The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.
The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.
That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?
The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.
The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.
We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.
The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.
In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.
Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.
The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.
The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.
There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.
To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.
(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)
It’s not news that political advertising is deceptive (http://www.denverpost.com/election2010/ci_16264271), that our treatment of electoral politics as a spectator sport trivializes it, and that our oversimplistic reduction of the challenges we face to platitudes and slogans creates a noisy obstacle to governing ourselves intelligently and effectively. The blogosphere does not help, amplifying the noise rather than cutting through it (One Colorado Pols blogger, in a moment of unintentional irony, wrote that my choice to focus on understanding and discussing issues, including spending lots of time talking with people in my district, rather than raising money and playing the political marketing game, made a mockery of the political process). Grass roots movements are choked with the crabgrass of superficiality.
The most fundamental issues we face are not taxes, services, or even campaign finance reform. They’re not health care or civil liberties or any of the other substantive issues that occupy our attention and directly affect our lives. The most fundamental issues are, as always, procedural, on how most effectively to solve substantive issues and resolve political disputes. The most fundamental issue is: How do we refine our political process to better liberate rather than distract our collective genius, to apply our thoughts and actions to the challenge of improving the quality of our lives rather than to the challenge of winning the cock fights of dueling false certainties?
I understand the temptation to focus exclusively on accomplishing small gains through traditional means, rather than acknowledging the need to tackle the fundamental, long-term political challenges we face. It’s as though we’re trapped in a pit, fighting over the scraps within it rather than working together to climb out. It may not be possible to turn our backs on the brawl constantly underway in this pit of politics in which we’re trapped, but we have to find ways to free ourselves enough of its immediate demands that we can attend at least marginally to the ultimate goal: Getting out of the pit. And that means refining the political process, hopefully enough to constitute a complete paradigm shift (see The Politics of Consciousness).
I’ve written that, to confront this fundamental political issue, there are three “virtues” we must emphasize: Reason, goodwill, and humility (or perhaps “skepticism”, the reluctance to assume that anything is true until it is well demonstrated) (The Foundational Progressive Agenda ). I am not arguing that we can just ignore the implications of being trapped in the pit of politics-as-usual, and dedicate ourselves exclusively to promoting these three virtues. As Henry Kissinger once said in a different context, that would only succeed in ceding the world to the most ruthless. But neither should we be satisfied with winning brawls in the pit, never attending to the more fundamental challenge of getting out of it altogether.
The irony and frustration of the human condition is that we’re capable of doing so much better. If we were able to address ourselves, as a society, as a world, to the collective enterprise of creating an ever more robust, sustainable, and fair global civilization, we’d be able to create a far less brutal, and far more accommodating, context for our lives. While it’s true that stating this does not move us toward it, and that the challenge of getting people on board, agreeing to work together to address ourselves to these most fundamental of substantive challenges, is as daunting as any we face, it’s also true that progress can be made on this front. And it behooves us to do so.
We need a new social movement, one that is not about the scraps in the pit, but about getting out of the pit altogether. We need a movement that suspends discussion (in the context of that movement) of all of the particular substantive policies and issues we are brawling over, and addresses instead the challenge of getting us more focused on working together as teammates in a collective endeavor, facing shared challenges and opportunities.
This is not something that candidates and office holders can, or perhaps even should, attend to. This is not something that the political parties can, or perhaps even should, attend to. But it is something that we, as a people, have to attend to. We have squandered the wealth of our genius far too egregiously for far too long.
Human history is about cumulative and threshold advances in how well we tap and utilize our genius. One of the best examples of a threshold improvement is the development of the scientific method, which vastly increased the signal-to-noise ratio in the information we generated through our observations of and inferences about the world around us. Making such advances is neither beyond our grasp, nor accomplished independently of the individual and organized efforts of living human beings to accomplish them.
The similarities between politics and science are not trivial. Both involve competing views, passionately held. Both involve bitter rivalries, brutal battles, and eventual outcomes that favor some ideas over others. Both involve resolutions that affect our lives. The main difference is that, in science, we have tamed this process to a far greater extent than we have tamed it in politics. And the benefits of having done so are astronomical.
The advance represented by the scientific revolution is a procedural one, not a substantive one. It is the creation of a more robust and less arbitrary methodology, reducing the casual and drawn-out processes of trial and error to a focused process of systematic investigation. If we can implement such a wondrous step in how we understand the nature of the world and universe around and within us, then we can certainly at least contemplate the possibility of implementing a similarly wondrous step in how we coordinate and frame our shared existence.
In fact, Science is a special cut-out from the universe of politics. Fighting over what is and is not true is a fundamentally political enterprise (see The Politics of Consciousness). Issues that we now recognize to fall clearly under the umbrella of science were once clearly merely political, with equallly rancorous conflicts of power and organization over which vision of the world would prevail. Eventually, to a large if forever incomplete degree, the preeminence of the scientific method to determine what is true and what isn’t, to frame those brawls within an agreed-upon procedure that maximized the influence of reason upon the outcome, to determine what causes result in what effects, has become widely accepted. The challenge now is to continue to subject all political disputes on matters that can be to scientific methodology (we already do, but relegated to the margins of political discourse), and, more dauntingly, to cultivate an agreement that we will privilege those conclusions over others more haphazardly arrived at.
We need a social movement that advances the notion that investing ourselves in the science of self-governance is good for humanity, that creating a context in which it is not just those who shout the loudest, but those who have best applied reason to the most reliable evidence, that prevail. We need to keep fighting to be a more enlightened society. That is the most fundamental political battle of all.