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Writers and rebels, earnest young activists, starry-eyed romantics and unrequited lovers all have one thing in common: They yearn. Yearning, untempered by reason and humor, is pathological, the author of many unnecessary tragedies and many lonely, painful lives. But reason, and even humor, untempered by yearning is empty and often cruel, the stuff of a heartless and oppressive existence. Yearning is pain, but its absence is not pleasure; it’s absence is soullessness.

The early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber wrote much about the rationalization of society, its evolutionary force, its greater efficiencies, but also the trap that it sets for us. It is, Weber said, an iron cage, from which we cannot escape. Like the people caught in the cogs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the savage trapped in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or McMurphy lobotomized as he flew over Ken Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest, the machine of society eats us alive.

But these all emphasize how that oppressive force is imposed from without, at most glancingly alluding to the way in which it is accepted from within. The Frankfurt School of Sociology, synthesizing Weber, Marx and Freud, and perhaps a touch of Sartre as well, into something richer and more insightful than any of their paradigms were on their own, came closest to focusing on this dynamic, on this internalization of the seductively oppressive machine which envelopes us. But, if anything, they erred by underestimating its real benefits, and the difficulty of preserving those benefits while minimizing its spiritual costs.

The machine is neither bad nor good in and of itself. It is a robust producer of wealth, in ways that evaporate if that machine is dismantled. But without spiritual and emotional yearning to give that machine its soul, the comfort it offers is the comfort of a living death.

Long before authors and philosophers shined their light on the machine which encompasses us, they shined their light on the poetry of our existence. Humanity’s first epic stories, indeed, our first philosophies, were epic poems, with loving and angry gods favoring and disfavoring our struggling heroes, magic and monsters enchanting and challenging them, glory or horrible failure always in the balance, neither certain, either one possible.

The Hercules we’ve forgotten in our Disneyfied distillation of world folklore and mythology was a violent hot-head who murdered his entire family in a fit of divinely-imposed rage and died in horrible agony by donning a poisoned cloak. And yet he was one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. Heroes before the machine weren’t sanitized human beings who we loved because we wrote them without flaws, but rather were yearning human beings trapped in the passions of existence, who we loved despite their flaws.

This classical humanism, celebrating the complex beauty of human existence, was reborn in the Renaissance, after Europe’s Medieval excursion into a world imaginarily reduced to saints and sinners, nobles and peasants, chivalrous knights and infidel villains. Shakespeare knew that all the world’s a stage, and we but actors upon it. He knew that we were just spirits, and that our cloud-capped towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples all appear and disappear in a dance of our creation and time’s destruction.

Of course, in every time and place there is, in reality, a bit of both forces at work, the forces of repression and the forces of liberation, the former sometimes co-opting the latter’s name (as in our own current time and place). There are always those engaged in the dance of consciousness and aspiration, and always those engaged in the implicit opposition to it. But a time and place, a culture, is defined by the balance among these two, by which is more honored and which is more reviled.

The real project of modernity, the real goal of progress, is not to honor one and revile the other, but rather to appreciate the value of each, and the best ways to articulate the two. Strange as it may sound, repression isn’t all bad and poetry isn’t all good, but, though we don’t understand that, we still manage to err on the side of too much repression and too little poetry.

I contrast “repression” with “poetry” rather than “liberty” because liberty, real liberty, is a function of a blend of repression and poetry, not the complete absence of either. I am not now using the word “liberty” in the narrow political sense born of the late 18th century Enlightenment era political revolutions, but rather in the sense of the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles that we impose on it. Ironically, that narrowly defined political “liberty” has evolved into an ideology which stands largely in opposition to that more profound spiritual liberation, a vehicle of spiritual repression rather than of spiritual liberation, negating what should and could be the ultimate goal of our existence, insisting on the contraction of human consciousness and the dominance of extreme individualism rather than the ever-increasing realization of our humanity.

But that subtler, deeper liberation of the human spirit, something accomplished not just in mutual isolation, nor just in concert, but rather a bit of both, requires both the repression of mutually imposed discipline and responsibility, and the poetry of passionate yearning and a tolerant appreciation of one another’s humanity.

Though our prevalent ideology rhetorically dismisses repression as an unmitigated evil, it actually embraces it in practice as an unmitigated good, for we live in a time and place that smirks at the poetry of life, and believes only in the machine. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing the government, but the two are far from synonymous, government sometimes counterbalancing other parts of the machine in ways which reduce its oppressiveness. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing corporate capitalism, but those two, as well, are far from synonymous, corporate capitalism being a vital part of the drama of life, and the government we invoke to oppose it really not all that poetic itself.

And there are those who think they oppose the machine by belonging to enterprises, often nonprofits, that work toward reform, but, unless their minds liberate themselves from the machine as well, unless they appreciate the value of yearning and the poetry of life, they, too, are trying to change the machine by being the machine, and the changes, though they may be beneficial, will not be revolutionary. 

But to the extent that all of these sectors do comprise aspects of the machine, that does not mean that our duty is to oppose them. Our duty, rather, is to make them all more subservient to our souls, to our poetry, to our spiritual and emotional yearnings. We do not cure the machine by being the machine; we do not humanize one part merely by championing an equally dehumanized counterpart. And to do that, to champion more poetry to invigorate and humanize the machine on which we depend and which we should not strive to discard or dismantle, we need to be conscious of the ways in which our current algorithms, our current methodologies, serve efficiency at the expense of imagination, and, by doing so, actually reduce efficiency in the process.

The poetry of life isn’t just a necessary component of our humanity; it’s also a contributing factor to our efficiency and effectiveness. Weber’s iron cage of rationality presupposed that ever-increasing rationality, in the sense of an ever-more machine-like existence, is an unstoppable evolutionary force because it produces ever-increasing efficiency, but we’ve seen much evidence that there is a point of diminishing returns, a point at which more liberation of human imaginations yields more productive outcomes, and too much regimentation diminishes rather than increases the full realization of even our narrow economic potential, let alone our human potential more broadly conceived.

We waste our valuable human resources, our valuable consciousness, by assigning only those who satisfy our check lists of qualifications to the tasks to which those checklists apply, and relegating those who are less well regimented to the margins of society, where their often extraordinary potential is simply wasted, and their lives unfulfilled. Businesses and nonprofits, enterprises of all sorts, need to look beyond their checklists, need to look beyond the machine of which they are a part, and consider the less easily reducible qualities that some could bring to their endeavors. The gains in productivity and creativity would be enormous.

The poetry of life is a value too little considered, too poorly understood, too infrequently invoked and cultivated. It cannot replace the machine, for poetry does not put food on the table. But the machine cannot replace it, for mere economic production does not satisfy the yearnings of the heart and soul. Nor does economic production achieve maximum efficiency when the poetry of our lives is completely disregarded, for that poetry, that imaginative, yearning, passionate aspect of who and what we are, is a creative force, one which has practical implications and benefits when harnessed to that purpose.

We do not exist merely to exist. Our consciousness allows us to pursue purpose, and that purpose can and should be more than mere prosperity, mere political liberty, mere participation in the rationalized mechanisms of our collective existence. The growth of our consciousness, of our compassion, of our wisdom, and of our ability to take care of one another and offer one another opportunities to yearn meaningfully and functionally, to sustain ourselves both materially and emotionally, to discover the full depth and breadth of our humanity, is something truly worth living for.

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As I play with my Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Colorado-Confluence/151536731532344), selecting interests and organizations and historical figures to “like” in an attempt to convey the universe of ideas and efforts that I believe we are called upon to try to weave together into coherent wholes; and as I survey my accumulating corpus of posts, wondering how to convey their underlying integrity; and as I struggle with the challenges of my personal life, of unemployment, of seeking a new career advancing this general cause of humanity, and of a wife and daughter who depend on me; I feel the full brunt of both the hope and despair that life serves up in such generous portions.

That is really what this blog, and my life, are all about. The many themes of the blog are all facets of a single orientation, an orientation that includes conceptual and practical dimensions, one that seeks understanding from a variety of angles, and a refinement of our collective ability to both accelerate the growth and deepening of our understanding and improve our ability to implement that understanding in ways which cultivate ever-increasing quality and humanity in our lives.

“Quality” is an interesting word, one explored in subtle ways in Robert Pirsig’s iconic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The debate over what it means is, in many ways, at the heart of our political struggles. Does the quality of life require attention to social justice and material human welfare, or merely attention to individual liberty (narrowly defined as “freedom from state sponsored coercion”)? Does it require intergenerational justice, foresight and proactive attention to probable future problems, or merely short-sighted, individualistic service to immediate needs and wants? Does it have any collective and enduring attributes, or is it merely something in the moment, to be grasped now without regard for future consequences?

One of the difficulties of addressing these questions and their political off-shoots is the differing frames and narratives upon which people rely. But one of the most significant differences in frames and narratives is the one between those that would ever even identify frames and narratives as a salient consideration, and those that are trapped in narrower, shallower, and more rigid conceptualizations of reality. In other words, the most basic ideological divide isn’t between “right” and “left,” but between “aspiring to be more conscious” and “complacent with current consciousness.” To put it more simply, the divide is between those who recognize that they live in an almost infinitely complex and subtle world and those who think that it is all really quite simple and clear.

The social movement that we currently lack, and that we always most profoundly require, is the social movement in advocacy of the deepening of our consciousness, not just as an abstract or self-indulgent hobby, but as the essence of the human enterprise, and the most essential tool in service to our ability to forever increase our liberty and compassion and wisdom and joy, here and elsewhere, now and in the future.

This blog employs what I’ll coin “Coherent Eclecticism” in service to that aspiration. No branch or form of human thought is dismissed, no aspect of the effort denied, no wrinkle or subtlety ignored, to the fullest extent of our individual and collective ability. That does not mean that Coherent Eclecticism treats all ideas and opinions as equal, but rather as equally meriting the full consideration of our reason and imagination and compassion. We start with as few assumptions as possible, revisit conclusions not carefully enough examined, and dedicate ourselves to the refinement of those procedures and methodologies, individually and collectively, that best serve the goal of distilling all thought and action into the wisest, most liberating, most compassionate, and most useful concoction possible.

Coherent Eclecticism implies that apparent contradictions and incompatibilities may not be, that “realism” and “idealism” (the philosophy), “cynicism” and “idealism” (the attitude), aspects of conservatism and aspects of progressivism, religion and science, imagination and reason, aesthetics and practicality, may all be nodes in a coherent whole, may all serve a single vision and single aspiration. But it is not the arbitrary glomming together of disparate elements; rather, it is the careful articulation of subtly integral elements, the realization of coherence in complexity, of systems subtler and richer than our minds can ever quite fully grasp.

As I briefly describe at the beginning of The Politics of Consciousness, this is one aspect of Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory of “paradigm shifts,” the notion that accumulating anomalies within a coherent understanding lead to a focus on the resolution of those anomalies and a deepening of the understanding, often reconciling what had been apparently contradictory views. One excellent modern example involves The Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory in physics. Throughout the 20th century, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics had both proven themselves indispensable theoretical tools for understanding the subtleties and complexities of our physical universe, and yet they were apparently incompatible, addressing different kinds of phenomena, but essentially contradicting one another. String Theory has, to a large extent, reconciled that apparent incompatibility with a subtler mathematical model that transcends and encompasses both of its predecessors.

I describe this general phenomenon in fictional terms in The Wizards’ Eye, metaphorically synthesizing Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts with Eastern Philosophical notions of Enlightenment or Nirvana, describing a process which leads us into deeper and deeper understandings that are simultaneously rational and spiritual, reductionist and holistic, “noisy” and meditative. The narrative itself reconciles the forms of fiction and exposition, and the realms of Eastern Mysticism and Western Philosophy of Science.

Coherent Eclecticism is apparent, too, in the range of essays and narratives I’ve published on this blog, often seeming to inhabit completely separate realms, but always coalescing into a coherent vision when examined as a whole. The social theoretical essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts may seem at first glance to have little or no connection to the social movement essays in the second box, but, without trying, the threads that weave them together have gradually begun to appear. The most recent addition to the first box is Emotional Contagion, which identifies how the cognitive/social institutional dynamics described in posts such as The Fractal Geometry of Social Change have an emotional element to them. Among the earliest entries to what is now the second box, pulling together the essays that developed and now describe “the politics of reason and goodwill” (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified), are essays that explored that emotional contagion in current political activism, and the importance of being careful about what emotions we are spreading (see, e.g.,  The Politics of Anger and The Politics of Kindness).

These first two sets of essays, those in the box labelled “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems,” and those in the box labelled “the politics of reason and goodwill,” form together the overarching structure of the “coherently eclectic” paradigm developing on this blog. But the other boxes, with their various other focuses, fill in that framework, add other kinds of meat to those bones, get into the details of specific policy areas and specific ideological orientations and specific social and political phenomena, articulating those details with the overarching paradigm that organizes and channels them. And the fictional vignettes and poems celebrate the beauty and wonder of the entirety.

It’s quite a giddy thing to participate in, this dance of consciousness of ours. It is, when you get right down to it, both the means and the ends of all of our aspirations and efforts.

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(The following is a modified excerpt from my novel A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology).

The Vaznallam faces wavered and vanished, like images in a pond dispelled by a pebble. Algonion found himself alone in the spherical chamber, surrounded by diffuse light and geometric symmetry; alone in a sanitized asylum devoid of warmth. He lay there on his back in the hard, cold curve of unmelting ice…, in what he thought may well be his tomb, still weak and starving, not knowing what his fate would be, supposing it would be death. But time dragged on, hours, days, weeks, he couldn’t tell, and instead of dying he grew stronger, until he gradually emerged from his morbid stupor. Still too weak to rise, he gradually realized that, miraculously, he was being nourished by the very air he breathed, as though it were the Earth’s own breath reviving him.

Whether the Vaznallam decided to make a pet of him, or a curiosity for study, or had in fact discarded him from their thoughts altogether, his small enclosure, perhaps merely resounding with residual vibrations, undertook his education. At first he mistook it for torture.

It began when his body was still weak.  He noticed, through the throbbing in his head, that the triangular panels were no longer the translucent white of ice, but rather softly violet. Then, gradually, indigo. The headache grew worse. Then blue. Still worse. Then green. He turned away and closed his eyes, trying to understand the relationship between the shifting colors of the panels and his pain, and as he did so, his physical distress lessened. He looked again and saw yellow, and eased his anguish more by trying to guess the next color. Closing his eyes, he considered the sequence, and with a sense of discovery realized the answer was orange, replacing the now mild discomfort with a surge of euphoria. But when he looked, the panels were resolving into differentiated colors, an interspersion of red and violet, and the agony blossomed anew.

Each time he resumed his effort to solve the puzzle of the pattern, the discomfort gradually eased, giving way to pleasure when he succeeded. But when he looked to confirm his success, a more complex pattern than expected appeared, along with the return of pain. And so again and again, always such that the solution logically followed from the entire sequence, from translucent white to the most recent arrangement. But each time, the pattern proved itself to be subtler than expected in the very moment of its resolution.

Meanwhile, sounds filled the air, or his mind, a scale at first, that, like the walls, demanded resolution. He hummed or chanted the solution, the next tones in the sequence, only to reveal that the progression was always more complex than the one he had discerned. This continued as he regained his strength, the only way to relieve the suffering being to solve the patterns, though no solution was sufficient. Thus motivated, he solved them ever more rapidly, heightening their complexity all the while, his mind anticipating the increasingly intricate patterns of light and sound, his body emitting the tones and timbres demanded of him.

These two challenges were all that occupied him. Until he was strong enough to move.

Without ever allowing himself to be distracted from the riddles of sound and sight, he noticed a stiffness gradually growing in his limbs. The cramp eased a little as he rose, balancing himself in the curve of the ball, and a little more as he stretched, but came back more forcefully when he sat, and even more so when he tried to recline. He rose again, and found that certain movements provided more relief than others, some approaching physical gratification. As with the patterns of color and tone, each solution, avoiding streams of pain and encountering those of pleasure, revealed a more complex puzzle, continually refining his movements.

He was soon using the entire inner surface of his cell, stepping and rolling along the curve, turning and twisting in the air, gravity always seeming to migrate toward where he made contact, as though the globe were rotating beneath him, as though it rolled to and fro along a larger curve in which it was lodged. Sometimes he evoked aspects of nature; a stalking cat, a swaying tree, an uncoiling serpent, a blossoming flower. As he perfected the forms, or as they perfected him, he almost began to feel that he was becoming these things, that his limbs were leafy and supple with sap, his body as lithe as a jungle predator’s.

These pushes and pulls swept him along, as though he were being carried by a current which flowed unseen. At first he resented the manipulations, thinking what a fool he was to let himself be made to dance on Vaznallam strings. But the thought itself provoked unease, as did all thoughts other than the ongoing resolution of the sensory riddles, until his mind was empty but occupied, focused only on the progression of patterns.

At last he accepted the forces that were moving him, for he understood that he had always been moved by such forces. He had always, in a sense, pursued pleasure and avoided pain, even when subtly so, when the pleasure was self-sacrifice in aid of others; when the pain was knowledge that indulgence today would cost too much tomorrow. Whether in mundane or extraordinary circumstances, he had always responded to a world not of his own making, in ultimately predictable ways. But now, mind and body flowing with the deepest and purest of currents, it was not the chimera of freedom that he sought, but rather the grace of surrender….

Algonion’s dance of mind and body melted his own shell of illusions. As he had continued to discern the sequences by which the patterns changed, he began to discover the pattern by which those sequences themselves changed, this subtler pattern evolving as well according to a pattern of its own, and so on, propelling him into ever deeper currents, constantly approaching the essence underlying them all.

The walls of his cell had long since ceased to exist, or ceased to matter. The sounds and patterns and sensually charged air converged, filling the space surrounding and permeating him. He merged with the tiny triangles of swiftly flowing colors, with the tapestry of tones and tendrils of tactility that he emitted and moved to, anticipating them into the limits of complexity, feeling rather than calculating each next instant. He found himself immersed in a blissful space, a woven effervescence of light and sound and sense. He would never have thought of leaving, perhaps never have thought at all, if not for Sarena’s dreams calling him back. For he suddenly felt her more intensely than ever before, felt her amidst the flowing configurations, a presence so compelling that it awoke him from his trance. And as it did so, the Paths opened up to him, the currents that course everywhere, along more dimensions than merely those of time and space.

He perceived surfaces within surfaces, forms within forms, particles in motion and the structures they comprised. He saw beyond his enclosure, saw that his small sphere rested inside a larger one, tracing intricate designs in the shallow bowl of the latter’s base. And he had glimpses of the past and future as well, some of which he knew Sarena would eventually share; currents surging through myriad possibilities, the stronger the possibility, the stronger the current, forming endless variations of the ellipse of life; some spiralling off into extinction, some drawing together into a single point of light.

He saw the streams that had joined to form him…, the trickle of his early life suddenly fed by gushing streams, a confluence of currents….

(See “Flesh Around A Whim” for a later adventure of Algono’s, in which the chaos of nature’s imps puts this training to the test, and takes it to a whole new level. Also: The Hollow Mountain, The Cloud Gardener, and Prelude to “A Conspiracy of Wizards”, The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”.)

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There is a Buddhist story that when the Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree, his choice to continue to live as a human being was due to his recognition that there are two levels of enlightenment: That which is achieved by the individual, and that which can be achieved by humanity. The first is incomplete without the second. However one takes this story, whether literally or allegorically, the meaning is the same: There is an ideal to which we aspire, that perhaps defies clear definition but that we know exists. We implicitly recognize it whenever we strive to excel for the sake of excelling, whether in sports, or academics, or any other sphere of life. But true excellence, as Isaac Newton noted of his own genius, always “stands on the shoulders of giants.” Or, perhaps more precisely, of one giant, the giant that is the collective genius of a civilization (see The Genius of the Many and The Hollow Mountain).

Many people may conceptualize “human potential” as an individualistic concept, a thing that individuals achieve, individually. In reality, like the human mind itself, it is a collective aspiration, achievable only through our social unity. Even the most individualistic of achievements, such as running the fastest 100 meter dash, or jumping the highest or longest, is a feat built from the techniques and training that involve both people engaged in the same endeavor over time, and the transmission of their knowledge to and through the individual who excels.

But not only are most sports team sports, the mind itself is a team mind. We think in languages, mobilizing concepts, in communication with others, all of which are the product of a collective human history. My mind, like all others, is defined by a combination of genes and memes, most of which are broadly shared, and are only marginally individuated in me (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). Even our minds are, in the final analysis, mostly common property. The question, therefore, is not so much how we each might excel individually, but rather how we all might excel together.

To a great extent, the processes by which this happens are organic and unintentional. Human history has produced a proliferation of techniques, of refinements, of “progress.” Not all of it is beneficial, and not all chapters of the story have been laudable, but it is certainly arguable that, on balance, we have stumbled toward various improvements in the quality of life, at least in certain limited regions, and by certain limited criteria. But intentionality plays a role as well; the intentionality that led to the development of scientific methodology, and the intentionality that led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, for examples. Such intentionality in our shared enterprise is always, essentially, political in nature.

The question then becomes: What is the political meaning and process of “realizing human potential”? In a political context, what we normally think of as “human potential,” of excelling in various kinds of endeavors, is less an end in itself than a means to an end. Certainly, there is a certain euphoria attached to excelling, whether athletically, academically, artistically, professionally, or in some other kind of skill or endeavor, but it is really in how this excellence is applied that its political and social significance begins to become clear. Also, other kinds of “excellence” are brought into the discussion: excellence in kindness, in dedication, in mobilizing people, in leadership, and in performing myriad small and mundane tasks that contribute to human welfare. Mere individual “excellence,” in and of itself, is a paltry form of realizing human potential, a source of individual gratification and public entertainment. But excellence in contributing to our human endeavor, in liberating our collective genius, and in increasing our collective welfare, is a catalyst of something far greater.

In one sense, realizing our individual and collective “potential” is the goal, as well as the means to achieving it, for fragments of the greatest joy can be achieved through the expression of our humanity to the fullest possible extent in one field of endeavor, whether as dedicated humanitarians, phenomenal athletes, brilliant scholars, or visionary artists. But the whole, the compilation of those fragments, requires a balance among the various aspects of our humanity, and a balance between a focus on individual and collective excellence. Through this lens, working together to satisfy human needs, augment opportunities, and enrich lives is merely one aspect of the goal that “human potential” encompasses, but it is the most basic and fundamental aspect, the one upon which the rest is built.

To excel in our individual contributions to our collective genius and collective welfare, we have to understand the arena in which we are operating. Political ideological space can be plotted along three dimensions: 1) a commitment to the improvement of the human condition; 2) a commitment to ideological certainties; 3) a commitment to crude self or localized interest. Most of us are comprised of some mixture of these three, and are thus located within this space in an area that is defined by the intersection of our “values” along each of these three dimensions.

The first dimension involves liberating the genius of the many (i.e., improving the processes by which the products of human genius are produced), but also mobilizing that genius to our collective welfare. In other words, it is comprised of both “effectiveness” (how well we accomplish our goals) and “social responsibility” (the extent to which our individual goals serve the general welfare). “Effectiveness” is the quality all purposive actors want to permeate the processes by which they do things, and “social responsibility” is the quality all socially responsible people want to permeate the substantive goals of what they are doing. I will refer to these two qualities as “functional rationality” (how well we accomplish what we set out to accomplish) and “substantive rationality” (how well what we set out to accomplish servies human welfare). 

The second dimension is comprised of all of the simplifications that our minds rely on, all of the accepted certainties that we variously gravitate to and refrain from reexamining. This is not something that can be eliminated: The world is too complex, our minds too limited, and our time and attention too constrained to allow us to be perfectly “open minded” on a continuous basis. In fact, such perfect open-mindedness is dysfunctional, erasing past mental processes that had arrived at conclusions and understandings in order to leave them forever in question, forestalling any cumulative progress in our understandings by removing the previous steps taken toward such process. So, part of the challenge of not letting the second dimension pre-empt the first one is in very carefully selecting that which we considered settled, using processes that increase rather than decrease both the functional and substantive rationality of our individual cognitive landscapes.

The third dimension is ever-present. We each, almost without exception, are more concerned for our own welfare, and for the welfare of those closest to us, than we are with the welfare of others with whom we have little or no direct connection. It is true that we are hard-wired for empathy and cooperation, and that our own individual welfare depends on at least some commitment to the welfare of others, even independenly of how that commitment may materially benefit us. But we clearly are not a fundamentally altruistic species, else we would be unable to endure the gross inequities that those reading this are benefiting from. Self-interest is a real and significant dimension of our shared existence.

The precise location of any individual doctrine within this political ideological space can be contentious. For example, “Libertarianism,” if fervently adhered to, would be located far along the “ideological certainty” and “self-interest” axes. But libertarians also make arguments about the social value of extreme individualism. Therefore, it’s precise location along the “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” axis is a subject of debate. But, to the extent that any doctrine retains a high “ideological certainty” value, it’s “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” value is correspondingly reduced, because rather than subject the doctrine to the crucible of reason in service to that goal, it is adhered to as a thing unto itself. Therefore, the dimension of “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” requires freeing oneself from ideological certainties, and focusing instead on this goal which they may purport to serve.

In other words, adherence to substantive doctrines is in a tension with one’s commitment to improving the human condition, yet is a requirement of cognitive economics. And maximizing our commitment to the general welfare requires recognizing our degree of self-interest. A major challenge for those most committed to improving the human condition is how to reconcile these competing demands. Meeting this challenge is served by focusing on the development of disciplines, individual and collective procedures that those who truly want to improve the human condition attempt to adhere to, in order to maximize both the effectiveness of their efforts, and the wisdom of the goals we identify as serving the ultimate goal of robust, sustainable, and fairly distributed human welfare. (See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a discussion of how to go about doing this).

Simplifying the above discussion a bit, we are all either trying to make the world kinder and more rational, or are pursuing more foolish (usually blindly ideological) goals, or are behaving indifferently or antagonistically to the welfare of others. Most of us are defined by some mixture of these three. The question, for those of us who are consciously committed to improving the general welfare, is how to increase in ourselves and others our individual and shared commitment to reason (functional and substantive rationality) and goodwill (in service to the general welfare).

Some people balk at one or both of these values, believing “reason” to be either unattainable or undesirable, and “goodwill” expressed in public policy to be either an affront to “liberty” or a ceding of power to the enemy. But if we clearly define “reason” to mean most effectively acting in accord with and in service to the welfare of those we care about, and “goodwill” to mean either caring about all others or, at least, preferring our actions and choices to assist rather than obstruct others in their efforts to serve the interests of those they care about, then the vast majority of people will claim either to be, or to be striving to be, or to agree that we all should strive to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

That is the foundation on which we can build. We need a movement that recognizes that our current ideological balkanization does not serve these values, even if each is convinced that their own personal ideological convictions do. At stake is how well or poorly we meet the challenges of our shared endeavor.

The gap between our current capabilities for more robustly, sustainably, and fairly producing and distributing “human welfare” (a concept which includes material wealth, physical and mental well-being, and the various elements of a rich and fulfilling life) and our realization of those capabilities is a challenge to which all reasonable people of goodwill should address themselves. Those of us most committed to closing that gap need to step back from the endless urgency of now, and from the specific issues on which we each may be working, and ask ourselves how to create, implement, and maintain the most effective movement possible for closing the gap between what is and what can be.

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