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One ancient and well-known social phenomenon greatly accelerated by the internet and social media is the spreading of false rumors, particularly politically motivated false rumors, and particularly relatively complex ones such as those that come in the form of conspiracy theories. Many cloak themselves in elaborate pseudo-arguments that can be very easily debunked, and many are passed along and eagerly consumed like a spreading contagion. The phrase “going viral” isn’t just a metaphor; these complex “memes” and narratives are cultural pathologies that sweep through the population in epidemic waves feeding off of one another and forming one, overarching pandemic of enormous destructive power.

The confluence of a set of evolutionarily produced psychological quirks and their strategic exploitation by opinion-makers (particularly right-wing opinion-makers) helps explain how easily pernicious falsehoods resonate and spread.

One such “cognitive glitch” is due to the natural, psychological attraction to anomalies, because we evolved to be attentive to anything out of place (since being adept at noticing things out of place was vital to survival on the African savanna). But that, coupled with a lack of awareness of what I call “the probability of the improbable,” creates a constant attribution of heightened significance to observations of things that have no real significance.

It’s highly improbable, for instance, that any given individual will win the lottery, but it’s highly probable (virtually certain) that SOME individual will. We mostly get that one, because we’ve institutionalized it on the basis of its probability structure. There are lots of similarly improbable events –like a bullet hitting a “lucky” coin in someone’s breast pocket, or someone being delayed by some chance occurrence and thus not getting on a flight that crashed– that occur in general on a regular basis, because in a world with millions of events constantly occurring, it’s highly probable that improbable events will occur at a certain frequency determined by the degree of their improbability.

In a world of instantaneous mass communications, any highly improbable event that occurs anywhere in the world is instantly brought to everyone’s attention, and draws people’s attention in proportion to both the degree of its improbability and its resonance with existing narratives.

If a religious icon appears to be crying, for instance, that is a miracle that confirms the religion. If a disproportionate number of planes and ships have disappeared in any concise geographic area (a probable improbability), that geographic area becomes imbued with a supernatural aura. If some of the vague and broadly interpretable predictions of an ancient mystic “come true,” that is proof of his power of prophesy.

More mundanely, this is part of the larger phenomenon of cherry-picking convenient evidence that supports a desired narrative, such as cobbling together a narrative that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US from any snippets of evidence that can possibly be used to support such a narrative. Our shared cognitive landscape is littered with such products of probable improbabilities or cherry-picked “evidence” and our tendency to imbue them with a special significance (or an evidentiary value) that they don’t really merit.

Another quirk is that we are attracted to the plausible, especially if it fits into some narrative or archetype that resonates with us (again, because primate brains evolving in the wild thrive by being able to create plausible scenarios on which to rely) . So, for instance, when I heard the (erroneous) rumor a few decades ago that Jerry Mathers, the child star of “Leave it to Beaver” in the 1950s, had been killed in Vietnam, I was already aware enough of this quirk to say to myself “it’s too plausible, fits too neatly into a clear and relevant narrative, to be assumed true; it’s exactly the kind of rumor that would be almost certain to exist regardless of its truth or falsehood.” The narrative of the iconic little boy of the 1950s dying in the iconic unpopular war of the 1960s is just too neat and cognitively attractive not to emerge and spread.

Similarly, those who want to discredit Obama are attracted to any narrative that discredits him, and those who want to believe in the mystical supernatural quality of their own religion will be attracted to narratives supported by “evidence” which support that conclusion.

When you combine these, you get the frequent phenomenon of people with ideological agendas cherry-picking (or manufacturing) probable improbabilities and weaving them into plausible narratives that serve their ideological agendas. This can be found across the political ideological spectrum, but it is by far most pronounced on the far-right, which is where reason and critical thought are in shortest supply.

But it’s not just a decentralized, organic process. We’re seeing a lot of the increasingly sophisticated exploitation of known and understood human cognitive foibles by the most greedy and ruthless among us. Whether they would articulate it in the same way I did or not, all of the right-wing opinion-makers understand the cognitive glitches I described above, and know how to exploit them to maximum effect.

And the convoluted irony of it all is a thing of horrible beauty: Those on the far-right, thoroughly manipulated and easiest to manipulate, call all those who disagree with them “sheepies,” and announce that they alone are the ones who “think for themselves,” “thinking for oneself,” in this case, meaning ignoring fact and rational analysis in favor of the preferred dogmatic ideology. Those who are thinking for them know how to exploit their cognitive weaknesses and their lack of commitment to critical thinking, so much so that they turn it into a narrative of independence from such manipulation!

What drives me to confront this phenomenon when I encounter it is my own inability to believe that this fortress of self-delusions in which these cultist ideologues ensconce themselves can’t be breached; to my mind, the walls are paper-thin, the foundations cracked and crumbling. I always feel as though all it should take is one small tap of reason in just the right place, and the whole thing just has to come toppling down. But the one impenetrable reinforcement that this fortress has, that, despite the paper-thin walls and crumbling foundations can’t be penetrated, is the decision to disregard fact and reason under any and all circumstances, and to defend the cultish dogma in any way necessary.

And that is why I think our greatest responsibility is to consider how to cultivate the habits of mind and interaction, of disciplined reason honed in rational debate in which the best informed and best reasoned arguments prevail, following the rules similar to those of scientific methodology and legal procedure, all channeled in service to our shared humanity. That is who and what we should be; that is who and what we can be.

The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.

The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.

That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?

The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.

The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.

We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.

The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.

In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.

Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.

The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.

The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.

There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.

To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.

(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)

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On a Facebook thread condemning President Obama for signing the Continuing Resolution with a rider protecting Monsanto from law suits, my defense of the President (pointing out that he really had to sign the CR and that all bills that come to his desk have unsavory riders in them) received some vitriolic responses from a couple of rabbidly anti-GMO activists. When I then mentioned that I am more agnostic on the issue of GMOs themselves, because I don’t think the evidence weighs so unambiguously against them as these particular activists maintained, their vitriol was ratcheted up even more.

As a result, I made the following post on my own Facebook page:

Here’s an interesting lesson in political advocacy: Don’t go out of your way to alienate people who share your general concerns but honestly differ on the particular analysis. On a thread about “Monsanto-gate,” when I mentioned that I’m agnostic about GMOs due to the many benefits on the plus side of the leger (reduced erosion, reduced pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer demands, thus reduced run-off and groundwater contamination, increased food production per acre, increased resilience, etc.) and the relatively few on the negative side, two anti-GMO zealots attacked with such venom that, despite myself, I’m a bit less agnostic now: I’m more pro-GMO than I was before!

It reminds me of a line from Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” about the harm done by overprescription of psychiatric drugs. He mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry could have paid the Scientologists (and Tom Cruise) to take the position against psychiatric drugs that they did, because it made a basically rational position look like one that only fanatical zealots support.

A long and productive discussion ensued, at the end of which, in response to various comments on both threads, I wrote the following:

Human beliefs and emotions are much like viruses, spreading through the population more or less robustly for a variety of reasons. The British biologist Richard Dawkins dubbed these cognitive-emotional viruses “memes,” because they mirror genes in how they reproduce and spread and evolve.As a general rule, memes that are motivated by hope and love and compassion are good ones to spread, and memes that are motivated by fear and hatred and anger are bad ones to spread. This isn’t always true, because some fears are legitimate, but whenever a meme is or a set of memes are spreading due to fear or anger, it’s a good time for folks to step back and be very, very introspective and self-critical about what memes they are latching onto and spreading. The human tendency toward panics should always give us pause and make us question our own certainties and our own “hysterias” (despite the sexist etymology of that word, there’s no other that quite captures the same flavor of meaning).As some of you know (and as I hope not to rehash here in relation to the specific issue I referred to), I think that we are overly certain even about some things for which there is considerable evidence, because though the world is extraordinarily complex and subtle, we tend to gravitate too quickly to certainty and dwell too briefly in uncertainty. We have to be careful not to let wise uncertainty become an unwise position against action based on the best available knowledge, but we should not feel the need to be certain in order to act, a psychological need which is exacerbated by the political demand to take strong positions. (A person who advocates for a political position while admitting to uncertainty undermines him-or-herself in public discourse.)In a more rational world (or with more rational participants in a conversation or debate), the opposite is true: Too much certainty undermines one’s credibility. On the original thread, one commenter (not one of the two belligerent ones) suggested that we are breeding super-pests with GMOs, because of their genetically built-in pesticides. (As an aside, I’m not sure how GMOs do this more so than the traditional use of pesticides does it, and would think that GMOs might do it less so.) Then he made what I consider a rhetorical mistake: He insisted that it was a certainty, and clearly and indisputably a catastrophe in the making.It’s a good point and a legitimate concern, but I am not convinced that it is quite as dispositive as he assumes. For instance, as he noted, the same argument can be made for the use of antibiotics, and, indeed, controlling the worldwide overuse of antibiotics has become particularly urgent for this very reason. But I would not consider it to have been a good thing to have nipped in the bud the use of antibiotics by a movement informed with such foresight a century or so ago.I tend to look at the world a little differently, through a more inclusive and organic paradigm which sees even human foibles as catalysts in a much larger evolutionary process. Yes, it’s true, the more dramatic our manipulations of nature, the greater the risk of catastrophic cascades, but it’s also good to remember that people have been predicting the human-induced destruction of the world for millennia. The world has always been on the verge of catastrophic collapse, with every new innovation throughout human history. Every single time.The reality of complex dynamical systems is that they’re very adaptive. They reorder themselves around even dramatic changes. That’s not to say we should be blithely indifferent to the potential consequences of our actions, but it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the ubiquitous predictions of inevitable catastrophe.My point here is that we would benefit from more uncertainty, and more interest in exploring the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in. The two women who were extremely vitriolic and offensive with me were that way because I had challenged an article of faith, and when you challenge people’s articles of faith, they become very angry. We could use less anger in the world, and we could use fewer articles of faith. Then, from that foundation of wise uncertainty, we could have the most informed and informative of national debates on all topics of importance to our shared existence, and do a far better job of aligning our policies to those which are best recommended by reason in service to humanity.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(This is the first half of “It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done”, which I decided to break down into two separate posts, the first, this one, addressing the dimensions of inventiveness, scope, and intensity by which transformational events or movements can be measured, and the second one, Transforming America and the World, addressing the social movement that I think should be occurring right now, and that I would like to help catalyze, that I think could put into place a nucleus of a deepening and expanding popular commitment to the cultivation of a more rational and more humane society.)

I recently posted the following Nelson Mandela quote on several of my Facebook pages: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” One woman commented that it reminds her of the thesis she is trying to finish, which made me think about the different levels to which this quote applies. Certainly, her comment is a fair one, and familiar to most of us: Personal thresholds, challenges, major tasks we are undertaking can feel daunting, even impossible, until they are done.

Many things feel that way, but there is a hierarchy of magnitudes involved that is worth exploring. There are things that require great effort and time and endurance by an individual, that many have done before, such as graduating, or writing a thesis, or passing the Bar Exam. There are things that have never been done before, such as inventing a new device or creating a new organization (that particular device and that particular organization never having existed until created). Even more so, there are things that have never been done before, and affect a whole society. And most of all, there are things that have never been done before, and change the world, dramatically.

To capture some of the nuances and complexities to this formulation, I’d like to conceptualize it along three axes. The first axis is how novel the thing being done is, whether it is just one instance of a familiar form (e.g., writing a thesis), or a relatively new form (e.g., composing a multi-media thesis affecting all of the senses in a coordinated way to achieve a combined aesthetic and intellectual effect). Obviously, there is a range of degrees of possible deviation from the archetype, from minor changes in formatting to major changes in structure and form and function. As the deviation from the archetype grows, the nature of the innovation moves from being quantitative (a change in degree) to being qualitative (a change in kind).

The second axis is the scale of change, in terms of how many humans are (or how big a swath of the natural universe is) affected by it. Finishing a thesis is, generally, a personal milestone, with only a very marginal impact on the world at large. Forming a new government, organizing a successful political or cultural movement, changing long-standing social institutions (hopefully for the better), are all milestones that affect larger populations in more dramatic ways.

The third axis is the depth and breadth, or intensity, of the change thus achieved, not so much in terms of the number of humans affected, but more in terms in the degree to which they are affected. A promotion in a job, for instance, affects one person to one degree, while emancipation from slavery affects one person to a much greater degree. The passage of a new federal law that makes a marginal change in an existing social institution affects a society to one degree, while the drafting of a federal constitution affects the society to a more extensive degree. Again, there is a range on which such impact can occur, from the very marginal to the extremely revolutionary.

One of the ways in which an innovation or movement can have a deeper and broader impact in this last sense is the degree to which it reaches into the algorithms of change, and affects not only the current status quo, but the manner in which status quos themselves are determined. A law, for instance, affects the current status quo, while a Constitution affects how laws are passed and implemented. A scientific discovery affects our current state of knowledge, while the development of scientific methodology affected the manner in which our knowledge is acquired and accumulates. Impact is generally maximized by reaching down into the algorithms of change, and modifying procedures or methodologies by which particular instances of change occur. (See, e.g.,The Algorithms of Complexity, Second-Order Social Change, The Variable Malleability of Reality, and The Wizards’ Eye for more exploration of this concept.)

I’m going to focus for the remainder of this essay on society-wide changes of relatively large magnitude, looking initially at the degree of variation in how innovative the changes are (i.e., the first axis). I will then discuss, in the next essay, one such proposal I have long been making, that is a social movement aspiring to a rather profound informal change in how we go about governing ourselves (in other words, focused on innovation in the algorithms of change rather than in the particular instances of it), that is rather highly innovative. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, though it may seem impossible, it can be done. (See the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for more discussion of that social movement.)

Oversimplifying a bit, there are two kinds of things that have never been done before and change the world: Those that are of a familiar type (those that are of a type that has been done before), and those that are of an unfamiliar type (those of a type that has never been done before). For instance, inventing the car, or airplane, or space ships, or personal and hand held computers, are all things that had never been done before, and changed the world, but were of a familiar type (technological innovation). Similarly, Abolitionism, the Suffragettes, The Civil Rights Movement, past national independence movements, were all things that had not been done before (each nation seeking independence had never sought independence before), but were all of a type that had been done before (movements to extend rights to those who had been denied them, and to secede from superordinate political entities).

There are things that had never been done before, and were of a type that had never been done before. For instance, the Constitution of Medina, drafted in the 7th century by the Prophet Mohamed, is often considered the first written constitution to form a new government in world history. (The first in American history was drafted in Hartford, Connecticut in 1638, forming a government comprised of three towns.) Such innovations are all the more portentous for not only having transformed a society or the world in their own time and place, but also for having established a new form by which future transformation can occur (they change the template, paralleling in terms of degree of innovation the dimension involving the depth of the transformative algorithm). It is a beautiful irony of history that America’s crowning and defining formative achievement, the drafting of our own remarkable Constitution, draws on a form invented by the founder of Islam, a religion and culture currently (and tragically) reviled by a large faction of very counterproductive Americans.

The invention not just of new instances of a previously existing form, but of new forms entirely, requires more imagination, more willingness to try the seemingly impossible, for not only does it involve confronting a status quo that appears too overwhelming to transform, it also involves doing so in a way that no one before had ever contemplated.

Of course, nothing is ever completely new: There are always predecessors of some kind or another, similar innovations to draw upon. Prior to the Constitution of Medina, there had been written laws, from the Ten Commandments to the legal codes of Hammurabi in Babylonia and Draco in Greece. And prior to these, there had been unwritten laws, reflecting varying degrees of formality and clarity of definition. New forms, new memes, draw on the wealth of material produced previously, amalgamating, synthesizing, innovating on the margins. (See the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for an in-depth exploration of how this process occurs and what it looks like.)

In other words, the degree of inventiveness lies on a continuum, from very marginal modifications of existing forms, to dramatic new departures that explore avenues not yet explored. Revolutions of great magnitude involve a confluence of highly innovative, highly impactful (i.e., algorithmic rather than superficial), and society-or-world-wide changes rooted in a sense of history and the opportunities existing, thresholds arrived at, in a given time and place. I believe that here and now is such a time and place. (Please see Transforming America and the World for a discussion of why and how.)

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(This is the second half of “It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done”, which I decided to break down into two separate posts, the first, Dimensions of Social Change, addressing the dimensions of inventiveness, scope, and intensity by which transformational events or movements can be measured, and the second one, this one, addressing the social movement that I think should be occurring right now, and that I would like to help catalyze, that I think could put into place a nucleus of a deepening and expanding popular commitment to the cultivation of a more rational and more humane society.)

I believe that America today is ripe for a social movement that draws on these understandings, and that promotes a new paradigm for change that can have profound effects over time. We are clearly at a threshold in American history, with two opposing forces reaching a pinnacle of definition and passion. A combination of technological advances (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?), our historical trajectory, and recent historical shocks have placed us in that kind of hyper-activated state that generally precedes major paradigm shifts. There is a clear and real danger that the paradigm shift we might experience will be an odious one, destructive to ourselves and to humanity. But there is also a very real potential, one which must be vigorously embraced, that the paradigm shift we experience will be a laudable one, beneficial to ourselves and to humanity.

But accomplishing the latter requires an authentic act of courage, not just a repetition of our familiar patterns of action and reaction. We need to divert some small fraction of our resources, some of our time and effort and passion, away from the endless urgency of now, away from the particular issues over which we are wrangling, away from the familiar game of electoral politics, and into a truly transformative movement. Politics as usual will continue apace, and it may even be the case that no actual resources, no actual time or effort or passion is diverted from it, since the new movement may well generate new resources, new time and effort and passion, that more than compensates for any that was drawn from existing efforts.

But it’s time for an act of courage and imagination, an act of reaching for what seems to be the impossible but in reality is not (and, in many ways, is more attainable than some of the more superficial goals to which we devote ourselves, because it faces less resistance). It’s time to move along the continuum of inventiveness, and along the continuum of impact (into the depths of our algorithms of change), and transform our society, and our world, in a fundamental way. That may sound dauntingly bold, but it’s been done many times throughout world history, and it’s been done by those who seize the opportunity to do it. Now is such a time. The opportunity is upon us.

To summarize my proposed social movement very briefly: I call it, alternatively, “the politics of reason and goodwill,” or “transcendental politics,” or “holistic politics” (see the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for a more complete explanation and exploration of this idea). I’ll refer to it here as “PRG” (the acronym for “politics of reason and goodwill”). It is as cultural as it is political, recognizing that politics is at root a competition of narratives (see, e.g., The Battle of Narratives, Changing The Narrative, The Dance of Consciousness, and The Politics of Consciousness), and that the most profound political changes are fundamentally cultural in nature. PRG thus bears as much resemblance to cultural (and religious) movements as to political ones, a characteristic common to some of the most successful social movements in our history. (For instance, the Civil Rights Movement had a major religious component, with its leaders and infrastructure being rooted in the southern black church network, and invoking religious symbolism and cadences.)

PRG is comprised of three interrelated components: 1) Meta-messaging, which is the composition, accumulation, and dissemination of messages promoting a commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and pragmatism in service to humanity (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, and Politics Isn’t Everything…, for more in-depth discussion). 2) Specifically tailored community organizations and networks of community organizations, drawing on all of the community organizational material already in place, which are dedicated to promoting civil and open-minded dialogue and a sense of mutual identification and mutual interdependence (See, e.g., Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). And 3) the creation and on-going development and refinement of a system for accessing easily understood competing arguments on all matters of public concern or public policy, filtering them only for the degree to which they are well-reasoned (i.e., peer-review quality) arguments which apply reason to evidence, and ensuring that the goals and interests they purport to serve are made as explicit as possible (see. e.g., The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified and A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How”).

These three components interact in the following ways: The community organizations are a forum designed to draw on the competing reasonable arguments on matters of public interest and concern, while the meta-messaging can be disseminated, in part, through those community organizations as well. The explicit purpose of the community organizations is to celebrate and realize our civic responsibility as citizens of a nation and members of a community (and of humanity), so it makes sense to, for instance, not only designate a time and place to discuss this issue or that, but also to designate a time and place to watch or read, say, A Christmas Carol (or more modern works that explore similar themes), and discuss what lessons it holds for us as citizens and members of communities. This would be a national (or international) movement whose purpose is to increase our commitment to and realization of the application of reason and imagination to the challenges facing humanity, given precise definition and form.

People (such as cognitive scientist George Lakoff in The Political Mind) often argue that people do not generally arrive at their opinions and conclusions through rational contemplation and rational debate, but rather by emotional appeals to their pre-existing frames and narratives. My third component (as I’ve listed them here) seems to fail to recognize this. But PRG is a bit subtler than it seems, and follows a pattern already established by which reason has gained a greater purchase on society than it previously had.

I do not expect that any time in the foreseeable future there will be any large number of people actually belonging to the community organizations envisioned by this movement, or accessing the competing arguments made more accessible by this movement, but I do expect that a small minority doing so will create a nucleus of credibility that will generate an attractive and transformative force beyond that small minority of people. Thus is the nature of successful social movements; they do not start with a society in agreement with their goals, but rather draw a society into agreement with their goals, by appealing to existing frames and narratives in effective ways.

Reason and imagination applied to evidence (and other objects for contemplation) in service to humanity is not just a methodology that a minority might adhere to, but is also a narrative that many already acknowledge the value of. Few in America today would explicitly admit, to themselves or others, that they are irrational and inhumane people. That is not how modern Americans in general would identify themselves. But many are irrational and, to some extent, inhumane people, and I’ve noticed in public discourse that many of them implicitly, just below the threshold of conscious recognition, are vaguely aware of it. That creates a huge opportunity for social change.

By addressing the individual issues or instances of this competition of narratives, we are sucked into the frames that opponents adhere to, and stuck on a treadmill of shouting past each other ineffectually. But by addressing the underlying, agreed-upon values of reason and imagination in service to humanity, we make the ground more fertile for those positions that actually do emanate from these values and this commitment, and less fertile for those that don’t.

We have a compelling historical precedent for how successful this can be: The Scientific Revolution. People may not, in general, be most persuaded by the most rational arguments, but disciplined reason certainly has gained a very powerful and pervasive foothold on global humanity through the evolution of scientific methodology (and the various forms of scholarship that emanate from it) over the past few centuries.

Science has transformed our lives in numerous ways, on numerous levels, including not only the technological advances facilitated by it, but also the social institutional ones. Our own somewhat sanctified Constitution, claimed as the secular holy document guiding those in our nation most obstructive of the influence of reason in service to humanity, is, in fact, a product of Enlightenment thinking, which itself was an extension of the Scientific Revolution into the sphere of rational self-governance.

PRG also builds on historical precedents that are various instances of applying that rationality (and passion and compassion along with it) to the purpose of humanity. Movements which extended rights and protections to those who were denied them, which confronted the use of power to oppress and exploit, which addressed our inhumanity to one another and sought to improve the condition of those born into the least advantageous opportunity structures, are almost universally admired and revered movements in our national and world history. There will inevitably come a time in human history when people will reunite those isolated instances of a commitment to humanity into a comprehensive commitment to humanity, transcending and improving on past attempts to do so, incorporating more modern knowledge and insight into the effort.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time it was ever attempted. The dominant world religions today are rooted, at least formally, in such a commitment, though, again, those who are most obstructive to the movement I am outlining are those who claim to be the most devoted adherents to those religions. But this, while a lesson in the power of hypocrisy, is also a positive portent, for the underlying frames and narratives of compassion and humanity don’t need to be implanted anew; they merely need to be activated for the purposes of recruiting those within reach of persuasion, and marginalizing those beyond that reach. Again, that is the familiar pattern of historical social movements.

So PRG draws on two sets of frames and narratives, two underlying values, already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and already formally almost universally accepted in our nation: Reason and Compassion. The degree to which they are in practice rejected is the challenge we face, but it is a challenge in which we are invited to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, for in the overwhelming majority of cases, irrationality and inhumanity are exercised by people who identify themselves as rational and humane people. A remarkable core of them will remain completely insulated against any intrusion of actual reason, or the demands of actual compassion; but they will play into a growing narrative, that PRG will be consciously cultivating and disseminating, that they are the Philistines of our day, the Scrooges before the transformation, that which we strive to transcend rather than that which we strive to be.

This narrative is not a hard one to cultivate and disseminate. It is favored by reason, and it is favored by humanity. In the long run, as both Martin Luther King Jr. (adapting an earlier quote) and John Maynard Keynes have noted, reason and humanity prevail. It falls upon us to expedite their journey, and avoid the potentially catastrophic eruptions of irrationality and inhumanity that occur during the incessant short-term detours from that path.

PRG is what I see as part of a more general probable trend: The generalization of movements that were incubated in more particular forms and enclaves. Science has grown as something that scientists do, and that we indirectly accept (or resist) as having some authoritative power by virtue of its proven quality for reducing bias and increasing insight. A commitment to humanity is something that has resided semi-dormant and frequently betrayed in our dominant world religions. But its sublimated influence can be seen in the historical (even if constantly embattled and betrayed) commitment to social justice and equality that have helped forge the dominant developed nations of the world. Few would explicitly reject the suggestion that we should all be more rational, or that we should all be more humane. Cultivating that nucleus in intentional ways is the fundamental challenge facing humanity, now and always.

And it is the nature of history that such nuclei expand into general populations in various ways. In ancient civilizations, mathematics was something that a few elites used for elite purposes; now it is something that many use for many purposes. Science began as an esoteric endeavor discussed by philosophers and ignored by others; now it is something that virtually all of us defer to in various ways, even those trying to reject its specific findings are limited to doing so within the logic or language of science itself.

One of the most insidious of inhumanities, racism, which has existed throughout world history, is a discredited form of thought in modern nations, largely now relegated to the most sublimated forms, only able to thrive at all by claiming not to be what it is. Whereas a few short generations ago many would have applauded the lynching of a black man for glancing at a white woman, far fewer would today (perhaps marking progress against sexism as well). More humane memes have indeed gained greater purchase, despite the degree to which malicious ones persist alongside of them.

(I envision something similar for public education, and legal services, and a variety of other social institutional forms: What was once more diffuse, done by individuals and families to the best of their ability, became professionalized, and developed within that context. But there is a next threshold of development that takes that developed form and engages a larger population in the endeavor once again, getting families and communities more involved in the education of our children, and making legal services more accessible to lay people through resources designed to provide them with tools. This alternation of centralization and decentralization, facilitating a coherent progression, is, I think, one of history’s underlying themes.)

The coherent paradigm of social thought and action presented here, and throughout my essays on Colorado Confluence, which lays out the nature of our shared cognitive and social institutional and technological landscape, and considers how to maximize our own ability to affect it in profoundly beneficial ways, is one that can and should guide us far more so, and more intentionally, and with more discipline and focus, than it has.

Human history is the story of human consciousness, of its growth, of its implementations, of its unintended consequences, of its abuses, of its spread and of the forces it puts into play. In the spirit of reaching into underlying algorithms, we need to be conscious about the development and implementation of our consciousness, we need to be intentional about it, we need to use it as a vehicle for its continued growth and continued implementation, not in the haphazard and frequently self-destructive ways to which we are accustomed, but in increasingly focused and intentional ways. We need to realize that just because this particular, quixotically ambitious transformation of reality hasn’t yet occurred does not mean that it can never occur, or that we can’t be the agents for its occurrence.

Forming a social movement similar to PRG is a marginal innovation with potentially world revolutionary implications. It will not change what human beings are, or the underlying nature of our shared existence. But it can, over time, create a force that propels our shared story down dramatically more beneficial channels. And that is what being a human being is all about.

It will continue to seem impossible…, until it has been done.

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

(This is a long one, but please bear with me: It gets to the heart of my project here on Colorado Confluence, that I need others’ help to incubate and realize. This is one of those cases in which someone gets a glimpse of some possibility, a real possibility within the reach of motivated human beings, and passionately wants others to get a glimpse of it as well, so that it can become a part of what defines our future rather than just a forgotten thought that never takes hold.)

I recently posted the following Nelson Mandela quote on several of my Facebook pages: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” One woman commented that it reminds her of the thesis she is trying to finish, which made me think about the different levels to which this quote applies. Certainly, her comment is a fair one, and familiar to most of us: Personal thresholds, challenges, major tasks we are undertaking can feel daunting, even impossible, until they are done.

Many things feel that way, but there is a hierarchy of magnitudes involved that is worth exploring. There are things that require great effort and time and endurance by an individual, that many have done before, such as graduating, or writing a thesis, or passing the Bar Exam. There are things that have never been done before, such as inventing a new device or creating a new organization (that particular device and that particular organization never having existed until created). Even more so, there are things that have never been done before, and affect a whole society. And most of all, there are things that have never been done before, and change the world, dramatically.

To capture some of the nuances and complexities to this formulation, I’d like to conceptualize it along three axes. The first axis is how novel the thing being done is, whether it is just one instance of a familiar form (e.g., writing a thesis), or a relatively new form (e.g., composing a multi-media thesis affecting all of the senses in a coordinated way to achieve a combined aesthetic and intellectual effect). Obviously, there is a range of degrees of possible deviation from the archetype, from minor changes in formatting to major changes in structure and form and function. As the deviation from the archetype grows, the nature of the innovation moves from being quantitative (a change in degree) to being qualitative (a change in kind).

The second axis is the scale of change, in terms of how many humans are (or how big a swath of the natural universe is) affected by it. Finishing a thesis is, generally, a personal milestone, with only a very marginal impact on the world at large. Forming a new government, organizing a successful political or cultural movement, changing long-standing social institutions (hopefully for the better), are all milestones that affect larger populations in more dramatic ways.

The third axis is the depth and breadth of the change thus achieved, not so much in terms of the number of humans affected, but more in terms in the degree to which they are affected. A promotion in a job, for instance, affects one person to one degree, while emancipation from slavery affects one person to a much greater degree. The passage of a new federal law that makes a marginal change in an existing social institution affects a society to one degree, while the drafting of a federal constitution affects the society to a more extensive degree. Again, there is a range on which such impact can occur, from the very marginal to the extremely revolutionary.

One of the ways in which an innovation or movement can have a deeper and broader impact in this last sense is the degree to which it reaches into the algorithms of change, and affects not only the current status quo, but the manner in which status quos themselves are determined. A law, for instance, affects the current status quo, while a Constitution affects how laws are passed and implemented. A scientific discovery affects our current state of knowledge, while the development of scientific methodology affected the manner in which our knowledge is acquired and accumulates. Impact is generally maximized by reaching down into the algorithms of change, and modifying procedures or methodologies by which particular instances of change occur. (See, e.g.,The Algorithms of Complexity, Second-Order Social ChangeThe Variable Malleability of Reality, and The Wizards’ Eye for more exploration of this concept.)

I’m going to focus for the remainder of this essay on society-wide changes of relatively large magnitude, looking initially at the degree of variation in how innovative the changes are (i.e., the first axis). I will end with a reminder of one such proposal I have long been making, that is a social movement aspiring to a rather profound informal change in how we go about governing ourselves (in other words, focused on innovation in the algorithms of change rather than in the particular instances of it), that is rather highly innovative. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, though it may seem impossible, it can be done.

Oversimplifying a bit, there are two kinds of things that have never been done before and change the world: Those that are of a familiar type (those that are of a type that has been done before), and those that are of an unfamiliar type (those of a type that has never been done before). For instance, inventing the car, or airplane, or space ships, or personal and hand held computers, are all things that had never been done before, and changed the world, but were of a familiar type (technological innovation). Similarly, Abolitionism, the Suffragettes, The Civil Rights Movement, past national independence movements, were all things that had not been done before (each nation seeking independence had never sought independence before), but were all of a type that had been done before (movements to extend rights to those who had been denied them, and to secede from superordinate political entities).

There are things that had never been done before, and were of a type that had never been done before. For instance, the Constitution of Medina, drafted in the 7th century by the Prophet Mohamed, is often considered the first written constitution to form a new government in world history. (The first in American history was drafted in Hartford, Connecticut in 1638, forming a government comprised of three towns.) Such innovations are all the more portentous for not only having transformed a society or the world in their own time and place, but also for having established a new form by which future transformation can occur (they change the template, paralleling in terms of degree of innovation the dimension involving the depth of the transformative algorithm). It is a beautiful irony of history that America’s crowning and defining formative achievement, the drafting of our own remarkable Constitution, draws on a form invented by the founder of Islam, a religion and culture currently (and tragically) reviled by a large faction of very counterproductive Americans.

The invention not just of new instances of a previously existing form, but of new forms entirely, requires more imagination, more willingness to try the seemingly impossible, for not only does it involve confronting a status quo that appears too overwhelming to transform, it also involves doing so in a way that no one before had ever contemplated.

Of course, nothing is ever completely new: There are always predecessors of some kind or another, similar innovations to draw upon. Prior to the Constitution of Medina, there had been written laws, from the Ten Commandments to the legal codes of Hammurabi in Babylonia and Draco in Greece. And prior to these, there had been unwritten laws, reflecting varying degrees of formality and clarity of definition. New forms, new memes, draw on the wealth of material produced previously, amalgamating, synthesizing, innovating on the margins. (See the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for an in-depth exploration of how this process occurs and what it looks like.)

In other words, the degree of inventiveness lies on a continuum, from very marginal modifications of existing forms, to dramatic new departures that explore avenues not yet explored. Revolutions of great magnitude involve a confluence of highly innovative, highly impactful (i.e., algorithmic rather than superficial), and society-or-world-wide changes rooted in a sense of history and the opportunities existing, thresholds arrived at, in a given time and place.

I believe that America today is ripe for a social movement that draws on these understandings, and that promotes a new paradigm for change that can have profound effects over time. We are clearly at a threshold in American history, with two opposing forces reaching a pinnacle of definition and passion. A combination of technological advances (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?), our historical trajectory, and recent historical shocks have placed us in that kind of hyper-activated state that generally precedes major paradigm shifts. There is a clear and real danger that the paradigm shift we might experience will be an odious one, destructive to ourselves and to humanity. But there is also a very real potential, one which must be vigorously embraced, that the paradigm shift we experience will be a laudable one, beneficial to ourselves and to humanity.

But accomplishing the latter requires an authentic act of courage, not just a repetition of our familiar patterns of action and reaction. We need to divert some small fraction of our resources, some of our time and effort and passion, away from the endless urgency of now, away from the particular issues over which we are wrangling, away from the familiar game of electoral politics, and into a truly transformative movement. Politics as usual will continue apace, and it may even be the case that no actual resources, no actual time or effort or passion is diverted from it, since the new movement may well generate new resources, new time and effort and passion, that more than compensates for any that was drawn from existing efforts.

But it’s time for an act of courage and imagination, an act of reaching for what seems to be the impossible but in reality is not (and, in many ways, is more attainable than some of the more superficial goals to which we devote ourselves, because it faces less resistance). It’s time to move along the continuum of inventiveness, and along the continuum of impact (into the depths of our algorithms of change), and transform our society, and our world, in a fundamental way. That may sound dauntingly bold, but it’s been done many times throughout world history, and it’s been done by those who seize the opportunity to do it. Now is such a time. The opportunity is upon us.

To summarize my proposed social movement very briefly: I call it, alternatively, “the politics of reason and goodwill,” or “transcendental politics,” or “holistic politics” (see the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for a more complete explanation and exploration of this idea). I’ll refer to it here as “PRG” (the acronym for “politics of reason and goodwill”). It is as cultural as it is political, recognizing that politics is at root a competition of narratives (see, e.g., The Battle of Narratives, Changing The Narrative, The Dance of Consciousness, and The Politics of Consciousness), and that the most profound political changes are fundamentally cultural in nature. PRG thus bears as much resemblance to cultural (and religious) movements as to political ones, a characteristic common to some of the most successful social movements in our history. (For instance, the Civil Rights Movement had a major religious component, with its leaders and infrastructure being rooted in the southern black church network, and invoking religious symbolism and cadences.)

PRG is comprised of three interrelated components: 1) Meta-messaging, which is the composition, accumulation, and dissemination of messages promoting a commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and pragmatism in service to humanity (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, and Politics Isn’t Everything…, for more in-depth discussion). 2) Specifically tailored community organizations and networks of community organizations, drawing on all of the community organizational material already in place, which are dedicated to promoting civil and open-minded dialogue and a sense of mutual identification and mutual interdependence (See, e.g., Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). And 3) the creation and on-going development and refinement of a system for accessing easily understood competing arguments on all matters of public concern or public policy, filtering them only for the degree to which they are well-reasoned (i.e., peer-review quality) arguments which apply reason to evidence, and ensuring that the goals and interests they purport to serve are made as explicit as possible (see. e.g., The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified and A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How”).

These three components interact in the following ways: The community organizations are a forum designed to draw on the competing reasonable arguments on matters of public interest and concern, while the meta-messaging can be disseminated, in part, through those community organizations as well. The explicit purpose of the community organizations is to celebrate and realize our civic responsibility as citizens of a nation and members of a community (and of humanity), so it makes sense to, for instance, not only designate a time and place to discuss this issue or that, but also to designate a time and place to watch or read, say, A Christmas Carol (or more modern works that explore similar themes), and discuss what lessons it holds for us as citizens and members of communities. This would be a national (or international) movement whose purpose is to increase our commitment to and realization of the application of reason and imagination to the challenges facing humanity, given precise definition and form.

People (such as cognitive scientist George Lakoff in The Political Mind) often argue that people do not generally arrive at their opinions and conclusions through rational contemplation and rational debate, but rather by emotional appeals to their pre-existing frames and narratives. My third component (as I’ve listed them here) seems to fail to recognize this. But PRG is a bit subtler than it seems, and follows a pattern already established by which reason has gained a greater purchase on society than it previously had.

I do not expect that any time in the foreseeable future there will be any large number of people actually belonging to the community organizations envisioned by this movement, or accessing the competing arguments made more accessible by this movement, but I do expect that a small minority doing so will create a nucleus of credibility that will generate an attractive and transformative force beyond that small minority of people. Thus is the nature of successful social movements; they do not start with a society in agreement with their goals, but rather draw a society into agreement with their goals, by appealing to existing frames and narratives in effective ways.

Reason and imagination applied to evidence (and other objects for contemplation) in service to humanity is not just a methodology that a minority might adhere to, but is also a narrative that many already acknowledge the value of. Few in America today would explicitly admit, to themselves or others, that they are irrational and inhumane people. That is not how modern Americans in general would identify themselves. But many are irrational and, to some extent, inhumane people, and I’ve noticed in public discourse that many of them implicitly, just below the threshold of conscious recognition, are vaguely aware of it. That creates a huge opportunity for social change.

By addressing the individual issues or instances of this competition of narratives, we are sucked into the frames that opponents adhere to, and stuck on a treadmill of shouting past each other ineffectually. But by addressing the underlying, agreed-upon values of reason and imagination in service to humanity, we make the ground more fertile for those positions that actually do emanate from these values and this commitment, and less fertile for those that don’t.

We have a compelling historical precedent for how successful this can be: The Scientific Revolution. People may not, in general, be most persuaded by the most rational arguments, but disciplined reason certainly has gained a very powerful and pervasive foothold on global humanity through the evolution of scientific methodology (and the various forms of scholarship that emanate from it) over the past few centuries.

Science has transformed our lives in numerous ways, on numerous levels, including not only the technological advances facilitated by it, but also the social institutional ones. Our own somewhat sanctified Constitution, claimed as the secular holy document guiding those in our nation most obstructive of the influence of reason in service to humanity, is, in fact, a product of Enlightenment thinking, which itself was an extension of the Scientific Revolution into the sphere of rational self-governance.

PRG also builds on historical precedents that are various instances of applying that rationality (and passion and compassion along with it) to the purpose of humanity. Movements which extended rights and protections to those who were denied them, which confronted the use of power to oppress and exploit, which addressed our inhumanity to one another and sought to improve the condition of those born into the least advantageous opportunity structures, are almost universally admired and revered movements in our national and world history. There will inevitably come a time in human history when people will reunite those isolated instances of a commitment to humanity into a comprehensive commitment to humanity, transcending and improving on past attempts to do so, incorporating more modern knowledge and insight into the effort.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time it was ever attempted. The dominant world religions today are rooted, at least formally, in such a commitment, though, again, those who are most obstructive to the movement I am outlining are those who claim to be the most devoted adherents to those religions. But this, while a lesson in the power of hypocrisy, is also a positive portent, for the underlying frames and narratives of compassion and humanity don’t need to be implanted anew; they merely need to be activated for the purposes of recruiting those within reach of persuasion, and marginalizing those beyond that reach. Again, that is the familiar pattern of historical social movements.

So PRG draws on two sets of frames and narratives, two underlying values, already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and already formally almost universally accepted in our nation: Reason and Compassion. The degree to which they are in practice rejected is the challenge we face, but it is a challenge in which we are invited to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, for in the overwhelming majority of cases, irrationality and inhumanity are exercised by people who identify themselves as rational and humane people. A remarkable core of them will remain completely insulated against any intrusion of actual reason, or the demands of actual compassion; but they will play into a growing narrative, that PRG will be consciously cultivating and disseminating, that they are the Philistines of our day, the Scrooges before the transformation, that which we strive to transcend rather than that which we strive to be.

This narrative is not a hard one to cultivate and disseminate. It is favored by reason, and it is favored by humanity. In the long run, as both Martin Luther King Jr. (adapting an earlier quote) and John Maynard Keynes have noted, reason and humanity prevail. It falls upon us to expedite their journey, and avoid the potentially catastrophic eruptions of irrationality and inhumanity that occur during the incessant short-term detours from that path.

PRG is what I see as part of a more general probable trend: The generalization of movements that were incubated in more particular forms and enclaves. Science has grown as something that scientists do, and that we indirectly accept (or resist) as having some authoritative power by virtue of its proven quality for reducing bias and increasing insight. A commitment to humanity is something that has resided semi-dormant and frequently betrayed in our dominant world religions. But its sublimated influence can be seen in the historical (even if constantly embattled and betrayed) commitment to social justice and equality that have helped forge the dominant developed nations of the world. Few would explicitly reject the suggestion that we should all be more rational, or that we should all be more humane. Cultivating that nucleus in intentional ways is the fundamental challenge facing humanity, now and always.

And it is the nature of history that such nuclei expand into general populations in various ways. In ancient civilizations, mathematics was something that a few elites used for elite purposes; now it is something that many use for many purposes. Science began as an esoteric endeavor discussed by philosophers and ignored by others; now it is something that virtually all of us defer to in various ways, even those trying to reject its specific findings are limited to doing so within the logic or language of science itself.

One of the most insidious of inhumanities, racism, which has existed throughout world history, is a discredited form of thought in modern nations, largely now relegated to the most sublimated forms, only able to thrive at all by claiming not to be what it is. Whereas a few short generations ago many would have applauded the lynching of a black man for glancing at a white woman, far fewer would today (perhaps marking progress against sexism as well). More humane memes have indeed gained greater purchase, despite the degree to which malicious ones persist alongside of them.

(I envision something similar for public education, and legal services, and a variety of other social institutional forms: What was once more diffuse, done by individuals and families to the best of their ability, became professionalized, and developed within that context. But there is a next threshold of development that takes that developed form and engages a larger population in the endeavor once again, getting families and communities more involved in the education of our children, and making legal services more accessible to lay people through resources designed to provide them with tools. This alternation of centralization and decentralization, facilitating a coherent progression, is, I think, one of history’s underlying themes.)

The coherent paradigm of social thought and action presented here, and throughout my essays on Colorado Confluence, which lays out the nature of our shared cognitive and social institutional and technological landscape, and considers how to maximize our own ability to affect it in profoundly beneficial ways, is one that can and should guide us far more so, and more intentionally, and with more discipline and focus, than it has.

Human history is the story of human consciousness, of its growth, of its implementations, of its unintended consequences, of its abuses, of its spread and of the forces it puts into play. In the spirit of reaching into underlying algorithms, we need to be conscious about the development and implementation of our consciousness, we need to be intentional about it, we need to use it as a vehicle for its continued growth and continued implementation, not in the haphazard and frequently self-destructive ways to which we are accustomed, but in increasingly focused and intentional ways. We need to realize that just because this particular, quixotically ambitious transformation of reality hasn’t yet occurred does not mean that it can never occur, or that we can’t be the agents for its occurrence.

Forming a social movement similar to PRG is a marginal innovation with potentially world revolutionary implications. It will not change what human beings are, or the underlying nature of our shared existence. But it can, over time, create a force that propels our shared story down dramatically more beneficial channels. And that is what being a human being is all about.

It will continue to seem impossible…, until it has been done.

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

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

As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.

As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.

But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)

So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?

Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”

To explore that “lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.

What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).

But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.

What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.

Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.

What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.

In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”

But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.

Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?

This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?

Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.

Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.

If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct “echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?

Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.

We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.

So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.

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The shared human enterprise is multidimensional. Its various dimensions don’t exist in mutual isolation. Each dimension implicates all others. Human efforts and developments within the various dimensions need to articulate with human efforts and developments in all others. Politics can’t be considered without considering economics, and economics can’t be considered without considering technological developments. None can be considered without considering the production and dissemination of ideas and values and understandings and techniques (and the emotional reactions to them), in short, of human cognitions (including emotions).

The evolution of our social institutional and technological landscape is the overarching theme of human history. Wealth is produced and distributed, ideas created and disseminated, wars sparked and fought, buildings designed and built, political forms and processes developed, all due to and through and as an expression and producer of our ever changing social institutional and technological context.

Technological developments pose both opportunities and challenges. They provide new ways, new tools with which, to produce wealth and address problems. But they also create new problems of their own.

The Economist magazine recently provided a glimpse into the immediate future, by exploring some cutting-edge technologies of the present (see http://www.economist.com/node/21552901). Perhaps the most striking aspect of the package of new technologies changing the face of manufacturing is the 3-D printer:

3-D printing is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of “digital manufacturing,” which in turn is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of what can be called an “information technological revolution.” We all are aware of it, but we don’t always incorporate that awareness into our more generalized understandings and strategies. The fact is that the rapid developments in information technologies (i.e., the set of technological innovations that includes computers, the internet, and mobile communications devices that now are hand-held communications and information processing instruments) is transforming our world, and will continue to do so, in dazzlingly dramatic ways.

The impact of this IT Revolution isn’t just that everyone has or soon will have an i-phone, hooked into a global network of thought and information access. It is also that the more generalized processes of conceptualization, communication, creation, development, production and distribution of cognitive material and all of its products is undergoing a major paradigm shift that has deep structural implications that will ripple and reverberate throughout the social institutional and technological landscape in acceleratingly transformative ways.

We’ve seen the first salvos of the political implications in “The Arab Spring” and other geopolitical events and transformations in recent years, with autocratic governmental control of information flows (and thus of populations in general) being eroded by the IT Revolution. We’ve seen it in our own political system, with political organizing and fund-raising and networking enhanced by new tools which favor those who most rapidly become most adept at their utilization (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). We’ve seen it in science and scholarship, starting with the development of “Chaos Theory” in the early days of modern computers, and growing from there into an accelerating transformation of our understanding of the nature of the world of which we are a part (including the evolutionary ecology of the social institutional and technological landscape itself; see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Now we are seeing it in how we create, produce, and distribute the material manifestations of human existence, the machines and commodities and, in general, the “stuff” of our lives.

What does this all mean for those of us who are most consciously engaged in the human enterprise, who are committed to working with others similarly committed to do the best we can in service to humanity? It means we need to start thinking in new ways, ready to utilize new tools. We need to develop new paradigms that incorporate all of this massive information, these massive changes in the processes that comprise our shared existence, this threshold through which we are passing, and address the future not just as an economic challenge narrowly conceived (as some do), and not just as a technological challenge narrowly conceived (as others do), and not just as a political challenge narrowly conceived (as still others do), and not just as a scientific or scholarly challenge narrowly conceived (as still others more do), but as an integrated challenge incorporating all of these together.

One of the lagging components of the paradigm shift we are undergoing (perhaps always the lagging component in all historical paradigm shifts) is the intentional or organic integration of its various parts for maximum human benefit (see, for instance, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve, for a discussion of the need to better integrate and articulate the products of our scholarship across disciplines). This is where the crucial challenge lies: How do we gather together these various threads of thought and innovation, and synthesize and channel them most effectively for human benefit?

One of the common threads emerging from the IT Revolution is coherent decentralization. Our ability to publish, network, and organize (social media and the blogosphere), to be vigilant (see Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), to raise funds (see Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”), and political and economic collaboration in general (see Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed). But it’s not just augmented multi-lateral communications in play, but simultaneously augmented information processing (e.g., the data analysis function of computer technology), and now, the direct translation of information into its physical manifestations (i.e., production and construction). 3-D printers enable anyone anywhere to manipulate the design of an object digitally, integrating mass production and custom design into a single technology, and to manufacture that object remotely, for anyone else anywhere else, on demand.

One of the central implications of our current technological trajectory is that the demand for human labor will be increasingly a demand for highly trained, technically proficient, information-intensive labor. Humans will be more and more relegated to doing the tasks for which humans have –and will long have– a unique comparative advantage over any devices we can invent, and that is in our highest levels of cognitive functioning, in our imaginations and creativity, in our unique human consciousness. Increasingly, developing that consciousness as something more than a set of mechanical skills that can be sold on the labor market will not only be what feeds our souls, but also what imbues us with what will increasingly be the only asset for which there will be a future demand on that same labor market: Brilliant, imaginative, inventive, creative minds.

There will never be a shortage of opportunities for minds thus developed, but there will increasingly be a shortage of opportunities for everyone else. In a society and world where we haven’t yet met the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of the past century, meeting the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of this imminent and in many ways already present future poses an urgent, imperative challenge to us as a society.

This is nothing less than a revolution in the speed and agility of our technologically augmented collective consciousness, and in the speed and agility of our ability to translate that consciousness into action and objects, into wealth and welfare, into opportunity and the accelerating realization of human potential. But it also poses daunting challenges, challenges in how we prepare people to contribute to and participate in this production of wealth, and how we cope with the inequities and inhumanities that will result to the extent of our failure to do so.

There is so much dazzling new cognitive material currently flourishing in our shared cognitive landscape, a garden of possibilities bearing rich new fruits to be picked. But it is through their constant cross-fertilization, through the interweaving of their various vines, that the richest and most abundant fruits will be produced. The future is hanging low on the boughs of human consciousness, of imagination and innovation. We need to stop waiting for its fruits to fall on us of their own accord, and reach up and grap them with conscious intent and design, because, by doing so, we increase their value and quantity. When it comes to human consciousness and all of its products, it is through the act and intentionality of harvesting it that we most effectively cultivate it.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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.

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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.

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