Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
(This essay was a final exam paper for a Legislative Practice class with Prof. Paul Campos – “the philosopher” referred to in the essay- at the University of Colorado Law School, written in December, 2008)
“The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
-Edward Gibbon, “Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire”
One need not be a solipsist to recognize that he cannot refute the unreality of a law by kicking either it, or its unambiguous and definitive meaning, but neither need one be a Bishop Berkeley to recognize that the reality of law is precisely the fact that we imagine it to have one. We have focused this semester on the elusiveness of the meaning of any given law, and on the various fictions employed to disguise that elusiveness. This, of course, is not a phenomenon particular to law, but rather a basic linguistic (and epistemological) fact: The ambiguity of language (and, more generally, the individuality of perception and cognition) produces a multiplicity of possible interpretations. Any text (or communicative act), especially one that is authored by multiple people through some collective process (such as illustrated by the convoluted politics by which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed), has no single intent or original meaning, nor does it remain tethered to the context of that process when later readers (or audiences) implement it. Even the meaning of a single text by a single individual is not a fixed entity: Is it what the author intended, or what each interpreter understood? Should it be interpreted literally when experience and context suggest that the purpose of the text is better served by filling in the blanks and adapting it to changes in circumstances?
Given the fact that the interpreted law is a chameleon molded by the various attributes of various minds employing various techniques serving various biases and predispositions, it is, arguably, merely a sham, an “opiate of the masses,” which the magistrate finds useful because it legitimates his power and enables him to better herd the beguiled sheep. To serve this function, the people must be duped by the sham, must accept the law –arrived at by all the various modes of legal interpretation employed by its practitioners (“the various modes of worship”)– as an objective reality, so that they will submit to its authority. And the philosopher deconstructs this system of fictions upon fictions, vacillating between an existential crisis and a concern that he may be abrogating his responsibility by destroying the illusion he is paid to maintain and to train others to maintain.
My thesis is that the philosopher need suffer neither affliction. The comedian George Carlin, somewhat paralleling the Gibbon quote above, said, “Some people see a glass that’s half empty, others see a glass that’s half full, but I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” In other words, it is what it is. We can measure our social institutional framework, knowing that it is all smoke-and-mirrors, against some unattainable ideal of the just and transparent society, and despair that it has fallen so short (the utopian approach). Or we can measure it against it’s absence, and rejoice that we are, to some limited extent, spared the “short, nasty, and brutish lives” of all other creatures (the Hobbesian approach). Or we can, like the philosopher, strive to understand precisely what it is, to reveal the little man behind the curtain, to peel the onion away and find insight in the void thus revealed, but, while doing so, avoid the philosopher’s crisis by mitigating our angst with a combination of pragmatic utilitarianism and benevolent egalitarianism.
The Great and Powerful Oz, Toto, and the Little Man Behind the Curtain
Our legal system is a dialectic of mythos and logos, a functioning mythology operating according to its own internal logic, but also implicitly challenged by the logic of critical analysis. The mythos is employed to legitimate power, and in doing so, to co-opt logos, to convert (using Max Weber’s terms) “traditional authority” into “rational authority,” and to claim that “charismatic authority” (personal authority subject to personal caprice) has been vanquished from the realm of law. To articulate the Gibbon quote, the Wizard of Oz metaphor, and the dialectic of mythos and logos: The people are awed by the mythos (“The Great and Powerful Oz”), while the philosopher (Toto) tugs at the curtain hiding the magistrate employing his machinations (the little man pulling the levers). The magistrate, wittingly or unwittingly, uses mythos (the mechanisms of which are hidden behind a curtain of logos) to beguile the people, while the philosopher uses logos to pull at that curtain and reveal what’s behind it, creating a dialectic between critical examination and uncritical legitimation.
The mythos is that we are “ruled by laws rather than by men.” The curtain of logos that hides the magistrate’s subjectivity is comprised of various theories and techniques of legal interpretation (briefly summarized below). The people uncritically accept these theories and techniques as true and legitimate, the esoteric tools of legal wizardry. The philosopher rejects them all as the sophistry of actors who either accept the play they are in as reality, or pretend that they do. And the magistrate is untroubled by the question as long as order is maintained, and the status quo unthreatened.
The Dead Hand of the Past, the Capricious Hand of the Present, or the Mindless Alternative?
The pleats of the curtain of co-opted logos hiding the little man and his levers are intricate indeed, involving choices along the two primary dimensions of past (when legislated) to present (when interpreted), and narrow (literal) to broad (interpolative). The large folds are defined by three theoretical approaches: 1) intentionalism, which purports to discern and apply the original intent of a statute’s authors; 2) purposivism, which purports to discern and apply the statute’s purpose; and 3) textualism, which purports to discern and apply the statute’s “plain meaning.” Lodged within and draped across these broad theoretical approaches are both specific applications, such as legal process theory and cost-benefit calculations, and the canons of statutory interpretation, falling into three categories: 1) textual canons, 2) substantive canons, and 3) reference canons. There are folds within these folds, of course, linguistic rules, guidelines as to which statutes to interpret how broadly or narrowly, when and how to go beyond the text to “discover” its meaning. But the essence of the matter is that laws are, by the nature of texts rather than by choice, intersubjectively produced, that the interpretive techniques which contribute to their production do not discover something objectively in existence, but rather mold it through the act of delivery, each midwife attempting to finalize the product, but its finalization, to the extent that such exists, being achieved by the subjectivity of an institutionally powerful individual channeled through the artifice of these interpretive techniques.
The inevitability of interpretation is illustrated by Rex v. Liggets-Findley Drug Stores, Ltd., (1919), in which a municipal ordinance required that drug stores “be closed…at 10 p.m.” every day. A narrow literal reading of the ordinance would imply that the drug stores could close from 10:00 p.m to 10:01 p.m., and then reopen without violating the ordinance. The Canadian judge who wrote the decision held that “we should take the words to mean what they would quite clearly mean to the ordinary person,” that the stores should remain closed for the rest of the day (but could they then reopen at midnight?).
In Rector, Holy Trinity Church v. United States (1892), Justice Brewer employs a “funnel of abstractions” to argue that an “accurate” interpretation of a protectionist statute barring employers from paying for the passage of imported employees should not be read to bar the church from paying for the passage of an English minister: From the least abstract (the “common meaning” of the word “toiler”), up through the specific intent of the statute as applied to this case, through the general purpose of the statute, through the social policy it serves, and, at the highest level of abstraction, to the greater social good intended. Even had the argument been strained at some or most of these levels, the others could have been used to come to any preferred conclusion.
Steven Smith, in “Law Without Mind” (88 Mich. L. Rev. 1989), frames the conundrum this way: According to current legal theory, we have essentially three choices: 1) “originalism,” whose primary defect (setting aside the epistemological problems of determining original meaning) is to bind us to “the dead hand of the past,” thus limiting our ability to inform our implementation of the law with the values and challenges of the present; 2) “pragmatism,” whose primary defect is the replacement of “the rule of law” with the caprice of judges; and 3) “present-oriented interpretation,” which “seeks to appropriate the virtues of each,” but, by freeing itself both from “the dead hand of the past” and the living caprice of the present, relegates itself to the realm of the arbitrary. The defect of the present-oriented interpretation, according to Smith, is that it neither binds judges by the political will of the legislators who enacted the statute, nor empowers judges to pragmatically “promote present values and objectives.” Rather, it surrenders human rationality to an inanimate text detached from its authors but binding on its interpreters.
Zen and the Art of Legislative Interpretation
The theories and canons summarized above purport to address the fundamental ontological and epistemological questions of legal interpretation: 1) what is the law? and 2) how do we know what the law is? The normative as well as descriptive versions of these questions are implicit within them: 1) what should the law be? and 2) how best should we determine what the law is? As disciples of the philosopher, we know that it is ultimately impossible to determine what the law “is,” that it does not have a fixed objective reality independent of our act of interpretation. What it is is inherently elusive; what it should be is a debate framed by various fictions. How, then, should we conceptualize the enterprise?
“What is law?” and “What is the best way to determine what law is?” are both similar to the question Robert Pirsig asked in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What is quality?” Is “quality” (in reference, say, to art or music) what a few self-anointed experts say it is, or what is most popular? Neither solution seems quite satisfactory: The consensus of experts (embracing, for instance, dots on blank canvases and atonal compositions) often appears more pretentious than insightful, but popular preferences (for, say, paintings of Elvis on velvet or songs by Brittany Spears) often appear more anesthetizing than aesthetically redeeming. Similarly, in academe, post-modernists and positivists ridicule one another for being either oblivious to reality or oblivious to the lack thereof, and no authority stands over these feuding camps to declare which paradigm is of higher “quality.”
But this elusiveness does not mean that “quality” does not exist. We know it does, can come to general agreement on some isolated examples (such as that a requiem by Mozart is of “higher quality” than the latest pop hit), and can wink among ourselves at some more contested examples (such as whether Sarah Palin or Joe Biden was a “higher quality” candidate for Vice President).
“What is the law?” and “what is the best way to determine what the law is?” are similarly elusive questions, similarly contested by the highest authorities, but referring to something as real, and a process as inevitable, as the recognition that “quality” exists. To arrive at the best (i.e., most functional and most fair) answers we need to embrace this reality rather than rage against it. The fundamental “defects” in legal interpretation we’ve discussed this semester are inherent ontological and epistemological limitations; they cannot be remedied, and therefore should not be cause for despair. They are parameters rather than variables, givens within which we operate rather than malleable factors upon which we can work our will. The self-help organization “Alcoholics Annonymous” has enshrined the appropriate attitude to take toward such parameters in The Serenity Prayer (“Give me the strength to change what I can change, the patience to accept what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference”). As obnoxious as it may be, it is none the less a pearl of wisdom: What sane alternative is there to this sage advice?
Therefore, the facts of diffuse authorship, unrecoverable original intent, and the inevitable injection of the interpreter’s subjectivity in the act of interpretation are not, per se, legitimate causes of concern, because they themselves (as opposed to how they inform strategies in response to them) are fixed constellations that can neither be wished nor legislated away. It is reasonable and useful to recognize and be informed by these facts, but not to lament them. To what extent these parameters should be openly acknowledged, and to what extent they should be discretely downplayed, is a question inevitably addressed by the process discussed in the next section.
The Political Epidemiology of Reifications (and other memes)
Within the parameters we are obliged to accept, we are confronted with sets of interrelated choices: To what extent should we prefer the “dead hand of the past” to the caprice of the present, and to what extent should we bind judges by increasingly elaborate algorithms of interpretation, perhaps, at the extreme, programmed to evolve by meta-algorithms as they encounter unforeseen circumstances, rather than delegating discretion to judges, incurring both the benefit of the latter’s more supple minds and the detriment of their prejudices and predispositions? How much caprice can be permitted without undermining legitimacy, and how much rigidity can be imposed without undermining substantive reason and justice? Steven Smith presents us with three alternatives, each of which reifies something clearly dysfunctional: either the increasingly anachronistic supposed intentions of the legislators who enacted the laws, or the prejudices and predispositions of judges largely untethered from those texts, or the decontextualized constraints that bear a disconcerting resemblance to medieval trials by ordeal. But to proffer no acceptable alternative is to beg the question: In this imperfect world, what is the best we can do?
In a sense, we are doing it right now. The people, the philosopher, and the magistrate are all just muddling along, individually and collectively pursuing desired goals, and, through some combination of trial-and-error and proactive innovation, carve our social institutions in the lathe of time and numbers. “Memes,” like genes, are packets of information that reproduce (are communicated), mutate (are altered through interpretation and innovation), compete for reproductive success (e.g., guns or spears? pantheons or Yahweh? socialism or capitalism?), and thus evolve (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976). The myth of “the rule of law” is a somewhat successful meme, and in many ways beneficial to our collective existence: The magistrate is not wrong that the techniques by which it is maintained are all equally useful. But neither is the philosopher wrong to question the validity of those techniques, to analyze them, and to seek to refine them. Order without justice is oppressive; justice without order cannot exist. The reification of “the rule of law” provides more order than justice, but its absence provides neither. The challenge, then, is to accept its reification, and to maximize the justice produced by refining the particular form of that reification.
This is not a benign process, nor one actually pursued as a global collective enterprise. My use of the first person plural (“we”) has been a simplification that must now be unpackaged: The selection of genes according to their relative reproductive success produces organisms that are carved by the requirements of such success. This biological algorithm produces complex arrangements of both cooperation and competition, and a variety of strategies. Humans embody what may well be the epitome of the flexible strategy, one which in fact produces an echo of the evolutionary process in the form described above. We can conceptualize and communicate in order each to pursue his or her own fundamentally selfish agenda, which generates ever more sophisticated forms of cooperation along the way (just as biological evolution does, in the formation of ecosystems). Cooperation is so advantageous to those who can overcome the obstacles to it that our social institutions -our hierarchies, our markets, our norms, and our ideologies- are laden with mechanisms to align our individual and collective interests, through structures of legitimate authority, means of exchange, informal social approval and disapproval, and values and beliefs which create cognitive dissonance when we fail to police ourselves.
But the politics of the processes which produce these arrangements is an ever-present element. Cooperation is a means to compete more effectively: People, historically, band together to gain advantage over others. Human history is, in a sense, the story of conquerors and the conquered. Conquerors become rulers and nobles; the conquered become peasants and laborers. The competition between conquerors and their respective states, however, forces refinements to more effectively raise and finance armies, which forces some decentralization of power in order to better exploit the state’s human and natural resources in service to this competition. The decentralization of power fosters and facilitates resistance to power, while concessions by the powerful become increasingly expedient. By these and other mechanisms, the modern world saw the rise of “liberal” societies, and the ideologies that accompany them. But our social institutions still bear the imprint of violent power struggles which produced somewhat hereditary winners and losers, and our social institutions are still the arena within which such power struggles continue to ensue.
So, while order is useful, complacency about the existing order is always unjust. The reification of “the rule of law” facilitates our aggregate prosperity, but it disproportionately benefits the rich and powerful, because the rich and powerful were (and are) its authors. Justice requires resistance and criticism; justice requires Toto tugging at the curtain. It is a happy coincidence that evolutionarily successful memes have facilitated processes of decentralization of power and diffusion of wealth, and probably will continue to do so, gradually infecting even those societies less blessed by egalitarian social institutions. The egalitarian values that have gradually and incompletely matured in conjunction with this decentralization of power and diffusion of wealth reinforce the process, and motivate actions in service to it. But the underlying dynamic by which all this has happened, and will continue to happen, is essentially political, involving strategic behaviors in pursuit of personal and local advantage.
By sublimating primal conflict and channeling it through peaceful social institutions, humans prosper. Belief in “the rule of law” has proven to be a powerful meme contributing to the effective sublimation of that primal conflict. But the struggle for an increasingly just society that can and should take place within that social institutional context necessitates vigilant attention to the reality behind the myth, to the political exercise of power inevitably embedded in the depersonalized reification. There is an inherent tension that cannot be escaped: The sublimation and pacification of human conflicts and passions accomplished by the reification of “the rule of law” is simultaneously oppressive and liberating. It liberates us from the “war of all against all,” but it institutionalizes the brutality of huge disparities of wealth and power. And as such it challenges us to strike the delicate balance between maintaining the myth and resisting its ossification.
In light of this analysis, the goal of legal interpretation, then, is not to be true to the political will of those who enacted the statutes, nor to avoid the “mindlessness” of “present-oriented interpretation,” nor to eliminate the caprice of judicial pragmatism; it is, simply, to maximize the justness of the imposition of authority on those who have been pacified by that authority. Clearly, the respective defects of these three modes of legal interpretation each reduces, in one way or another, the justness of the authority thus imposed. But just as “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” neither should it be the enemy of the merely possible. Identifying the most just, or perhaps the least unjust, option among all known alternatives (while simultaneously attempting to contemplate alternatives not yet known), and engaging in the political struggle to implement it, or to implement a compromise that approaches it, is the best we can do.
The fact that these competing flawed paradigms are discussed and debated, each having its own authoritative supporters and detractors, with the ever-present possibility of new additions entering the fray, is precisely the robust competition of memes required to prevent the ossification of a suboptimal status quo. Nor is it merely an ivory tower academic exercise: Judges themselves, by the choices they make, subject these paradigms to the crucible of human experience. It is a messy and often unjust process, but, at present, I can think of no way to improve upon it, and if and when I do, I will merely be participating in it. As John Maynard Keynes subtly put it (before Winston Churchill appropriated the quote in particular reference to Americans), “Men (sic) will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.”
The Emperor’s New Clothes
The law, like all social fictions, is a naked emperor whose clothes we are taught to admire. Law school is the in-depth analysis of the fine raiments the naked emperor wears. To the curmudgeonly philosopher who feels obliged to point out that the whole process is the reification of an unreality, that the real fates of real human beings are decided by a confused little man behind a curtain, that the Great and Powerful Oz is all smoke and mirrors, this vast fiction is malignant rather than benign, half empty rather than half full. But it is neither particularly malignant nor particularly benign; it is what it is.
Not all social fictions, not all social institutional contexts, are equal; not all are of equal “quality.” A quick survey of systems of justice and checks on power that the world has yet produced suggests that the myth of “the rule of law” is worth retaining for the time being.
That the fiction evolves, driven by some combination of psychological needs and material desires, through political struggles large and small, is, at the very least, one of nature’s fascinating wonders. Rather than apes foraging in the African savanna, naked and vulnerable to all of nature’s limitless injustices and indignities, humans now live clothed in the products of the mind, which inflict limitless injustices and indignities of their own. And yet, these fictions, these products of the mind, these technologies and social institutions, afford me the luxury of contemplating them, while sitting in this comfortable chair, sipping my favorite beverage. Through such contemplations, and a prospective career dedicated to helping sew and select the naked emperor’s imaginary wardrobe, I hope to marginally influence the evolution of legal memes in such a way as to ever-so-slightly increase human welfare. The American judicial system is still laden with injustices and indignities, with intolerable frustrations and galling deficiencies. There is no cause for complacency. But this horribly imperfect system fares well in comparison to known alternatives. And it certainly beats running from lions on the African savanna.
In a modification of my last post, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, in which I described how memes and paradigms form and spread and combine into social institutions, I added on a few paragraphs describing the fractal geometry of that social institutional landscape, which form the first few paragraphs (following this one) of this post.
The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, aficionados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized professional knowledge through games and entertainments to particular opinions or judgments. Rumors, observations, shared jokes, novel insights, technical innovations all swirl and sweep through humanity like gusting breezes through endless grasslands.
Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, or proliferating due to their economic or military utility, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.
Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.
If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have innumerable distinct colors and shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, the hues shifting as the memes evolve, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with its unique set of genes (and subsequent physical affects of variable environmental factors), by its unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity for a static but in-depth version of the imagery described above.)
But distinct memes themselves are changing as they flow, being modified in individual minds or synthesized with other memes to produce new ones, displacing or disproving others, in a constant dance of creation and destruction interspersed with the flowing patterns of modification, dispersion, expansion, and contraction. Memes are catalysts, interacting with human predispositions, existing cognitive architectures, and the natural environment to produce new forms, new technologies, new social institutions, and to render old ones obsolete or out of favor.
As discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, some of those memes are intentionally cobbled into purposive systems, or “technologies,” programming or channeling some set of natural or behavioral phenomena in service to desired ends. Those that program natural phenomena are the ones conventionally thought of as “technologies,” enabling us to do things we were once unable to do, and to produce wealth and comfort and opportunity (as well both intentional and unintentional damage to human beings, their physical infrastructure, and the natural environment) far in excess of what we once were able to produce. These technologies and technological domains (e.g., electrical, digital, etc., as well as, as explained below, market, contractual, etc.) interact with the more haphazardly accumulating and evolving meme-clusters of the social institutional landscape. Technologies can be thought of as the engineered architectures carved out of the social institutional “natural environment,” the latter comprised of the wilderness of foundational linguistic and cultural forms as well as the economic, political, and ideological accretions diffusely growing in conjunction with our various purposive systems.
(The distinction between “engineered architectures” and the rest of the social institutional landscape can be a bit hazy, since the rest of the landscape is a function of human purposive action as well. The difference is that the architectures are consciously invented components, such as the airplane or the US Constitution, while the rest is everything that organically grows around and in conjunction with them, such as social norms, cultural motifs, and folk beliefs. In a sense, it might be correct to say that the entire social institutional landscape is composed of microcosmic “architectures,” if examined closely enough, since it is the accretion of individual purposive actions. Indeed, technologies are to the social institutional landscape what the social institutional landscape is to Nature itself, an increased focusing and intentionality -in a sense, a distillation- of diffusely accreting ”purposiveness.” This is one more aspect of the fractal recursiveness of The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)
While technologies programming physical phenomena are what we most commonly think of when we think of “technologies,” there are undeniable social institutional technologies as well, such as currency instruments (facilitating multilateral, global, on-going exchange, and the enormous economy based on it), enforceable contracts (allowing people to bind one another to mutually beneficial collective action that would have been difficult or impossible in the absence of such instruments), scientific methodology (allowing a more robust and reliable growth in knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the natural world than had been previously possible, and, in fact, underwriting an explosion in the proliferation and sophistication of new technologies), and legal procedure (allowing a more reliable and vigilant system of determining truth in disputes between individuals or between individuals and the state). The United States Constitution, in fact, is the codification of an intentionally invented social institutional purposive system.
New social institutional technologies are constantly being explored, experimented with, implemented, and either proliferate or languish according to their relative reproductive success. In fact, governments are factories of such technologies, passing laws and regulations, creating administrative agencies, establishing new systems and markets, signing treaties with verification and enforcement provisions, forging new social institutions to deal with emergent or suddenly more salient issues and challenges (such as the creation of the United Nations in the wake of World War II, or of tradable carbon market instruments in the context of the Kyoto Protocol. See, e.g., Political Market Instruments).
But just as new technologies in the conventional sense can be created in people’s garages or in small start-ups formed by highly educated young people, so too can new social institutional technologies emerge in contexts more humble than those of the halls of government or international treaty conferences. Many diffuse technological innovations, of both the conventional and social institutional varieties, have occurred in conjunction with information technologies, which have come to form such a vital framework within our social institutional landscape. The Netroots movement is an excellent example of diffuse social institutional innovation in conjunction with emerging physical technologies, contributing substantially to the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.
A particularly good example of a set of robust social institutional innovations contrived by a very small cadre of political entrepreneurs is described in the book The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado, by (pre-eminent Colorado political broadcast journalist) Adam Schrager and (former Republican Colorado state house representative) Rob Witwer. The book describes a confluence of new state laws (both campaign finance and term-limit limitations), a very small group of highly motivated and capable extremely wealthy individuals (“the gang of four”), and the targeted channeling of huge amounts of money by them into non-campaign organizations such as political 527s, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, each with its own advantages and limitations, to affect state legislature races, transforming the Colorado political landscape in the process.
The Tea Party movement, as well, clearly has both some grass roots political entrepreneurial characteristics to it, as well as more centrally orchestrated aspects, both involving some social institutional purposive systems, channeling the deep well of jingoistic “Political Fundamentalism” in the United States, and the reactionary anger to the combination of the Obama victory in 2008 and the perception of Big Government (“socialist”) actions and policies, tapping into inchoate bigotries and xenophobia, all in service, ultimately, to corporate interests (“small government” meaning non-regulation of corporate behavior, which in turn means foisting costs of production in the forms of externalities onto the public).
The question facing those who want to affect the dynamical fractal geometry of our ever-changing social institutional landscape in purposive and guided ways is how best to do so, where and how to flap the butterfly’s wings in such a way so as to cascade through the system in reverberating, self-amplifying winds of social change. As I put it near the end of The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology:
Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness form the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.
I invite and implore all readers to continue to contemplate this question, to consider how best to dance with these complex systems in ways which yield greater human welfare and liberation, greater realization of our humanity and our consciousness. In the meantime, please consider my own evolving “A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill” (or the short version: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified) as one possible starting point. This social institutional world of ours is both a product and source of our genius, in an articulation of coherence and individuation, of interdependence and liberty, of collective and individual consciousness. It is the collective mind upon which we draw, and which draws upon us. It is a narrative we write and act out together in a sprawling improvisation, more subtle and complex than any that has ever been bound into volumes or performed on a stage. Let’s write it well.
Political discourse habitually loses the forest for the trees, because too rarely do we discuss human consciousness in political terms, though consciousness is both the soil from which all of our other endeavors grow, and the essence of the fruit which those endeavors strive to bear.
Consciousness is both political and evolutionary: It is fought over every step of the way, but carved on a lathe of trial and error such that it transcends, over time, the battles that comprise it. Economist John Maynard Keynes summed up this apparent paradox most eloquently (and humorously): “[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.”
British Biologist Richard Dawkins framed this process in terms of “memes,” cognitions which, like genes, are packets of information which self-replicate (through communication), mutate (through interpretation, synthesis, and innovation), compete for reproductive success (in individual choices of what to believe and what techniques to utilize, which aggregate into social institutions and technological regimes), and thus evolve.
American Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn, at about the same time (the mid-1960s), framed the process as one invigorated by the emergence of dominant paradigms (from the chaos of competing views), thus allowing focused investigation within that paradigm, the subsequent accumulation of anomalies (findings that are incompatible with the paradigm), and an eventual paradigm shift through attention to and resolution of those anomalies.
Combining these two independently developed theories into a single framework, we can discern in the realms of human consciousness and social institutions (which are two sides of a single coin) one very robust manifestation of the ubiquitous interplay of the parts and the whole –the more local (or microcosmic) and the more global (or macrocosmic)– an interplay that exists across levels from the quanta or superstrings of physics to the universe in its entirety, and across our arbitrarily siloed categories of natural phenomena. The reproductive robustness of memes and the shifting of paradigms are interdependent phenomena, with the robustness of memes being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the paradigms into which they coalesce, and the robustness of paradigms being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the memes that comprise them.
For instance, the “anomalies” of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts are an example of emerging memes that are incompatible with a prevailing paradigm, often displacing now discredited opposing memes that were compatible with that paradigm, thus creating a new set of memes with increasing reproductive success that simultaneously diminish the reproductive robustness of the displaced memes, first by countervailing empirical evidence (and subsequently, for the public at large, by a removal of the stamp of the endorsement of expert opinion), thus leading to an eventual replacement of the entire paradigm. As a result, other memes that comprise that paradigm but are not found in the paradigm that comes to replace it are weakened (though not necessarily eliminated) in tandem with the paradigm itself, even if no other evidence or social processes arose to undermine those memes.
(This also points to the value of attempting conceptually to separate memes and the paradigms to which they belong to some extent, since a discredited paradigm doesn’t necessarily imply that all of the memes that comprise it are similarly discredited, nor do discredited memes within a paradigm necessarily discredit that paradigm in its entirety. So, for instance, there are those who roundly reject the concept of “God,” an amazingly robust meme throughout human history, because they rightly criticize some of the paradigms which have evolved around it, though, as I argue in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, the meme of god and gods may have great positive value to human consciousness if embedded in other kinds of paradigms.)
George Lakoff offered another angle of insight into this set of both political and evolutionary processes in his book The Political Mind. Lakoff emphasizes that the human mind thinks in frames and narratives which can as easily support rational or irrational beliefs and opinions; it is by appealing to the human mind as it really works (by fitting new information into existing frames and narratives), rather than as we would like to believe it works (weighing out competing arguments on their merits, and selecting the most rational one), that particular memes and paradigms (with their implications for how well they serve either reason and goodwill or their opposites) are advanced.
Referring back to paragraph two of this essay (including the quote by John Maynard Keynes), the irrational exploration of “all other alternatives” is a function of how well those alternatives often appeal to our existing frames and narratives, while the eventual triumph of “the rational thing” is a function of how relentlessly utility seeps into those frames and narratives and oh-so-slowly weeds out those that are irrational and self-destructive, creating the paradox of a horrifying prevalence of irrationality in the short run, serving a remarkable florescence of highly sophisticated rational forms in the long run.
The complexity and subtlety of these processes are dazzling, with many apparent contradictions as a result. To begin to explore these complexities and subtleties, please peruse my series of essays that give this paradigm a more precise and comprehensive treatment: Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.
Nested within these intertwined progressions of memes and paradigms are bitter battles over what is and is not true. Scientists might discern a heliocentric solar system, but inquisitors can obstruct and punish the dissemination of this knowledge. There is, however, no a priori reason to assume that either the heretics or the defenders of the faith (whether religious or secular), in any given instance, are on the side of truth or utility: Either can be right, and either can be wrong. History is defined by the accumulation of victories of innovative memes over established memes, but this belies the vaster number of innovative memes that did not prevail, often due to their relative superficiality or naiveté. Just as in biological evolution, in which the vast majority of mutations are disadvantageous to the reproductive success of that gene, so too the vast majority of radical new ideas are less useful to human welfare than their well-established counterparts honed by the genius of time and numbers.
Of course, that genius is forever skewed by concentrations of political and economic power, such that existing memes and paradigms may disproportionately favor those already materially favored, and new ideas that may produce less human welfare may be at least momentarily popular if they are either effectively disseminated by and in service to those with more political and economic power, or if they are products of certain kinds of intense reactions to that power, promising to distribute that which is produced more fairly, but succeeding only in destroying or undermining existing institutions in ways destructive to the interests of the poor and disenfranchised as well as the rich and powerful. Often, some combination of these two forces is at work, as in the case of the current Tea Party Movement.
Many, if not most, marginal extensions of the franchise, on the other hand, have historically led to a more robust rather than less robust production of human welfare, enriching the rich as well as the poor. The lessons of history, therefore, suggest that increasing distributional justice generally increases total wealth, increases social justice, and contributes to the social stability that is conducive to both, but that the increase in distributional justice must not be overly dismissive of the complex and highly functional social institutional landscape that has evolved over time, even though it has evolved to favor the interests of some over others.
Modern political struggles are defined by these dynamics: Conservatives (in theory) defend the tried-and-true wisdom of established institutions, while progressives (in theory) strive to extend the franchise and refine the social institutional landscape in service to human welfare. To the extent that we can all acknowledge the wisdom and utility of both agendas, and devote ourselves collectively to their simultaneous realization, we will have increased the efficiency of this evolutionary process, wasting less time and effort on blind ideological disputes, and devoting more productive energy to cautious innovation. This is not to suggest that we are capable of eliminating partisanship or of living by a happy consensus, but rather that reasonable people of good will can be drawn toward a center defined by the application of careful analysis to reliable data in service to human welfare. Let our disputes be increasingly defined by the limits of our reason rather than by the extent of our bigotry.
More than anything else, my own efforts have always been, and continue to be, focused on human consciousness, and on the goal of ushering in a paradigm shift in how we predominantly perceive and address this inevitable political-evolutionary process. In one sense, the paradigm shift I hope for is the mere continuation of an historical trajectory long underway, passing through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the political revolutions (including our own) informed by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the accelerating stream of social, technological, political, and economic innovations that have ensued ever since.
History, Social Theory, Science, and Philosophy all conspire to impress upon us that change is, in a sense, the only constant. Certainly, the human mind reaches beneath that frothing sea of change, and looks for the constants that underwrite it. But those underlying relative constants, too, like the laws of physics, change, at least as far as our awareness of them is concerned, and we must reach further down still, as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Dawkins (and many others) did, to find the relative constants that underwrite those rules of change (See The Wizards’ Eye for a fantasy-fiction representation of this). As the Taoists understood thousands of years ago, whatever we can reduce to words or equations is not the immutable truth. It is essential, therefore, that while we admire the brilliance of our founding concepts, and respect their power and sophistication, we honor them by understanding that they, like those that preceded them, are meant to grow richer and subtler under the patient lathe of historical experience.
It is in this spirit that I suggest that it is time to recognize that “Liberty,” that most precious and fundamental of our values, should not be treated as the ossified talisman that it has become for so many, but should be appreciated for the living concept that it in reality is. “Liberty,” to too many, merely means “freedom from government.” While that was the core of its meaning at the time of the American Revolution, it has evolved, as good memes do, to embrace the mobilization of our consciousness, of our entire social institutional and technological landscape, to actively augment freedom, to produce and distribute a wealth of sustainable opportunities through which human beings, and the human spirit, can more effectively and enduringly thrive.
For those who find this suggestion heretical, consider the words of Thomas Jefferson himself: “[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Even in Jefferson’s time, the government that defined and enforced property rights was seen to augment rather than interfere with individual liberty. With the growth of the discipline of economics, we have come to understand that the government that reduces transaction costs and internalizes externalities in order to facilitate a more robust and efficient market economy augments individual liberty and human welfare as well. Who now doubts that the government that amended the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery and to extend the franchise to women, and that passed legislation to protect civil rights even from private infringements, augmented individual liberty and human welfare by doing so? And who does not recognize that the expansion of government more “socialist” than any before or since in American history, the institutionalization of free and compulsory public education, is not absolutely necessary to the individual liberty and life-long welfare of all of those who benefit from it?
If the state were to be removed from the equation (ignoring, for this conversation, the foreign and private vortices of organized political economic power that would fill the vacuum), people would band together for predation or defense, violent gangs eventually coalescing into local governments, in a sense pressing the reset button on political history, and leaving us with an undoubtedly more tyrannical government than the one it replaced. The state is an inherent part of the formula, for good or for ill. The challenge of using it for good is the one we must face. The threat to liberty is not state action, but rather failure on any level to ensure equality of opportunity and diffusion of political and economic power: A government captured by any faction is tyrannical, but a government effectively designed to act as the agent of the people is liberating.
Of course, the latter challenge is never fully met. The disparate ideologies and interests of the people ensure that some will never feel that their government is acting as their agent. But this country has laid a brilliant foundation for addressing the challenge, by combining representative democracy with constitutionalism, thus enabling the many to prevail, with constitutional limits protecting minorities from their tyranny. Within this context, government is far more our agent than our enemy.
Doing the best we can with the materials we have is the essence of the human endeavor, to which all reasonable people of good will can and should dedicate themselves. Neither obstinate obstructionists clinging with ideological purity to historical memes unadapted to changing circumstances, nor rash radicals dismissing and disdaining our rich and highly sophisticated social institutional heritage, are contributing most effectively to this enterprise.
Let’s join together in common cause, rational people of good will striving to do the best we can. We will continue to debate the details, and form parties around our differences. But let’s leave blind ideology, whether of the Right or of the Left, on the dust heap of history, and instead, with eyes and minds wide open, use our accumulated wisdom, our historical experience, and our improved techniques, to wear a coat that fits us now, rather than be straight-jacketed by the one that fit us as a child.