Things seen from an unusual and enlightening point of view. Things that deepen understanding and perception.
Maps of History and Maps of the Future
By Hugh Miller
Perception and Prediction
Every perception is rooted in relativity. Every story, no matter how grand or subtle can be traced back to its author and their personal story. Every background has a background. Every measurement suppresses other measures to capture its sample of reality. Every given describes certain limits of what can be given as it dutifully fulfills its own prophecy.
A person without history has amnesia. Though surrounded by artifacts and traces of earlier life she is powerless to interpret them. Such a person looking on the ruins of a massive heroic sculpture exposed by digging isn’t an archeologist, but a dreamer. The unknown past becomes a personal narrative built to satisfy emotional needs and balance cultural accounts. No person is without a history for long because it is a nagging need and an essential frame for self-hood. It is the nature of that history, its quality, meaning, and function that hangs in the balance.
Let me define a History as a distinct community cultural memory, the canon of stories, facts, and myths that define that local community. HISTORY (all caps) is the collection, depersonalizing, and averaging out of these highly subjective, “personal” cultural Histories. It’s like describing a thousand people rather than a single person. The truths revealed are broad and average. Patterns appear. Their view is from overhead and people are smaller in scale. The story is likelier to be true in a general way but suffers a loss of narrative buy-in as it rises too far above ground level.
Our amnesiac’s problem resolves in a different kind of uncertainty if she goes to a historian for help because she will be sold a bill of goods. It’s a bit as if she’d consulted a private eye who delves into her past, and tells her what kind of person she ought to be or could be if she tried. Every historian has a model, a theory about humanity. These aren’t all equal in their depth or accuracy but they all fit someone’s bill of particulars. Even a very modest, even-handed HISTORY is a well ground ax.
Rolled up inside the skin of HISTORY is what people are, and what they are worth.
Every HISTORY is a product and has an implicit view of where the human story came from, where it stands currently and where it must go. Each HISTORY is a trajectory. We’ve got to hope our customer without a history has a critical temperament and lots of curiosity or she’s likely to accept the first story she hears or the first one that pleases her by smoothly blending into the story she already believes.
Nothing on Earth is more believable than the confirmation of our own biases. This dinky and far from complete article examines a few of the theories, paradigms, and trajectories she has to choose from. As she chooses, she accepts assumptions about the causes, meanings, and direction of her own life.
The Collapsed Golden Age:
Or: We have failed.
In The Annals, Tacitus pauses in his history of Rome to offer up one of the commonest myths of human history:
“Mankind in the earliest age lived without a single vicious impulse, without shame or guilt, and, consequently, without punishments and restraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits; and as men desired nothing against morality, they were debarred from nothing by fear. When however they began to throw off equality, and ambition and violence usurped the place of self-control and modesty, despotisms grew up and became perpetual among many nations.”
Here we have the Golden Age and the great decline to modern man (the modern man of two millennia ago). It seems we have a latent image of ourselves as debauched weaklings in the shadow of the ancients. Never mind that the ancients stood a foot shorter and lived half as long. This Great Decline model seems like a somewhat mystical longing for the simplicity of the hunter/gatherer /free wandering life. Village and later city life will necessarily be set up differently; Cooperation will play a bigger part, and we must all dim the lights and sound of our true self in the name of getting along with strangers. The discontent of our current lives suggests a failure to honor some fundamental principle of our ancestor’s lives. The reality, of course, is that hunter-gatherer life WAS simple, pure and egalitarian compared to the complex and jarring existence we all adopted when we grouped together in huge numbers in the proto-cities of the neolithic revolution.
This basic story model can be pressed into the service of many different ends. Creative variations on this model include; Rousseau’s noble savage and Hitler’s Ice Giants for example.
By Our Own Bootstraps (or at least Grandpa’s Bootstraps)
Or: We’re succeeding!
Charles Darwin chimes in from The Descent of Man
“To believe that man was aboriginally civilized and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.”
How Victorian to stress the cheerfulness of one’s view of evolution! Every vision of the past and its implied story about the present and future supports cultural self-justification. No history will speak blatantly against the way its modern-day descendants are living. Part of the bargain we strike with our history is mutual forgiveness…or at least silence. The relationship can be like a family who are all painfully aware of “That Story” and wouldn’t dream of bringing it up.
Overcoming the Disgusting Weakness Built Into Us On Purpose by God (in His Mercy)
Or: You sinners are going toward God. Look sharp!
Holding Darwin’s map before a fun-house mirror we find St. Augustine holding its parallel ancestor, The City of God that will shape notions of cultural progress as a kind of self-improvement:
“The education of the human race…has advanced like that of an individual, through certain epochs or as it were, ages so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things and from the visible to the invisible…It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons…in order that the desire of even these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things.”
Augustine finds the physical world loathsome yet cites examples of its beauty (in the form of flowers and plants) as evidence of God’s magnificence made manifest on earth. Oddly enough he sees none of this divinity in the beauty of women or the taste of good food (actually he did, but he wasn’t about to include that sort of thing in his official theology). Augustine was a self-indulgent man but a strict and unimaginative theologian.
The stamp of his thought-forms still marks “The West” not by people desiring the things of this world less but by respecting them less. Augustine’s criteria defining a deserving citizen of the city of god will eventually lead to the breaking of uncooperative bodies to release the indwelling spooks known as their immortal souls. Freed from the failure of their gross earthly selves they are fit at last to join his one dimensional “City of God”.
Even detesting this stuff as I do, I suspect that the overall impossible expectations placed on the Christian conscience lead some western minds to strain against their philosophical limits… leading toward a new vision of humanistic values. I believe there may have been a bit of a counter-intuitive payoff for humankind. It doesn’t hurt that this would have pissed off Augustine something awful.
God in Everything: Meaning in the Noise
Or: We are part of an amazing system.
Here is Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace:
“You say you can’t see a reign of goodness and truth on earth. Nor could I, and it cannot be seen if one looks on our life here as the end of everything. On earth, here, on this earth there is no truth, all is false and evil; but in the universe, in the whole universe, there is a kingdom of truth and we who are now the children of the earth are-eternally-children of the whole universe… Don’t I feel that I form one link, one step between the lower and higher beings in this vast, harmonious multitude of beings in whom the Supreme Power is manifest? If I see, clearly see, that ladder leading from plant to man, why should I suppose it breaks off at me and does not go farther and farther?”
Why indeed? Tolstoy has madly wedded Christianity to Darwinism but he has done it forthrightly, choosing what he wants, leaving what he does not. He will not be the first or the last to advance a kind of inspired evolutionary spirituality. I admit I feel somewhat at home in this vision. However, in the culture at large, it will never catch on. Making sense of a shotgun marriage of fundamentalist materialism and hard-rock religion is a big ask. The beauty in this idea is never revealed by coercion and social pressure, it must be discovered for oneself.
Pivoting into a New Paradigm
Augustine diminished humanity by hating and denying all that was animal in us. Early evolutionary science diminished us by denying all that was not.
In a cautious defense against the powerful, relentless forces of organized religion, the followers of Darwin advanced a sensible restriction: “We must not speculate beyond the data,” they say. Well, in the fossil record and the bodies of living organisms there is not the slightest evidence for or against divinity, using modern methods of detection. Solid scientific answers require a replicable experiment which always includes a means of relevant measuring. Continue reading
This is such a lovely thing all by itself, but it also struck me as a great way to describe what a dramatic spiritual awakening feels like inside you. The joy and relief at the end of separation and the opening of a completely new, unexpected and deeper relationship to life.
Science is a Gas Giant.
I don’t mean anything disparaging by that. It’s a mental model to freshen up our thinking.
The unequivocal territory of science is the sum of theories plus experiments that have unambiguous, replicable results. This body of knowledge is the diamond-hard core at the heart of science. There are a lot of physics and chemistry experiments here. They seem to know their parts by heart.
Just beyond the border of that core, the gas atmosphere begins but it is nearly as hard as the core itself. It’s a long, dense gradient from here to the wispy edge of the atmosphere that is literally made of thin clouds under scattered atoms and space. Close to the core, the experiments are as replicable as the day is long when you average them out. There are enough squishy, stochastic details here that any random experiment might say something new, but not useful. The ambiguous results are overwhelmed by un-ambiguous ones like a single black grain in a bag of white rice.*
Heading outward, the variables faced by theorists get more complicated and slippery. If the questions science aims to answer were pickle jars, we’d crack them open without a beat at the core, struggle with rubber gloves and screwdrivers around the middle, and create thought experiments about jars and pickles at the foggy upper edge. Your thought experiment may perfectly predict opening the jar, and what’s inside but it’ll be a long time before anyone gets a pickle.
There is an entire UNIVERSE of questions in need of answers outside this atmosphere. These are unscientific questions such as, are there orders of existence above this one, is there a god, is there any foundation to astrology, extrasensory perception, or life after death?
These pickle jars are literally unrecognizable as jars of pickles when dragged down into the atmosphere of the Scientific Gas Giant. The implications of unscientific questions are so far from detection or measure within the atmosphere that they are literally nonsense down there. They are all noise, no signal. Science reacts to these questions scornfully and answers unambiguously.
This is a bit like having a masseur go over your taxes or a policeman rate the quality of your dental work. You can do it, but why on earth would you? What scientists and new-age and religious believers should recognize above all is this:
The only possible response to an Un-Scientific Question is an Un-Scientific Answer.**
If you as a layman, doubt and question the diamond core of science, you’re opting for stupidity, because that shit is proven. Then there’s a long climb through that atmosphere where if you bet against the science you are going to lose. However, outside the atmosphere, no answer is scientific and every answer is unscientific. Most everything in life, especially stuff that truly matters, is outside the atmosphere. And that’s FINE! Inside the atmosphere good, outside good too!
Out here it comes down to style and passion. Cautious people, people afraid to be wrong, or thought silly, choose the Sciency Style©. It disparages and looks down on answers that come from outside the atmosphere even though the atmosphere can’t generate a relevant word about them. It isn’t science or even scientific, but it smells just like it. It’s a “grown-up” thing you wear like a headscarf or a tie, to fit in.
Thesis: Reality is allowed to have any, (and as many), details and causes as it wishes. We are allowed to speculate wildly about these.
Welcome to Crazy-Zoo!
How about we start speaking openly about the experiences of our hearts, minds, and souls. Forcing your life and words into sciency mode is no better than forcing them into fundamentalist religious mode. If you’re a “cards close to the chest” cautious person who hates ambiguity I’m not judging you. That’s the genuine version of you and that is what we need you to be.
If you censor yourself from a pro-social fear that some critical mass of idiots will hit their flashpoint and overrun the rest of us pushing their dumb ass beliefs, let me reassure you that happened LONG ago. This isn’t about that. This is about opening your horizons from their current cramped position. It’s about canalizing restricted freedom of thought. Remember, the flatness we’d be arguing in favor of isn’t supported by the scientific method, it’s just a posture.
Especially if you’ve censored yourself out of fear of judgement I want you to uncork the ocean of reality poetry inside you and let it flow. Crazy-Zoo is my “Might as well own it” name for the wide-open territory ahead where we say what we really think, (and even learn what we really think), in bold, colorful language without checking to see who approves.
We’ll soon revisit and explore Crazy-Zoo. Hope to see you there.
|* These black grains, by the way, are the life rafts clung to by those fighting against truth for pay or trollish perversity. Global warming and a spherical Earth, for two examples.
|** There is a scientifically correct answer: “I have no way of knowing”.
The title is reputedly what the intellectual swashbuckler and psychological pioneer William James found he had written down during a drug-induced revelation of ultimate truth: “Overall there is a smell of fried onions”.
In his essay “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide” he wrote:
“only as sobriety returns, the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly at a few disjointed words and phrases, as one stares at a cadaverous-looking snow peak from which sunset glow has just fled, or at a black cinder left by an extinguished brand.”
We descend from ecstasy to the ordinary world as if “Whatever goes up, must come down” applied equally to airplanes and inspiration. Emotionally and psychologically it is as if Newtonian physics rules our inner lives. If there is a version of gravity in there I think it’s the inevitable return to the linguistic/rational level of human reality where we conduct all our business with each other. The human mind surfaces here when submerged and re-lands here after being elevated. This is the homeostatic balance of our kind, the default neurological coordinates of return from highs and lows. Notice that highs and lows aren’t being critically evaluated, merely suppressed as not conducive to social intercourse. The default settings for humanity are designed to function as the center of a common Venn chart, an area where we all overlap despite other differences.
This realm of normal life is completely dominated by words and concepts as if they were the fundamental atomic forces and structure here. Concepts and words (within a general logic framework) are everything here from the solid ground to a breathable atmosphere. The human community is contained within this verbal\conceptual structure but only a few even recognize its existence: Water isn’t perceived by the fish. Within this domain, we don’t usually feel limited or cramped but only realities that can be sealed inside words or concepts can exist here. These can be considered, shared and exchanged, but only, like a nerd’s action figures, if still sealed in the original container. Flatland is a reality composed of things with no objective reality, it is equally Plato’s Cave and Keanu’s Matrix.
Dwell on the beauty of life, watch the stars and see yourself running with them.
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations