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(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.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(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.

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(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.

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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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It’s not possible to fully understand American politics without understanding the language that is employed in political discourse, and how the terms are defined by those who use them. Interestingly, one American political faction has come to define all terms as precisely the opposite of what the rest of us have long understood them to mean.

Whereas some people, for instance, think that the word “liberty” refers to a lack of infringement on freedom of thought and action, and lack of intrusion on privacy, careful observation of how those on the Right use it reveals that we have all been mistaken all these years. Apparently, it really means:

1) allowing members of the dominant race, ethnicity, religion, and sex to impose their will on all others and to protect the privileges inherited from a history of oppressing and exploiting others;

2) facilitating the displacement of political power from the people, through their elected representatives, to private corporations unhindered by democratic processes or public accountability;

3) ensuring that individuals are as unprotected as possible from the greatest threats to their well-being, posed by organized others in service to an obscenely inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, while simultaneously ensuring that we react as vindictively and counterproductively as possible toward the impoverished and destitute;

4) fetishizing both privately owned instruments of violence and nationally organized acts of violence (as long as the perpetrator of the latter is one’s own nation); and

5) insisting on policies that have led to the incarceration of the highest percentage of any national population, and the highest absolute number of people, of any nation on Earth, bar none (making the United States, in the most literal sense, the least free nation on Earth).

More specifically, “liberty,” apparently, is a value which dictates that

1) Adherents of Islam who have engaged in no crimes nor done anything to draw suspicion should be placed under covert surveillance and have dossiers dedicated to them in order to ensure that any crimes they might commit in the future are pre-empted (otherwise known as ”Ethnically and Religiously Exclusive Liberty,” or, more simply, “Police State Liberty”);

2) Impoverished people who migrate toward greater opportunity without governmental permission, or the children of such people who migrated with them as infants, should be rounded up and placed in detention centers, often subjected to poorly maintained facilities and poor treatment, until such time as they can be forcibly removed from the “land of opportunity” to which they migrated (Otherwise known as “Geographically Exclusive Liberty,” or “Fortress America Liberty,” or “‘If You’re Lucky’ Liberty”);

3) Women should be reduced to the legal status of human incubators, with no rights over their own bodies once they become impregnated, whether by their own choice or by force (otherwise known as “‘You’re a Toaster’ Liberty”); and

4) People who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex should be denied the kinds of legally and socially defined rights that those who are attracted to people of the opposite sex enjoy, because it as an affront to the ideal of “liberty” not to discriminate against those who are different from you in any significant way (otherwise known as “‘Liberty as long as we white Christian heterosexuals are okay with how you use it, but otherwise, not so much’ Liberty”).

5) Each of us has a God-given right to leave our home packing heat and looking for people to defend ourselves against, decide that an unarmed black teen in a hoodie innocently walking home from the store is just such a person, pursue them and initiate an altercation that leads to the armed person out looking for trouble shooting to death the unarmed black teen walking home from the store, and then complain bitterly whenever anyone points out that maybe, just maybe, that teen’s right to his life was greater than the shooter’s right to go out looking for people to “defend” himself against.

This imaginative definition of “liberty” is reminiscent of how this political faction’s historical predecessors used the word. For instance, John C. Calhoun, the famous Antebellum Southern politician, used the word “liberty” to refer to the freedom to own slaves, and “minority” to refer to those who believed that they had an inalienable right to own slaves, and was very strongly committed to protecting the rights and liberties of that embattled minority. In other words, to these neo-nullifcation-doctrine adherents, liberty means “my freedom to screw everyone else.”

Similarly, the venerable phrase “United States Constitution,” which to most of us means that document drafted by a group of very intelligent but historically contextualized propertied white men in 1787 in order to strengthen the federal government and overcome the disintegrative dysfunctionality of The Articles of Confederation which had preceded it, and which is the foundation of our rule of law, in reality refers to the complete disregard for the actual provisions of that document or to the rule of law established in accordance with those provisions. Rather, it refers to a strange, incoherent combination of Fundamentalist Christian theocracy, corporate oligarchy, and indifference to gross social injustices produced by current and historical distributions of privilege disproportionately favoring the racial, religious, ethnic and sexual orientation categories to which those who adhere to this imaginative interpretation of the phrase “United States Constitution” coincidentally belong.

For instance, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, which grants Congress the power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare, in reality prohibits Congress from taxing and spending in service to the general welfare, the rest of us failing to understand that the Founding Fathers meant that Clause tongue-in-cheek, and that a literal, non-judicial-activist reading of the Constitution requires us to realize that it means the exact opposite of what it says.

Or, the First Amendment, which protects the right of each to adhere to and practice the religion of their choice, and ensures that the government does not favor any religion over any other, really means that the government must assiduously favor Christianity over all other religions, and decline to extend the same permission and accommodation to, for instance, adherents of Islam practicing their religion, because to do so would be to force good, all-American white Christians to endure people of other religions practicing non-Judeo-Christian religions in “our” country (not “their” country, because, of course, if they’re Muslim, then they’re not American…, right?).

“Liberty,” in Right-Wing New-Speak, means indifference, injustice, predation, violence and mass incarceration. “Freedom of religion” means Christian Theocracy and intolerance of any disfavored religions. The provision granting Congress the authority to tax and spend for the general welfare means that Congress is prohibited from taxing and spending for the general welfare. You almost have to admire such an impressive commitment to the complete inversion of reality.

So, if you find yourself driving a car with a right-wing ideologue riding shot-gun, and he or she shouts in a panic “Floor it!” …don’t. Hit the brakes instead. The wayward gay Muslim Hispanic pedestrian who wandered into your path will thank you for it.

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Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

One of the great paradoxes of American history and society is that we are simultaneously a country founded by religious zealots committed to the promotion of religious zealotry, and a country established on Enlightenment principles committed to the creation and preservation of a secular Constitutional Republic. In an honest debate over which direction best serves current and future generations of Americans and humanity, I personally believe that there is no contest: Religious fanaticism and Theocracy are the authors of untold horrors in the world, and it is not a model to be emulated.

It’s true, of course, that some secular “religions” have produced the same horrible outcomes (Bolshevism is the iconic example), which leads to the wise conclusion that it is not the presence or absence of some conceptualization of the divine that renders an ideology destructive to human welfare, but rather merely an aura of absolutism, a belief that the complex and subtle reality of the world has been perfectly distilled into an easily grasped human ideology, and that no further discussion is required. It is not religion that is at fault, but rather blind dogma, absolute faith in some reductionist representation of how the world works and how we should interface with it.

Identifying this problem is easier than solving it. Humans have no choice but to conceptualize the complex and subtle reality of which we are a part in manageable ways, to reduce it to images and forms and packages that we can understand and work with. Our most sublime intellectual achievements do this as surely as our most shallow superstitions. But what distinguishes our most sublime intellectual achievements is that they are products of a process through which our imaginations and our intellects are disciplined and evolve, whereas our most shallow superstitions are ossified products of ancient imaginations entrenched in our consciousness and as insulated as possible from the continuing lathe of reason and imagination. One modality is based on skepticism, on critical thinking, and the other on Faith, on blind acceptance of given “truths.”

(The same holds true for modern dogmas, sometimes intellectual and frequently political ideological, as for archaic superstitions: The greater the extent to which adherents dogmatically believe substantive tenets, the more in the mode of “religious fanaticism” they are; the more they commit to on-going procedures –facilitated by wise uncertainty– which favor reason and humanity, the more they are contributing to the progress of both human consciousness and the social institutional and technological landscape that emanates from it.)

The dilemma in America is not that we are in a debate over these two modalities of thought, but rather that one of these two modalities precludes such a debate. It is not possible to engage in a debate with blind dogma insulated from reason and information. But worse yet, not only is such a debate precluded, but those who preclude it play a shell game with these two very different modalities of thought, turning the U.S. Constitution, which is so much in the tradition of reasoned engagement with the complex and subtle world we live in, into a quasi-sacred document, stripped of its actual subtlety and wisdom, and selectively understood and interpreted in service to the blind dogma that they favor.

They claim to be champions of the Constitution, while in reality being its most virulent enemies. What the Constitution represents first and foremost is rule of law, and what rule of law is first and foremost is a procedural discipline, a commitment to making decisions about legality through processes established by both the Constitution and by the challenge of implementing it in a real world more complex than any such document can fully anticipate.

But rather than accept that we have a real Constitution, written by mere human beings in a language full of ambiguities and imprecisions and in a time which framed their understandings and emphases, a document that Constitutional Scholars debate and study and spend dedicated lifetimes trying to fully understand, in the context of an ever-changing world, these would-be theocrats insist that only their superficial and frequently poorly informed interpretations, sometimes completely at odds with any literal interpretation of the document itself, must prevail.

If one points out to them, as I have sometimes done, that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes…to pay for the general welfare,” and that that is a rather broad power that, if literally interpreted, means that there is no limitation on what Congress can tax and spend in service to, as long as Congress can make a case that it serves the general welfare, they answer that there must be limits on it, because, after all, isn’t such a limitation what their dogma insists upon? They love the Constitution until it blatantly contradicts their ideology, at which point it is, in their view, the Constitution rather than their ideology which must yield. That is the very essence of anti-Constitutionalism.

(The limitation on the tax-and-spend power of that clause is, of course, that if voters don’t like the way Congress is exercising it, voters can fire them and hire representatives who do so more in accord with their wishes. The Constitution, drafted to strengthen rather than weaken the federal government, was designed, as explicitly elaborated on in The Federalist Papers, to overcome the collective action problems rampant under the Articles of Confederation that preceded it. It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers included this ample power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare.)

Of course, as many point out, well-reasoned and well-informed arguments fall on deaf ears, because people in general, and religious and quasi-religious fanatics in particular, do not form their opinions according to the dictates of reason applied to evidence –or in service to humanity rather than to their own national, racial, class, ethnic, etc., in-groups– but rather on the basis of emotional appeals to the frames and narratives which form our consciousness and our identities. When I argue that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (toward all humanity), and others respond that that won’t work because there are those who lack reason and lack such goodwill, I reply that the irrationality and belligerence (toward humanity) of others does not imply that we must be irrational and belligerent (toward humanity) as well.

I emphasize “toward humanity” because the misconception is common, among both those who tend to agree with me on substantive positions and those who tend to disagree, that goodwill toward humanity precludes hurting the feelings of those who preach ideologies or behave in ways which are antagonistic to humanity. It doesn’t. (Those on the right embrace this fallacy to discredit those challenging the substance of their ideology, by claiming that anyone who criticizes their ideology is not acting with goodwill toward humanity; those on the left embrace this fallacy to discredit the challenge to their preference for righteous rage over effective advocacy, arguing that since goodwill toward belligerent fanatics is ineffective the ideal of goodwill toward humanity is irrelevant to political discourse.)

Goodwill toward humanity does not mean that you cannot intervene militarily to stop a genocide, even though shooting at people (in a military action to stop a genocide) is not really the best expression of goodwill toward them personally. Nor does goodwill toward humanity preclude one from hurting the feelings of someone preaching some hateful ideology by sharply criticizing their ideology, and doing so in terms which are logically and emotionally compelling and thus, to them, offensive. To the contrary, goodwill toward humanity requires it, not gratuitously, and not in service to one’s own emotional gratification, but rather in service to moving the zeitgeist gradually in a desired direction.

For those who believe that moving the zeitgeist in a desired direction is impossible, all I can say is: Glance back across the sweep of human history, and you will see that it has been done before, and is done constantly. Scientific methodology didn’t exist half a millennium ago, but has grown in prominence over that span of time, in large part due to human effort, and frequently against human resistance. That thread of history, in fact, is the archetype of what I’m advocating. We have, historically, increased the salience of reason and goodwill in human affairs, by developing scientific methodology and legal procedures, and by developing humanistic philosophies which identify the rights of individuals and the value of various forms of egalitarianism. Extending these historical processes is what Progressives should be most committed to. And, by that definition, all reasonable people of goodwill should be Progressives.

(I’m tempted to dump the word “Progressives,” though, because, of course, the ideology that goes by that name is not precisely the ideal ideology I have described. True “progressivism” would involve reducing the emphasis on precipitous substantive certainties, and increase the emphasis on ever-evolving procedural disciplines developed for the purpose of realizing an ever-evolving humanism.)

It’s true, of course, that merely making well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments is not the primary way in which the zeitgeist changes. We think in frames and narratives, and it is through those frames and narratives that change occurs. But one frame which almost all modern Americans embrace is that they are reasonable people, that their beliefs are what are supported by reason and evidence, that in any debate between equally competent debaters, their point of view inevitably wins. Another frame common to almost all modern Americans is that each believes themself to be a person of goodwill, a person whose ideology is the ideology which best serves others. Few Americans explicitly applaud Scrooge before the transformation and condemn Scrooge after the transformation; almost all define themselves as being a reasonable person of goodwill.

One way to challenge these frames is to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, to make the discrepancy between the narratives that people are subjectively applying to themselves and the narratives that they are “objectively” living as inescapable as possible. And that means not only throwing well-reasoned arguments in their face, but rather throwing in their face well-reasoned arguments that challenge not particular policy positions but, more importantly, their own fundamental identity.

The way in which I habitually do this is, in every conversation in which a blind and belligerent dogma is being favored, to ask the person favoring it if they would be willing to set aside for a moment our substantive disagreements and agree with me only that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can in service to humanity. Some leap to agree; many do not. But almost all recognize, on some level or another, that they can either agree with this premise or suffer the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they are unwilling to.

I strongly recommend that this one, simple commitment become our core ideological identity and the platform that we most consistently and relentlessly advocate. It is a position which most find difficult to denounce, and to which many who do not consider themselves “progressives” would gladly gravitate. It is the basis for all well-conceived progressive policies, the standard by which they should be measured, such that it is this ideal rather than anything else we currently believe that should hold sway. And it is a shared foundation to which we want to attract as many people as possible (from all across the ideological spectrum).

The catalyst for this essay was an exchange on Colorado Confluence’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence). The exchange captures much of what I’m talking about, and expands upon some of the ideas I’ve presented here, so I am reproducing it below. It started with my posting a link to this Economist article on the relationship between religion and politics in America (http://www.economist.com/node/21548964) accompanied by this comment from me:

A nice summary of the disingenuity of Santorum’s remark about people of faith being banished from the public square (which is both the opposite of the current reality, and not advocated by any mainstream public official past or present), and the complex relationship between faith and politics in America.

One thing the article doesn’t note is the tension between the “Free Exercise” and “Establishment” clauses of the First Amendment: Government can neither inhibit nor promote any particular religion, which leaves a very narrow band between the two in which to operate.

Many religious zealots in America, for instance, don’t realize that, while it is unconstitutional for a school to promote or sponsor prayer on school grounds, it is also unconstitutional for schools to prohibit prayer on school grounds, as long as it is done in a manner which does not disrupt the normal functioning of the school and does not appear to carry the “imprimatur” of the school (e.g., does not use the school PA system, or occur as a part of a school event). It is, of course, the right balance…, except for theocrats who don’t want freedom of religion but rather a tyranny of their own religion.

For more on religion, see “Is Religion a Force for Good?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=742), “A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2452), “Do Deities Defecate?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2504), and “Discourse, Diderot, and Deity” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1081).

A woman named Dina then commented “wow, drink the cool aid (sic) much?” This was my response:
Okay, I’ll bite. What Kool-Aid are we talking about? If we’re invoking cult leader Jim Jones and the mass suicide he orchestrated (which is where the term comes from), then it would make more sense to use it to refer to those who are defending dogmatic beliefs (particularly religious beliefs) against a commitment to a more open and moderate secularism. But such reversals of meaning, though ironic in the extreme, are also remarkably common.
She then replied, “”‘socialism,’ ‘secularism,’ let’s call the whole thing off!” To which I responded:
“Secularism” and “Socialism” are not the same thing. Our Constitution essentially guarantees a secular form of government by not only guaranteeing to each the freedom to practice their own religion (“The Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment) but also prohibiting government from favoring any one religion over others (“The Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment). For an ideological faction whose adherents generally fancy themselves the defenders of the Constitution, it’s remarkable how eager some members of that faction are to disregard and undermine that very same Constitution in both letter and spirit.

The word “socialism” has been applied very broadly, especially in service to a particular ideological agenda, to societies that are widely divergent in form. At one extreme are a group of societies that are characterized by autocratic, oligarchical governments that completely dismantle market economies and replace them with command economies. These have all been horrible failures. At the other extreme (in normal usage) are the “democratic socialist” countries such as some Scandinavian countries have at times been, and these have been by and large quite successful (robust economies, excellent quality of life, extensive individual rights, and far more equitable than average).

More generally, all modern developed nations are, in reality, a hybrid of robust market economies, popular sovereignty, large administrative states, a strong commitment to rule of law, and a thoroughly secular (non-religious) and civil (non-military) government. All nations that participated in the post-WWII economic boon were characterized by this combination of institutional qualities, bar none. To call them “socialism” would mean that the word “socialism” must be understood to encompass both a certain category of failed states, and the unique category of the most successful states in world history (i.e., all successful, fundamentally capitalist countries).

The point of using the word “socialism” to describe both is to obfuscate the fact that some of the states being so labelled comprise the entire set of modern prosperous, free nations on Earth, and to imply instead that all states so labelled actually belong to the set of failed states known by that label. In other words, it is an attempt to relabel all modern, prosperous, free nations as something other than what they are, and to pretend that a proposed extremist form that has never described any actual successful nation on Earth is what defines that category instead! It is a triumph of meaningless, cultish rhetoric over anything even vaguely resembling reality.

There are legitimate debates to be had about the issues that divide us, about the right balance between public investment in human and material infrastructure and laissez-faire market dynamics, about the degree to which we should be committed to maximizing equality of opportunity and how to go about it, about to what extent we should try to consider possible future consequences of current policies and to what extent we should focus exclusively on present outcomes, about, in general, what works and what doesn’t work, what best serves our liberty and prosperity and well-being and what doesn’t. My fondest hope and highest aspiration is that we become a nation that has those debates, as reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that none of has all of the answers, working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can; to be, in other words, a nation of people who decline to drink various flavors of “the Kool-Aid,” and choose to be thoughtful, open-minded, and constructive citizens instead.

The purpose of my blog, Colorado Confluence, and this Facebook page that links to it is to promote the application of reason and imagination to evidence and accumulated knowledge and understanding in service to humanity. All points of view, all arguments, are welcome. If you have an actual argument to make, please feel welcome to make it: Understanding and insight are served by robust debate (the opposite of “drinking of the Kool-aid” of insulated dogmas blindly adhered to). The informationless, unreasoning, and generally meaningless one-liners about “drinking the Kool-aid” of secularism (ironically completely inverting the meaning of the phrase), and equating “secularism” and “socialism” in a catchy cliche about “calling the whole thing off,” are modalities best suited to other kinds of forums, offered for other purposes.

That got her goat! Here’s how she replied:
well, I guess you told me, huh? I will leave the rest to your ‘enlightened’ state of mind! My point being that your insulting comments regarding the disingenuousness of Santorum feed into the rhetoric we hear everyday in the main stream media. There has been a war against Christianity in this country for decades..actually, around the entire world! Mr. Bloomberg in NYC should heed your words about the ‘imprematur-lessness (sic) of churches who have used public buildings for worship when school is not in session….Other public entities would be smart to heed these same words when they are insistent on shoving other religious tenets down our throats by installing foot washes and prayer rooms in their institutions! IMO, secularism and socialism go hand in hand and both ideas are ruining this great country…Our Forefathers must be turning in their graves! God Help the USA! Goodbye….
And, finally, my response to that:
The NYC law prohibiting the use of public schools for religious purposes is currently in the courts, where that balance between Free Exercise and non-Establishment will be struck. The main problem is that the congruency of non-school use days to some religious holy days and not others (Jewish and Christian, but not Islamic) may be construed as an implicit favoring of those religions that [have] their sabaths on the weekend. It’s a subtle question; my guess is that the courts will find that the NYC law is unconstitutional, and I would agree with that decision.

Your comments about the allowance of Islamic practices as well as Christian and Jewish, on an equal footing, merely goes to demonstrate your theocratic rather than constitutional orientation. Islam, according to our Constitution, is neither to be privileged nor discriminated against, and, if we fall short at all as a nation, it is in the latter rather than former error, one which you are determined to increase rather than decrease. You are of a mindset that Christianity should be privileged, and that the failure to do so is a failure of our national conviction. But that simply is not how our nation is Constituted. We are not a theocracy; we are a Constitutional Republic.

What’s most remarkable to me about her last comment was the equation of adhering to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, permitting and accommodating the free exercise of non-Judeo-Christian religions, with “shoving (those religions) down (the) throats” of those who don’t adhere to them! The notion that Christians in America are more discriminated against than Muslims, that Islam is “shoved down the throats” of Christians but that Christianity is just one religion among many, in no way privileged and in no way seeking to be, is so incredibly ludicrous, it simply boggles the imagination that anyone could argue such a position.

Our national debates aren’t over whether to permit Islamic and Christian religious imagery to co-exist, but rather whether to continue to privilege Christianity in the ways that it has been historically privileged, to use exclusively Christian imagery and language in official displays and communications relating to holidays and other religious events. It is not that these would-be theocrats want no religion shoved down anyone’s throat, but rather that they want their religion exclusively shoved down everyone’s throat!

This isn’t just an issue of religious zealotry and hypocricy and anti-constitutionalism pretending to be the opposite; it’s one example of the more fundamental divide in American politics, one which tracks the left-right divide to some extent but not exactly, one which is where our focus should be as we work on both ourselves as individuals and the nation and world to which we belong. That divide is between ideologies which favor irrationality over reason, and belligerent tribalism/sectarianism over a commitment to humanity. The solution is not to remain entrenched in the struggle to ensure that our own substantive certainties prevail over opposing substantive certainties, but rather to promote a greater and more widespread commitment to procedures and attitudes which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and humanity over various forms of bigotry and belligerence.

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One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?

The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.

If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?

This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)

To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.

Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.

Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.

Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.

With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.

On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.

Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.

At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.

The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.

The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.

But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.

So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.

And may the deities continue to defecate on it….

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(The following is an exchange that took place on another blog. I have omitted some other interjections by other participants.) IP: If you can give me demonstrable proof that can be duplicated in a lab that there is a god, I will concede the point; until then you are talking about an imaginary invisible sky fairy. Key point being something imaginary. I can imagine unicorns pooping rainbows while being ridden by mermaids and leprechauns, that doesn’t make it real.

SH: The real problem here is that people think “reality” in general is something hard and fast, when it is something more complex and fluid than what we hold in our mind, where it is reduced to conceptualizations with which we can work. The more abstract the concept, the more tenuous its representation of reality, but that doesn’t make the concept useless or meaningless. Those who reject it because it seems literally preposterous are making a mistake very similar to those who accept it as literal truth.

IP: Then for you the concept of schizophrenia doesn’t work, because schizophrenia is based on the idea that their reality doesn’t match our reality.

SH: You’re sort of right. We live in a shared reality, intersubjectively produced over the ages, with an imperfect but real connection to “objective” reality. Those whose individual realities diverge too dramatically from that intersubjective reality are considered insane, a condition that can be the result of anything from an unusually creative and insightful mind, to an internal cognitive landscape that has trouble articulating with our shared cognitive landscape. The latter condition leads to real problems, both for the individual and for society, but the reduction of it to a simple pathology, one pole in a dichotomy defined by the absence or presence of a mental illness, is one of those concepts of ours that tracks reality very imperfectly, and in many ways dysfunctionally. Our current overreliance on psychotropic drugs, based on a largely fabricated history of “rebalancing chemical imbalances in the brain,” is one consequence of that divergence between our popular (and professionally dominant) conceptualization, and the ever-elusive reality.

IP: Actually I think that the outdated need to rely on a concept from the Neolithic Era, ie god, is a mental illness. People needed a god to explain things like how the sun rose and set. Science has explained how that has happened. The need, then, for a god is outdated and simplistic. If I do x, then my imaginary god will give me y. It seems silly to me.

SH: Let’s look at some of the factors that generated that “outdated” concept that has existed throughout human history, all around the world, in virtually every culture in every time and place.

1) We live in a world and universe that is mindbogglingly complex, and are gradually realizing that a biological rather than physical paradigm best captures that complexity. The science of chaos, of complexity, is the science of non-linear living systems, and applies to many systems that we have normally conceptualized as non-living.

2) Consciousness is one of the elements of that universe. In the modern tradition of human exceptionalism, we atheists have come to see human consciousness as just a happenstance product of random forces, and yet, we see echoes of it all around us, in evolution (which looks remarkably like a conscious and purposeful progression, the one which, coincidentally, produced something that resembled it: Human consciousness). There’s nothing stupid or absurd about conceptualizing the universe in terms of consciousness (not human consciousness, but something more diffuse and fundamental) rather than in terms of mechanics. In fact, that seems to be the direction in which logic and evidence lead.

3) Our minds are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Even mathematics, that least poetic of conceptual languages, is essentially a set of metaphors disciplined into a complex system of logical thought. To metaphorically conceptualize this living universe, this complexity and subtlety of which we are a part, this coherence which transcends our capacity for comprehension, in the forms of gods and spirits and supernatural forces, is no less “off the mark” than to claim that we live in a dead, mechanical universe. Both are imperfect conceptualizations of an almost infinitely complex and subtle reality.

4) The real problem, on both sides of this equation, is not understanding the nature of our conceptualizations, and of our relationship to reality. We never hold within our minds an exact representation of a precise and unambiguous reality, but rather reduce a complex and incomprehensible reality to dimensions and forms we can grasp. World mythology has produced marvelous packages of complex and subtle thought with which to track that complex and subtle reality. Understanding that our error is in taking our conceptualizations literally rather than in embracing this or that imperfect conceptualization would be the cure to the problem you perceive.

5) In my opinion, someone who only understands a river in terms of hydrodynamics and the hydrological cycle and not at all in terms of singing spirits dancing their way from mountain springs to frothing seas, has a less complete understanding than someone who triangulates a bit more, and understands a river in various ways, through various modalities.

6) Concepts of god and gods and supernatural forces can enrich our understanding of our world, of nature, of ourselves, or they can form reified false idols that divide us and blind us to the complexities and subtleties of the world around us and within us. It is not the concepts that are at fault when the latter occurs, but rather how we use them and how we relate to them.

IP: In all of your 6 points you didn’t address the simple premise that the concept of god was started in our Neolithic past. All people had a Neolithic past so the fact that people came up with a god to explain natural phenomena is not unusual. People also lived in caves in the Neolithic era. Why should we hold on to a concept that doesn’t work and is divisive. Religion has killed more people than any other force on this planet, no god, no religion. The world would be much safer and peaceful without god.

SH: Lots of concepts began in our Neolithic past, including the concepts of red, orange, yellow, blue, green, etc., and the concepts of up and down, forward and backward, probably love and hatred, right and wrong, joy and sorrow, and many others of enduring value. Whether such concepts retain their utility has nothing to do with when they originated.

Personally, I do agree that we could do better than to cling to Neolithic conceptualizations of god, and even to the very non-Neolithic developments of those original conceptualizations, that have led through the Mesopotamian religions, to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheisms with all of their trappings (and through other cultural pathways to Buddhism, Taoism, various polytheisms, and a variety of tribal religions).

But it is not some conceptualization of god that is divisive; rather it is the illusion of exhaustive absolutes that the world and universe can be reduced to, such as whether there is or isn’t a god, and, if so, which particular version is the one true one.

Some things are relatively amenable to such reductionism, and those things tend to fall within the mathematical and observable ranges of phenomena. Not all phenomena, nor all subjects of human contemplation, fall within those ranges, and so not all are so reducible.

There are two ways of formulating your final statement, taking into account the reality of differing perspectives and conceptualizations: 1) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted my one absolute truth as THE one absolute truth,” and 2) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted the variable reducibility of reality, and accepted complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity as fundamental aspects of reality beyond which we may not be capable of further reduction.”

“Everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is no god” belongs to the first category, and is essentially the same as “everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is only one god, and it is the one described by my religion.”

Clearly, there is no easy cure to our divisiveness, because even the suggestion that we adhere to less literal, more flexible, more subtle and accommodating conceptualizations of reality is divisive, in that all of those who strongly adhere to some absolute dogma or another will fight tooth and nail against any such suggestion!

Or, to put it more simply, the world would be a much safer and more peaceful place without dogmatic certainty, particularly dogmatic certainty regarding what are essentially metaphorical conceptualizations of reality, including the dogmatic certainty of atheism.

You think that it is an absolute and irrefutable fact that there is no god. My dad was a devout atheist, who shared your perspective completely. But his religion was as divisive as anyone else’s.

The irony is, of course, that even my own devout epistemological (rather than ontological) relativism is divisive, in much the same way, because any position vigorously held implies and inevitably generates (if one doesn’t already exist) an antithesis which is also vigorously held.

But, just to be clear, I think that your certainty that there is no god is as arbitrary as anyone else’s that there is a god. We atheists think of our consciousness as unique in the universe, or as some kind of anomaly in an otherwise unconscious mechanical universe.

But observation throws this into doubt: Clearly, what we experience as human consciousness is on a continuum with what other forms of life experience. When we see a spider scurry away to save itself, it looks a lot like a small, scared little creature acting like a miniature version of a human being. We know that it isn’t, but this resemblance isn’t quite completely arbitrary either; it is a product of the same dynamic which produced human beings (the one in which genes in competition with one another cluster together and produce vehicles for their relative reproductive success), and the resemblance is due to being a product of that process following a logic inherent to being such a product.

And what is so fundamentally different between an individual organism and an ecosystem, or a human society? The latter is a diffuse version of the former, with packets of information transmitted across generations forming into systemic, coherent, enduring wholes. Just because we subjectively experience our own consciousness doesn’t mean that something similar in essence isn’t a basic part of the fabric of reality. And the more we explore the underlying nature of that reality, the more support we discover for that conceptualization, scientifically and mathematically.

So why wouldn’t we conceptualize that wondrous, sublime, infinitely complex global, universal “consciousness,” that is the coherence and systemicness of the universe, in ways that are accessible to our imaginations? I disagree with you about the net value of religion: The world would have been greatly impoverished without world mythology, its brilliant stories, its framings of reality in rich and colorful ways.

It’s no coincidence that the ancient society that had the richest mythology also had the richest natural philosophy: Both are aspects of the same human imagination, working with the same materials, in much the same ways. We would not very likely have our wonderful florescence of scientific knowledge without a concomitant florescence of religious wonder.

Not only ancient Greece, but also modern Europe, were characterized by these two working in tandem. The modern European era was born with the Renaissance, which was an aesthetic rediscovery of classical forms, and the Reformation, which was a reinvigoration of religious energy. The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment followed on their heels.

Religion isn’t the enemy: Dogma is. Believing in god isn’t the enemy; believing in a rigid reality which neatly reduces to our conceptualizations of it on all dimensions is. What would “save” us isn’t an end to religious thought, but a beginning to a deeper and more subtle and more open sense of wonder that takes that thought a step further, and synthesizes it with our scientific and philosophical and mathematical thought. Our future hope isn’t in contracting our minds and imaginations to fit within one preferred package, but expanding them to flow among ultimately compatible channels, exploring the wonder of a world far beyond our wildest imagination, and the potential of human consciousness more fully liberated and mobilized.

IP: I am more comfortable with confucianism and buddhism because there is no god, it is a philosophy more than a dogmatic set of beliefs.

On [this blog] there is someone who believes that the earth is 6k years old, because that is what his preacher told him. The enforced and celebrated ignorance of modern religion and dogmas are antithetical to intelligent and rational discussions….

SH: Beliefs range from more to less subtle, more or less well tracking an almost infinitely complex reality. You scoff at monotheists who scoff at polytheists who scoff at animists. Science was largely born from monotheism (just as monotheism was from polytheism, and polytheism was from animism), the latter having reduced the arbitrariness of Creation from a chaos of competing gods and spirits to a coherent single systemic whole and thus making it more amenable to systematic investigation.

Some aspects of some religions are incompatible with science, asserting as matters of faith (ie, beliefs insulated from evidence and skepticism) issues of causation and systemic dynamics that are, in fact, better understood through scientific methodology than religious narratives. Some aspects of religions occupy completely separate realms, going where science can’t really go because science doesn’t address all questions (particularly questions of value or judgment). And then there are realms to which both apply, but in different ways (such as the celebration of wonder and awe at the incredible complexity and subtlety of the world and universe we live in).

It’s fine to advocate for more rather than less subtlety, and to critique those who fail to continue to strive to do so. It’s folly to believe that you have found the end point of that journey, and to scoff at others for having failed to find the one absolute truth of which you are aware and they are not.

IP: Does your god care what food you eat?

SH: Psycholinguist Stephen Pinker, in How The Mind Works, posited that religious dietary restrictions evolved as a means of preventing members of more economically marginal societies from defecting to richer neighboring societies by making their food less attractive. So, for instance, in the case of Jewish dietary restrictions, shell fish would be found in neighboring coastal societies but not among the Hebrew desert nomads themselves, and pork would be found among (wealthier) sedentary populations rather than (poorer) nomadic ones.

The point isn’t that many religious ideas and proscriptions can’t be better understood as products of human history and psychology than as products of a divine mandate, but rather that different modalities of thought can coexist, and, where they reinforce rather than obstruct their respective competencies, can be useful and productive rather than dysfunctional and destructive.

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu were all highly religious men, who used their religious convictions in service to their charismatic leadership and their missions of social justice and universal goodwill. The Civil Rights Movement in America benefited enormously from the social organizational capital of the southern black church infrastructure, without which that movement might never have happened, and certainly would have had to have happened with far less capacity for grass roots organizing than it in fact had at its disposal.

The goal of peace and human welfare is not best served by insisting that one’s own conceptual tyranny prevail over all others, whether it is the conceptual tyranny of a dogma that contains literal gods or one that does not (e.g., Marxism, Libertarianism, Dogmatic Atheism, etc.). Conceptual false idols don’t have to be supernatural to be socially destructive.

The goal of peace and human welfare is best served by recognizing that we have a plethora of conceptual modalities at our disposal, and that those modalities have varying uses and competencies, that they can be articulated in ways which reinforce rather than undermine one another, and that doing so provides us with more rather than less insight.

The fact that the opposite also occurs, that the incompetencies of each modality assert themselves at the expense of the competencies of the others, is something to strive to transcend, whether it is religious assertions about how faith is more reliable for ascertaining the validity of factual and causal information than is scientific methodology, or pseudo-scientific assertions that science “disproves” something which is a conceptual rather than factual matter.

One of the big obstacles to making this leap is the misconception that the products of our imagination are distinct from “reality,” and that reality is understood by some means other than our imagination. In truth, our imagination is our portal onto reality, our means of tracking it with our minds. Some of the modalities we use are good for some purposes, and may be more attractive to some people; while others are good for other purposes and may be more attractive to other people. But the notion that some of these modalities of human imagination are “right” and some are “wrong” is an unfortunately unimaginative position to take!

SH: (In response to another poster insisting that the burden is on IP to prove that God doesn’t exist, since no one in the conversation asserted that he/she/it does.) It’s a meaningless question. This is what people don’t get about the whole “do you believe in god” thing: It’s like asking “do you believe in charpadarka, a color that humans can’t perceive that occupies the spectrum of light frequencies from about 900-920 THz.”

Well, if you choose to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and then name the color “charpadarka,” then you believe in it. If you choose not to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and refuse to name it, then you don’t believe in “charpadarka.”

The objective reality is what it is. It can be conceptualized in multiple ways. It makes no sense to argue about whether one or another conceptualization is “true” or not.

(No one can) prove that “God” doesn’t exist, and no one . . . can prove that “God” does exist, because “God” is a concept, just like everything else we hold in our minds to represent reality. It is not an argument over an empirically verifiable or refutable assertion, or about an empirically and analytically more or less supportable theory or paradigm; it is an argument over semantics and conceptualization, and therefore a meaningless and absurd argument to have.

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

Not everyone understands that there are two clauses regarding religious freedom embedded in the First Amendment: One which prohibits government from establishing (i.e., “favoring”) any religion, and one which prevents government from interfering with the free exercise of any religion. But too many fundamentalist Christian organizations in America are constantly pushing for a complete reversal of this cornerstone of American freedom: The establishment (legal favoring) of their religion, and the curtailment of the free exercise of at least some others.

A good example of this is the blatant hypocrisy of those religious organizations that call, for instance, for the prevention of the construction of the Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan (not, in fact “at ground zero”), while invoking a federal law which prevents the implementation of any local land use law which burdens the free-exercise of religion (resulting in the ability of religious organizations to build anything anywhere, regardless of zoning laws that would have prohibited the structure were it any other entity that were building it). In an archetypal example of this very un-American belief in the privileging of some religions over others, a leader in the conservative religious organization American Family Association, which in 2003 successfully fought to prevent Georgia from implementing a land-use law limiting the locations where a church could be constructed, is now calling for a complete moratorium on the building of mosques anywhere in the United States (http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_upshot/20100812/pl_yblog_upshot/conservative-activist-calls-for-nationwide-mosque-moratorium).

America has always had a split personality when it comes to religion:  A politically secular nation by Constitutional decree, founded by puritans and infused with an ever-present undercurrent of religious fanaticism. The reason for this, of course, is that the colonies had many who had come to practice (and proselytize) their own religion freely (all Christian denominations, originally), but not all such groups wanted to practice (and proselytize) the same religion freely. The necessary compromise was the legal institutionalization of “live and let live” when it comes to religious exercise: Government will neither favor nor disfavor any religion.

But, while this doctrine may have matured into the enlightened vision of the framers of the Constitution, it originated in religious zealotry, not tolerance. Each of those original religious sects would have gladly imposed itself on others, were it able to. And their descendants have much the same attitude.

Where such attitudes prevail, we wind up with theocracy and draconian religious laws, such as Muslim sharia law. The irony in this particular contest, between radical Islam and radical Christianity, is that the two sides, vehemently opposed to one another, are so strikingly similar.

And, of course, the radicals on both sides oppose the Moderates who seek only a peaceful, prosperous, and mutually respectful coexistence. The Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan is just such a voice of reason, and should be embraced as the epitome of what Americans stand for: Mutual tolerance and mutual goodwill, and the free exercise of religion for all.

Glenn Beck, still twirling his baton in the vanguard of the wing-nut parade, while busily calling all people who disagree with his, ah, “imaginative” interpretations of U.S. History and the U.S. Constitution (which includes, I would wager, somewhere north of 99.99% of all American Historians and Constitutional Law scholars) “idiots,” demonstrated for us what a non-idiot such as himself understands: That slavery was fine until the federal government stepped in to regulate it (http://www.examiner.com/political-buzz-in-national/glenn-beck-claims-slavery-was-not-really-bad-until-government-got-involved). It’s difficult to select which aspects of this absurdity to comment on, but I’ll choose one that is not completely obvious, but is most relevant to the ideology that Beck represents: Defense of the institution of slavery (and, after abolition, of systematic institutionalized discrimination) was tightly intertwined with states rights advocacy throughout the history of this nation until at least the 1960s, when the federal government, in the culmination of a national-history-spanning evolution prioritizing the protection of individual civil liberties over states’ and private rights to violate them, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beck got it exactly backwards: It was federal government intervention that had always both threatened to end, and eventually, against the most violent opposition yet against it, actually succeeded in ending, slavery, and ending government sponsored discrimination against African Americans. And it was this precise role of the federal government, regarding this precise topic, that always was at the heart of states’ rights advocacy, and anti-federal government fervor. Whether the Tea Party is a predominantly or implicitly racist movement today (a hotly debated topic), it is certainly heir to the anti-federal government ideology that racists depended on throughout our history to protect and perpetuate their right to institute and enforce their racism in law. Defining themselves by reference to slavery (which their ideological forebears defended and perpetuated) is just not a smart move.

Susan Greene of the Denver Post, with whom I generally agree, was, I think, slightly off mark today in her overzealous definition of how broad a range of speech is, or should be, protected by the First Amendment (http://www.denverpost.com/greene). The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Kansas pastor Fred Phelps has the right to mar the funerals of fallen soldiers by holding demonstrations within sight of them holding placards with such endearing phrases as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Without trying to decide the case on the legal merits, I will definitively state that I think it would be good public policy to outlaw such speech in such a context, nor would doing so be a clear violation of the First Amendment (the Supreme Court will decide whether it is a violation at all, by exploring the nuances of the issue).

Free Speech protections have always been limited in certain ways to protect other rights or public interests that might be violated by speech (e.g., laws against libel and inciting violence, and diminished protection of student speech in public schools). Time, place, and manner restrictions have always applied (you can’t disrupt any event or meeting in any way you please); the kind of “forum” involved, even when a government forum, affects how much freedom of speech others have. Private forums are that much more protected. Obviously, if the funeral were in an enclosed private space, Phelps would have no right whatsoever to violate that space. The lack of walls blocking the view from a cemetery is hardly a major legal distinction. Given the ways in which we have delimited freedom of speech in the past, I think that protecting mourners from the harassment of such speech at the time and place of mourning is well within the range of a reasonable exception to free speech protections.

Research suggests that people who believe in God tend to conceptualize God in one of four ways: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant (http://abcnews.go.com/WN/book-religion-examines-ways-americans-perceive-god/story?id=11825319). Unsurprisingly, which view of God we adhere to correlates to gender, race, socio-economic status, and educational-level, and to particular social and political orientations. The irony, of course, is that right-wingers, who claim to be the defenders of liberty, tend to believe in an authoritative God who, by divine right, sharply circumscribes what liberty we should allow ourselves and others to enjoy, whereas progressives tend to believe in a more remote God, who leaves us with the responsibility of creating our own destiny.

Freedom, once again, has less to do with how free we are from our own democratically elected government than with how free we are from our own lack of imagination (or surplus of self-shackling imagination). Freedom is not a function of crippling the primary vehicle we have developed for exercising our wills in cooperative and coordinated ways (i.e., government, at all levels, including federal), but rather a function of how able we are to imagine that we are indeed free, charged with the responsibility of wisely and compassionately confronting the challenges and opportunities that we face here on Earth.

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