing in god isn’t the enemy; believing in a rigid reality which neatly reduces to our conceptualizations of it on all dimensions is. What would “save” us isn’t an end to religious thought, but a beginning to a deeper and more subtle and more open sense of wonder that takes that thought a step further, and synthesizes it with our scientific and philosophical and mathematical thought. Our future hope isn’t in contracting our minds and imaginations to fit within one preferred package, but expanding them to flow among ultimately compatible channels, exploring the wonder of a world far beyond our wildest imagination, and the potential of human consciousness more fully liberated and mobilized.
On [this blog] there is someone who believes that the earth is 6k years old, because that is what his preacher told him. The enforced and celebrated ignorance of modern religion and dogmas are antithetical to intelligent and rational discussions….
SH: Beliefs range from more to less subtle, more or less well tracking an almost infinitely complex reality. You scoff at monotheists who scoff at polytheists who scoff at animists. Science was largely born from monotheism (just as monotheism was from polytheism, and polytheism was from animism), the latter having reduced the arbitrariness of Creation from a chaos of competing gods and spirits to a coherent single systemic whole and thus making it more amenable to systematic investigation.
Some aspects of some religions are incompatible with science, asserting as matters of faith (ie, beliefs insulated from evidence and skepticism) issues of causation and systemic dynamics that are, in fact, better understood through scientific methodology than religious narratives. Some aspects of religions occupy completely separate realms, going where science can’t really go because science doesn’t address all questions (particularly questions of value or judgment). And then there are realms to which both apply, but in different ways (such as the celebration of wonder and awe at the incredible complexity and subtlety of the world and universe we live in).
It’s fine to advocate for more rather than less subtlety, and to critique those who fail to continue to strive to do so. It’s folly to believe that you have found the end point of that journey, and to scoff at others for having failed to find the one absolute truth of which you are aware and they are not.
SH: Psycholinguist Stephen Pinker, in How The Mind Works, posited that religious dietary restrictions evolved as a means of preventing members of more economically marginal societies from defecting to richer neighboring societies by making their food less attractive. So, for instance, in the case of Jewish dietary restrictions, shell fish would be found in neighboring coastal societies but not among the Hebrew desert nomads themselves, and pork would be found among (wealthier) sedentary populations rather than (poorer) nomadic ones.
The point isn’t that many religious ideas and proscriptions can’t be better understood as products of human history and psychology than as products of a divine mandate, but rather that different modalities of thought can coexist, and, where they reinforce rather than obstruct their respective competencies, can be useful and productive rather than dysfunctional and destructive.
Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu were all highly religious men, who used their religious convictions in service to their charismatic leadership and their missions of social justice and universal goodwill. The Civil Rights Movement in America benefited enormously from the social organizational capital of the southern black church infrastructure, without which that movement might never have happened, and certainly would have had to have happened with far less capacity for grass roots organizing than it in fact had at its disposal.
The goal of peace and human welfare is not best served by insisting that one’s own conceptual tyranny prevail over all others, whether it is the conceptual tyranny of a dogma that contains literal gods or one that does not (e.g., Marxism, Libertarianism, Dogmatic Atheism, etc.). Conceptual false idols don’t have to be supernatural to be socially destructive.
The goal of peace and human welfare is best served by recognizing that we have a plethora of conceptual modalities at our disposal, and that those modalities have varying uses and competencies, that they can be articulated in ways which reinforce rather than undermine one another, and that doing so provides us with more rather than less insight.
The fact that the opposite also occurs, that the incompetencies of each modality assert themselves at the expense of the competencies of the others, is something to strive to transcend, whether it is religious assertions about how faith is more reliable for ascertaining the validity of factual and causal information than is scientific methodology, or pseudo-scientific assertions that science “disproves” something which is a conceptual rather than factual matter.
One of the big obstacles to making this leap is the misconception that the products of our imagination are distinct from “reality,” and that reality is understood by some means other than our imagination. In truth, our imagination is our portal onto reality, our means of tracking it with our minds. Some of the modalities we use are good for some purposes, and may be more attractive to some people; while others are good for other purposes and may be more attractive to other people. But the notion that some of these modalities of human imagination are “right” and some are “wrong” is an unfortunately unimaginative position to take!
SH: (In response to another poster insisting that the burden is on IP to prove that God doesn’t exist, since no one in the conversation asserted that he/she/it does.) It’s a meaningless question. This is what people don’t get about the whole “do you believe in god” thing: It’s like asking “do you believe in charpadarka, a color that humans can’t perceive that occupies the spectrum of light frequencies from about 900-920 THz.”
Well, if you choose to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and then name the color “charpadarka,” then you believe in it. If you choose not to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and refuse to name it, then you don’t believe in “charpadarka.”
The objective reality is what it is. It can be conceptualized in multiple ways. It makes no sense to argue about whether one or another conceptualization is “true” or not.
(No one can) prove that “God” doesn’t exist, and no one . . . can prove that “God” does exist, because “God” is a concept, just like everything else we hold in our minds to represent reality. It is not an argument over an empirically verifiable or refutable assertion, or about an empirically and analytically more or less supportable theory or paradigm; it is an argument over semantics and conceptualization, and therefore a meaningless and absurd argument to have.
As I’ve been developing in numerous posts (see, e.g., Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), our social reality is comprised of intermingled, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing, cognitions and the emotional content that accompanies them (“memes” and “emes”). In Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II, I emphasized our potential to create new marvels of human existence, new social institutional technologies, new attitudes, a new attitude conducive to ever-growing consciousness.
Many of us have grown wary of such claims, having seen “the Age of Aquarius” dawn and disappear more rapidly than the Broadway musical in which it was sung. People who are grounded, who are realistic, who take stock of history and of economics and of human nature, are often, perhaps generally, swept into an ever deepening cynicism and pessimism as their years roll by. We look at most of those who still believe in the possibility of achieving new heights of consciousness, and see a flakiness, a superficiality, an eagerness to grasp at ethereal fantasies that history has proven so elusive as to be delusional, and we wisely disassociate ourselves from that form of thought and aspiration.
But there are other lessons of history as well, lessons that are written with what appears to be invisible ink, for we are blind to their ubiquity and significance. These lessons make clear the constancy of change, and even how profound it can sometimes be, when looked at in the context of the broad sweep of history.
Let’s start with the most obvious, even if routinely too rapidly dismissed as trivial. When we think of human history, we divide it into epochs according to changing technologies: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age…, and now, The Computer Age. We all recognize that humanity has progressed technologically, and has passed through a succession of technological thresholds, each ushering in what in many ways is a new age.
We bracket this off from the notion of changes in human consciousness primarily by considering “technology” something distinct from “consciousness,” a lesser cognitive animal, not reaching down deep enough into who and what we are to be considered a form of “consciousness.” Kindness and brutality, reason and irrationality, occupy separate spheres, deeper and more fundamental than the mere mechanisms by which we express them. These mechanisms are ripples on the surface of our shared reality, rather than its defining characteristics.
But how true is this? Technologies are implicated in our consciousness in ways deeper and more essential than we often realize. For one thing, they occupy a broader range than we generally acknowledge: Technologies are not merely programmings of natural (non-human) phenomena to human benefit, but also programmings of human behavioral and social phenomena. Contracts and Constitutions, money and markets and various legal and economic innovations by which they have developed, scientific methodology and legal procedure, our media of communications and information processing and the particular forms that they take, are all technological innovations.
Technologies are also made of the same stuff as the rest of human consciousness, and are inextricably intertwined with the rest of human consciousness. Through scientific methodology, for instance, we have produced instruments both in service to science itself, and in service to other production functions in which we are engaged. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory, to name a few, all owe a debt to the social technologies of scientific methodology and mathematics, and to the physical technologies that have become their tools. We are capable of understanding the subtleties of nature in ways never before imagined, and only very generally glimpsed by the most transcendent of historical philosophers and sages, now with a mathematical precision that occupies spheres few today have had the pleasure of visiting, but many fully realize exist.
But, surely, even these admittedly significant developments in our understanding and manipulation of nature do not penetrate into the realms imagined by those who believe that fundamental transformations of human consciousness are possible and attainable? After all, we use them in service to exploitation and dominance, not harmony and liberation, ever-more voraciously consuming the host body of the Earth upon which we are increasingly robust parasites, and seemingly advancing not at all toward a more compassionate and just state of collective being…. Or is it really that simple?
Never before in industrial society has there been such an extensive and deepening sense that we have to change our paradigms to align our collective existence better with the natural context in which it is found, and with the evolving sense of social justice that has blossomed rather dramatically in the developed world as a whole (America being a notable hold-out in many ways). True, many pre-industrial, tribalistic societies that lived “closer” to nature adhered to ideologies far more cognizant of the need for harmonious coexistence. But this went hand-in-hand with the actual limits on the capacity for exploitation; few such societies did not reach out for the products of more exploitative technologies when they came into view.
Many are more impressed with how inadequate these changes remain, with so few so shallowly committed to such minimal modifications in our existence, still generally driving individually owned fossil-fuel propelled vehicles, living in excessive houses and consuming excessive resources. This is true: We are on the first steps of a long road, one along which our journey will continue to accelerate as urgency continues to impress itself on us. It may be too late; we may destroy our host before we either temper our appetites sufficiently to save it or achieve the technical abilities necessary to abandon it and colonize new ones. (I am not commenting on the desirability or undesirability of the latter prospect, but only recognizing it as one imaginably plausible way for humans to survive indefinitely). But, while we exist, it is probably wise to continue to consider the possibility that we will continue to exist, and to contemplate how to navigate the possible paths into the future.
Some may acknowledge what I’ve written above, that we have undergone transformations in our understanding of and relationship with nature, and that we may even be beginning a process of institutionalizing checks on our own avarice in service to our sustainability, but still contend that none of it reaches into who and what we really are, into our own human nature, and that therefore none of this represents true changes in human consciousness, but merely changes in the clothing that consciousness wears.
In a sense I agree with this, though, on the margins of this discourse, I am going to push the envelope in ways which some will consider too fanciful for any practically grounded conversation. Yes, thus far and into the foreseeable future, it would be correct to say that there is some immutable defining nature to being human, one that we have never transformed, and, according to the most prevalent conventional wisdom, either will never be able to transform, or perhaps should never be tempted to transform.
Some radical thinkers dismiss the notion of “human nature,” rightly reacting adversely to the overly reductionist ways in which it has generally been conceptualized, but wrongly (and absurdly) missing the fact that, given that there is a category of species called “human,” and given that there is no real ambiguity about which creatures are and are not members of that category, it must therefore be the case that there are some defining characteristics which distinguish all members from all non-members and which describe all members without fail. Therefore, the question is not whether there is any such thing as “human nature,” but rather what its precise scope is.
(The notion that it is no more than a set of physical, biological parameters ignores the fact that there is no real divide between our physical/biological aspects and the rest of what we are, and that therefore to fabricate such a distinction is just another departure from reality. One interesting example is that certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are common to all cultures, and mean the same thing in all cultures. More profoundly, language itself is common to all cultures, a fact examined more closely by Psycholinguist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct.)
My marginal aside is that we may in fact soon be capable of transforming that fundamental, “immutable” human nature itself, through genetic engineering (I am only identifying the possibility, not commenting on its desirability). This of course raises all sorts of issues, such as how decisions would be made concerning this next level of manipulation of nature, and whether it could ever be wise to try to ride the Pegasus of our technical abilities to such Olympian heights, or whether it would dash us to our collective destruction in disgust at our hubris. That is a discussion I leave for another time.
My marginal aside is telling in a more fundamental way: Part of our nature includes the ability to transcend itself, as we currently know it, in multiple ways, whether for good or for bad, and to do so ever-more dramatically. We even have a deeply embedded meme reflecting this: Our cognitive divorce of “human” from “natural,” as if they are two distinct things, rather than one subset of a larger sphere of phenomena. We fundamentally believe that we have transcended nature, that we are distinct from nature, that we can be in conflict with nature. Personally, I consider this a delusion, even were we to genetically engineer new variations on the entity known as human: It’s all “natural,” because there is no exit from that which is “natural.” It is all-encompassing.
It is not the “unnaturalness” that is key here, but rather the accelerating ability to transform ourselves and our environment. And that may be an integral part of our “nature.” We transform our social institutional and technological landscape, both constantly, in a cumulative, gradual progression, and through thresholds of dramatic metamorphosis. We reduce, for those to whom our social institutions permit access, the ravages of disease, and do so through increasingly sophisticated means. One such emerging technology is particularly illustrative: Stem-cell research. Not only does it hold it great promise, but also meets with great resistance, some feeling that it tampers too much with life (destroying embryonic life) to warrant its service to life (saving mature and fully realized lives).
Embryonic stem-cell research is also telling because it illustrates how comfortable rational people can become with such dramatic manipulations of nature. Most rational people recognize, implicitly, that our prohibition against killing human beings is based on a protection of conscious beings (or beings who have been and will again be conscious), not a mere moral abstraction. A cluster of cells is, to such minds (at least to mine), less deserving of such protection than a fully conscious large non-human mammal that would actually experience terror and pain and lose a life that the being had some cognizance of, because it is consciousness rather than membership in the human in-group, that is worthy of such respect and compassion, the degree of deference being a function of the degree of consciousness rather than the particular category of membership.
But if we can become comfortable with cultivating embryos to treat diseases, can we also become comfortable with (hopefully cautious and restrained) manipulations of our genetic architecture, reducing aggression, increasing cooperation, and, in general, making humans less the haphazard product of the logic of reproductive competition and more the product of our dreams and aspirations as conscious beings? Would it really be so horrible? (The caveat here is not that it would be inherently wrong to do so, but rather that it is too easy to inadvertantly wreak havok on the sensitively balanced natural systems which we are, and of which we are a part, by doing so. Our degree of caution and restraint would have to be commensurate with the heat of the fire we are playing with, which, in practice, is rarely the case.)
Whether through such (legitimately scary) dramatic manipulation of nature’s building blocks, or through more subtle and less intrusive means, humans are clearly capable of, and even defined by, our ability to transform ourselves. We have successfully transferred a great deal of our violence into social institutions that maintain some checks on it, that make it more reflective and less reflexive, even if woefully imperfectly so. We have systems of justice within our nations (some better than others), and systems of diplomacy and rationalized warfare among them (still mostly in a barbarian stage of development, but, though in a historical lull and belied by the brutality of its failures, long developing toward increasing institutionalization and pacification). The glass may seem well more than half empty to those who are rightly aware of how brutal and animalistic we remain, but it clearly contains some significant drops to those who examine the greater attitudinal brutality so ubiquitous throughout human history, and the growing yearning as the centuries pass for something more conducive to human welfare.
It’s true, as one aspect of The Variable Malleability of Reality, that we change our most superficial aspects most frequently and easily (e.g., the technologies we employ, and the arrangements by which we coexist), and, the deeper into our essence you delve, the more beyond our reach our nature becomes. But changes on the surface can and do ripple outward and downward, incidentally affecting our deeper natures by changing the context of our lives, and providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools with which to change ourselves more dramatically, both superficially and ever-more profoundly. We are, in fact, for good or for ill, on the threshold of having come full circle, the echo of natural history (human history) acquiring the capacity to manipulate that biological evolution itself at the genetic level (we have long affected it through agriculture and animal husbandry).
Human consciousness does not, and should not, change with the snap of a finger. Lofty aspirations with short time horizons are quickly dashed, and their adherents justly (if perhaps unkindly) ridiculed. But it does change, and dramatically so. And we are participants in it.
However, it does not always change for the better, particularly in the short run. America, or at least one prominent and consequential current within America, is currently deeply embedded in a period of regression, entrenching its bigotries, rejecting reason and imagination and compassion, embracing extreme individualism and a shallow and brutal political economic ideology. This, too, is real, and has enormous significance to our collective welfare. I will address it in an upcoming essay, “The Mutating Memes (and ‘Emes’) of Organized Ignorance.”
We tend to engage in politics treating the distribution of reason and goodwill in our society as a constant, and fighting over the variables of who is in office and what policies can be passed within the constraints of that constant. That’s necessary on a certain level (in the short-term), because the distribution of reason and goodwill does not tend to vary rapidly nor, thus far, to be highly amenable to intentional attempts to affect it. However, it’s clear that it does vary: It is quite different in Germany today than in Germany of the 1930s, and it is quite different in this country that fetishizes a notion of “liberty” that has come to mean “mutual indifference and social irresponsibility” than it is in most other developed countries, where the knowledge that “no man is an island entire of itself” has long been more fully embraced.
Throughout human history, we have developed techniques to affect parameters that had previously been intractable constants, such as how quickly we can move over the surface of the Earth, what environments we can exist in and for how long (e.g. extreme cold, submarine, outer space), how much energy from non-animal sources we can tap and utilize to perform “work” in our service, how fast we can perform calculations, how quickly we can communicate across large distances, and even how efficiently we can coordinate disparate efforts to mutual benefit (e.g., the evolution of monetary instruments, enforceable contracts, and improved organizational efficiency). I discussed this dimension of our on-going shared history in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology.
Our entire social institutional landscape, in fact, is comprised of similar purposive efforts, pursued both as individuals and in groups or as societies. The era of brainy college kids starting Apple or Microsoft or Google or Facebook in their garage (or dorm room) followed the era of nations putting satellites into space and a man on the moon, and the era of uprisings utilizing their wares, organizing through social media, cascaded across the world, most recently in the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain). Even The United States has seen its political effects, with Barack Obama’s election riding a netroots’ wave, and various other movements utilizing the new social media in various ways. These dynamics are discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.
In this subtle, complex, dynamic social institutional and technological environment, it is more crucial than ever to correctly identify current political (and technological and social institutional) constants and current political (and technological and social institutional) variables, always recognizing that plying the variables deftly enough can convert, over time, constants into variables, bringing into range aspects of our shared existence that we did not previously imagine were within our power to affect.
The current trend is to take as a given the current distribution of cultural attitudes and political ideological convictions, considering the variables to be how social issues are interpreted through those lenses as they arise. The emphasis is therefore on “messaging,” on how well we design and launch pithy slogans and brief emotional appeals, something the left laments that the right has mastered, and that the left should emulate. On one level, this recognition of the importance of such messaging is perfectly legitimate; persuading people from within their current attitudes and ideologies to lean toward one policy or another is a tug-o-war utilizing the pulls of these kinds of messages.
But on another level, there is a deeper project which must not be abandoned, though it has hardly yet even been identified. One aspect of this project is what I call “meta-messaging,” targeting not the frames and narratives which determine particular positions on particular policies within the given of current attitudes and ideologies, but rather target the attitudes and ideologies themselves, plying cognitive dissonance in service to the underlying values that best serve humanity and that most people want to claim they adhere to and are motivated by. I discuss this in Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives.
In the end, there are really only two virtually absolute political constants: The underlying nature of the human mind, and the fundamental dynamics of physical reality. (Even these are not technically absoluteconstants, because biological evolution over milenia, or genetic engineering in a shorter time span, could conceivably alter the underlying nature of the human mind; and singularities involve breakdowns of what we think of as “the laws of physics” under certain extreme physical conditions, such as are found in a black hole or at the birth of the universe). Within the framework of these constants, we are faced with The Variable Malleability of Reality, a complex continuum of more and less malleable aspects of our environment and ourselves, which we are challenged to ply wisely in order to effect the most realizable and useful forms of contextual change.
One of the most salient and frustrating nodes on this continuum of malleability is human consciousness, not so much in the shallow and ideological sense of “getting others to recognize as a fundamental truth what I recognize as a fundamental truth” (so that libertarians long for the “enlightenment” of their fellow citizens in which the latter recognize the wisdom of libertarianism, while progressives long for the same in regard to progressivism, and so on), but rather on the more fundamental dimension of rigidity-to-flexibility.
On first encounter, so many assumptions, on so many levels, are so fixed and unassailable, from the false certainty that no political effort based on a complex and subtle message can ever be attempted (a certainty belied by our own national birth, and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, which was based on very subtle and complex arguments, sumarized by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in The Federalist Papers), to the related false certainty that reason can not be made to play an increasingly substantial role in politics (a false certainty reinforced by a tandem misunderstanding of recent advances in cognitive science and of what it would functionally mean or require for reason to play a larger role in politics), to the false certainty that politics is only about who we get elected and what policies we get implemented today (involving the related false certainty that politics must always be focused on specific substantive issues to be meaningful and effective), to the false certainty that increasing goodwill in service to increasing compassion in our public policies can not be cultivated. All of these false certainties, which form an interrelated set, turn what could be a set of critically important political variables into a set of ossified political constants.
Many former constants become current and future variables as we liberate our own imaginations and collective genius in service to accomplishing that transformation. For milenia, the speed at which humans could travel was a constant, first determined by how fast we could walk, then by how fast a horse could run a vessel on water could be moved by muscle or wind or current, and increasingly by how fast our rapidly changing technologies can move us.
Today, the Dutch and Danish, for instance, are more committed to their collective welfare through the underlying values of reason and universal goodwill than we are to ours through our increasingly distorted and bastardized semantically drifting concept of “liberty” so dominant in some quarters (see, e.g., Liberty Idolatry, Liberty & Interdependence, and Liberty & Society). The difference in the distribution of attitudes among the populace may be very small, but the net effects are very large. It’s time for us to ask ourselves how to effect such a change, and then to set out to do it, whether it is a long project involving working our way up a hierarchy of malleability, tacking the most malleable preliminary aspects first, and thus paving the way to less malleable aspects later; or whether it is something that we can begin to tackle directly right away.
I believe it is a combination of the two. But, in either case, it is time to get off the treadmill of our self-limiting false certainties, not just those that obstruct progress as progressives currently define it in terms of substantive positions, but, more fundamentally, those that obstruct the progress that comes of believing in our potential on more fundamental and essential levels of our individual and collective being. It is time to think beyond what we assume to be current immutable realities, to work toward massaging them into greater malleability, both within our own individual consciousnesses, and within the collective consciousness that is human society.
This is a transformation we can accomplish one person at a time (starting with ourselves as individuals), and through a well-designed movement that increases both this cognitive agility and a commitment to recognizing our systemicness, our interdependence, and the challenges and opportunities that that poses to us as individuals and as a society. Doing so does not cure all ills or create some instantaneous dramatic change in our world, but rather establishes a continuous force in favor of that which best serves humanity, gradually, marginally, transforming humanity on a more fundamental level than we have yet managed, just as we have managed to move humanity gradually, marginally across similar thresholds in the past.
It is by means of committing to such procedures for change, such disciplines of mind and organization, that we transform humanity, that we cross those thresholds that move aspects of our reality from the constants column into the variables column. Our current efforts are more bogged down in self-limiting assumptions and rituals of thought and action than they need to be. Greater possibilities are available. All we need do is believe in those possibilities, and turn them into realities.
I’ve laid out one sketch of one plan for doing so, which would of course benefit from more minds and more participation. It can be found at A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, and a series of related posts (including simplified and abbreviated versions of the proposal).