[This is the sixth piece in the series published on 3QuarksDaily.]
[This is the sixth and final entry in the series I’ve offered here.]
Please Permit Me to Talk as if Compelled by Truth Serum
It’s an awkward position to be in. Much of what I’ve spent more than a half century creating would likely die with me if I died now. Which would be no big deal except that I have long strongly believed it could prove valuable to a human future I care deeply about.
That has driven me, in my mid-70s, to throw caution to the wind. Which means doing everything in my power to get this creation of mine out into the world far enough that it would survive my own death.
The awkwardness involves my having come to the judgment that this “everything” includes my making claims that some may dismiss as grandiose. But my conviction of the validity of those claims compels me to take that risk.
What I feel impelled to get out into other people’s minds – so it would not die with me – is what I call an “integrative vision” for understanding the human story: a way of seeing things whole that has important implications for how we see ourselves as a species, how we understand what we see in the pages of human history, and how we perceive the challenges humankind must meet if our civilization is to survive for the long haul.
For a while, I tried to resign myself to the reality that, despite my efforts, most of that “integrative vision” would disappear with me. That would have worked, had I been able to look at it just in terms of my life, and my desires. I’ve had my share of wishes come true.
But that’s never been what it’s mostly about. Since the first big piece of that integrative vision came to me in 1970, I have always been driven by the conviction that there was something here that might help humankind survive for the long haul, rather than end our story in self-destruction.
Eventually I came around to thinking, “With such things at stake, what risk would not be worth taking?”
I resolved that I would throw caution to the winds and speak the truth as I see it, as if I were compelled by truth serum, as if unencumbered by fear.
And I decided that I would try to mitigate the risk by asking the reader: “Please don’t come to any conclusions about the validity of the excessive-sounding claims without checking it out.”
(And reading the previous five entries in this series would be a good way to begin that checking out.)
The Issue of the Plausibility of the Claims
My goal in this piece is therefore straightforward: to maximize the chances that this “integrative vision” I’ve put together will be housed in other people’s consciousness (and therefore maximize the chance that it will survive the extinguishing of my own consciousness).
That means that my target audience consists of those people who would really want to have the kind of understanding I’m claiming to offer, who would therefore incorporate enough of it into their thinking to create the possibility that this “integrative vision” would be available to a plausible human future (where it might have a beneficial impact).
Trying to put myself in the shoes of such people, I imagine they’d start by being doubtful about the plausibility of my claims. Hearing a thinker (who’s not world famous) declare that he’s put together an illuminating way of seeing the human story, I would ask three questions:
- Is it plausible that this person would be a credible judge of Big Picture ways of understanding the human world?
- Does this person show signs of narcissistic over-estimation of himself?
- If those claims are valid, how are we to explain the world’s not having dealt with this “integrative vision” as if it were a Big Deal?
That last question has been one I’ve pondered now for several decades, ever since the aftermath of the bit of a splash made by the publication of the foundational idea in 1984 with the book The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.
The book was beautifully produced, and treated as a major publication, by the University of California Press. The Parable of the Tribes was greeted by New York Times with a full-page review, and was soon featured in Esquire Magazine. An international academic society — that focused on political psychology and the quest for peace during the dangerous days of the renewed Cold War – awarded it a prize.
What happened in the years following has been a mystery I’ve pondered now for decades.
When that idea came to me in 1970, it blew me away. Expecting that it would have a similar impact on others, I devoted a decade to developing and presenting the idea as compellingly as was in me to do. I imagined that it would immediately prompt an excited and far-reaching reconsideration of how our civilization understands the human story.
But that’s not what happened.
The idea got out there, with the “splash” the book made, putting forward bold assertions that– if valid — would have profound implications. According to how I was brought up to imagine how things worked in the realm of thought, the Thinking World would feel compelled to either 1) refute that potentially impactful set of revolutionary ideas, or 2) accept what had been persuasively presented, and follow the implications of that truth, or 3) continue to struggle with it, to evaluate whether or not fundamental changes in one’s way of understanding the world were called for.
But what ensued was none of those. Within less than a decade, the Thinking World simply allowed the idea to disappear. Never refuted in the least. But not adopted either. Nor grappled with.
That was an outcome I’d never imagined: that the Thinking World to which I’d sent a message that was bone-shaking for me when I received it, would simply walk away from the challenge The Parable of the Tribes posed.
But whatever the explanation of the world’s ignoring the argument I made, what that means for the intended readers of this piece is this: the fact that the world has not treated what I presented as a Big Deal represents no evidence against the validity of my claims. No one ever laid a glove on the argument the book presented.
So, then the question comes back to whether my judgement about such things is to be trusted. Relevant to answering that question, when I’ve asked it of myself, is that for the purpose of developing such a capacity it would be difficult to design a better background than the path I took during my formative years:
- My father was a brilliant man, and a learned social thinker. In discussions as far back as I can remember, my father shared his ways of understanding the human world.
- Then I spent four years as an undergraduate at Harvard, mostly studying the great thinkers (about the human world) from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Hobbes to Adam Smith to Tocqueville to Marx to Weber and Durkheim, and especially Freud, graduating summa cum laude based on a book I’d written as a senior — (under the tutelage of one of America’s foremost psychologists, Erik Erikson, and foremost sociologists, Robert Bellah) — utilizing psychological and sociological concepts to illuminate the meaning of tragic drama in ancient Athens and Elizabethan England .
- My graduate studies were at the University of Chicago to study with the Committee on Social Thought, at Yale in American Studies, before eventually getting my doctorate at Berkeley in a program specially created to accommodate my “original theory of the evolution of civilization.”
Such a background gives no guarantee. But it certainly seems to make it plausible that it would give someone the ability to recognize what is and isn’t a well developed a Big Picture Idea about the Human World, how well it holds water, and how important is the light that it sheds.
Of course, judging one’s own work could be a different matter. I’ve examined closely the question, “Am I deluding myself?” and over the years have checked also with others, feeling a need to examine that closely because of the mystery of how the world has treated it.
My best answer is that, though I recognize my narcissistic needs, I don’t see evidence that ego-driven distortions require any more than a minor downward adjustment in my assessments of my own work. (Truth serum requires that I say what I see, and there are some others who see the same thing.)
I wouldn’t be writing this essay, nor still taking risks at 76 to achieve my Mission Unaccomplished, if I were not confident that this “integrative vision” establishes some things that are true, important, and not widely understood. It’s something that ought not be squandered, as it now is in danger of being.
So, having examined those three questions many times for myself over some thirty years, those are the answers that I’ve come to. My hope, of course, is that those answers would satisfy the kind of people to whom this essay (and this series) is addressed, persuading them that it’s necessary to at least check out the claims I’ve made.
(It can be checked out not only through the series here, including a quick recapitulation at the end of this essay, but also — if those essays establish sufficient credibility and seem promising — it can be checked out more thoroughly in a much larger body of work. Much of that larger body of work can be accessed through my website, ABetterHumanStory.org.). There are housed books, essays, op/ed pieces, podcasts , in which the ideas in this series are substantiated and elaborated, and expanded with several additional dimensions in that integrated picture of the human story and challenges humankind now faces.)
Is There a Market for Big Ideas?
Sometimes I think, maybe I’ve been worrying about the wrong thing.
My concern, as I’ve said, is that people will dismiss what I claim about the “integrative vision.” But it seems entirely possible that the bigger impediment to my achieving my purpose — getting people to seriously take on the Big Picture I present – is not that they’ll dismiss the claims as the delusions of a crank, but that people won’t care whether the claims are valid or not.
Our intellectual culture seems to have changed in a fundamental way over the course of my lifetime. What seems to have changed is how much our world of thought seeks to understand the world in an integrated and coherent way, and how much it is content to see it in more fragmentary form, as a set of disconnected pieces.
Here’s a major piece of evidence.
In the America I grew up in, there were two Big Idea perspectives on the human world, each of which had a non-trivial following.
- Each of these perspectives focused on some important dimensions of the human world, and each made a systematic, rational/empirical (intellectually impressive) case for how to understand the forces at work in that realm.
- Each offered a picture that tapped into important passions and needs that people experience in their quest for a better life and better world.
- And, in the 1950s and 1960s, each of those Big Picture perspectives was studied by a number of people with good minds who perceived the world through the lens provided by that Big Idea thinker.
One was the Freudian perspective. The other was the Marxian.
Each of those perspectives contained important insights that are still worth attending to, for example:
- The Freudian insight that there are important things going on in our psychological life of which we are unaware;
- The Marxian awareness of how, in human societies, exploitive relationships tend to emerge between the classes of the powerful and the weak, and how the interests of a society’s dominant class(es) tend to distort a society’s understanding away from truth and its power-arrangements away from justice.
But in any event, since the times in which I was learning about these things, both of those thinkers have fallen in influence and prestige.
At least part of that is because important parts of what both Freud and Marx said didn’t hold up well, discrediting the overall theories. But that’s not the whole thing: it seems also because the demand for “Seeing Things Whole” has dropped out of the market.
What has been striking to me is not so much that Marx and Freud have fallen out of favor, but that no comparable Big Ideas have risen to take their place.
There have been plenty of good ideas, but they tend to be about more specific and concrete things. What seems to be missing are the kinds of ideas that present a Big Picture that’s Whole enough that people find it worth forming communities of thought around. No ideas, like Freud’s and Marx’s “systems of thought” that got widespread enough that one can see that they impacted culture and society.
One might hypothesize that the reason nothing has taken their place is that nothing comparable has been available. But I’ve had the opportunity to observe that the thinking world of our times shows no yearning for any such way of “Seeing Things Whole.” Regardless of the validity of my claims, it seems clear to me: If there were an appetite there for the sort of thing I claim to provide, my own experience would have been different.
And it is not just the experience with the books I’ve published – Big Ideas never refuted, but also not adopted. In addition, over the past almost twenty years, I’ve put out hundreds of essays on national websites which combine my analysis of the particular issues of the present moment (America’s political crisis) with drawing connections between the momentary and the Big Picture. From the discussion that have unfolded on the comment threads, I’ve observed that while readers often value my observations on the immediate and concrete, they almost totally ignore what I provide in terms of “Seeing Things Whole.”
All of these things combine to lead me to wonder: when I address “those people who really would care about getting what I claim to deliver,” how many such people actually exist in these times?
The Importance of Seeing Things Whole
The effort to see things whole has been my focus for more than half a century.
- My studies from college onward were firmly in the “interdisciplinary” mode.
- In my oral comprehensive exams for my doctoral degree, my committee was invited to examine me on the more than ten disciplines that I was working to integrate in my doctoral dissertation (a 1600-page version of The Parable of the Tribes, which eventually was condensed into the version published by the University of California Press, still in print from SUNY Press).
- “Seeing Things Whole” was the name I gave my first website, back in the 90s.
- And then “Seeing Things Whole” was the name of a series of dozens of essays I published on my website NoneSoBlind.org -= NONE SO BLIND =- (archive.org), starting in 2008, exploring patterns and connections, visible in the world, that show something important about how “everything is connected with everything else,” and how the world works.
(Among those entries were:
Why make a big deal about seeing things whole?
It is often said, “Everything is connected to everything else.” Perceiving that connectedness is vital to human understanding, and to meaningful human life, in several ways.
** It is important spiritually — as one of the important routes to our spiritual fulfillment is the recognition and creation of wholeness. (See “Our Pathways into Deep Meaning.”)
(And that experiential reality may connect with the overwhelming sense of Oneness – through the centuries, and across cultures – reported by mystics returning from their visions.)
That importance is suggested also in the meanings of the word “Shalom,” with its root meaning “Whole” that also becomes Peace, operating as a bridge between the world we live in and the Wholeness to which we aspire.
** It is important intellectually. By seeing how things form patterns, and how causes are connected with effects, that we can gain understanding of the incredibly rich web of meaningful connections in our lives and world. (“Meaning” itself depends on how the particular fits into the larger context.)
** It also is important politically, for it is only when we see the larger forces at work in our world that we can understand the nature of the problems we face, and how those problems might most effectively be addressed. (And humankind certainly does have a problem: it looks like it’s a toss-up whether human civilization will destroy itself in the next couple of centuries.)
(The political value of “Seeing Things Whole” has been made very clear, more particularly, in the American crisis of the past generation, where – or so I’ve tried to show — the failure of our contemporary secular culture to see things whole has greatly contributed to the inability of the forces of Democracy to hold their ground against the forces of Fascism. Which is part of the larger picture of the global advance of fascistic forces. [See “The Battle Between Democracy and Fascism.”])
Over the more than half a century that my work has focused on trying to see the problems of our civilization “whole,” the single connection I’ve found most fruitful o make has been to see the human story more fully in the context of the whole history of Life on Earth. Specifically….
Seeing the Rise of Civilization in an Evolutionary Perspective
Life evolved on this planet for well over three billion years. That evolutionary process, which created us, also created an extraordinarily complex order of which our ancestors – along with all the other creatures that had evolved – were an integrated part.
But then, mere thousands of years ago, our species took a step unprecedented in the history of life on earth: Humankind stepped onto the path of civilization. (“Civilization” can be usefully defined as those societies created by a species that extricates itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.)
Seeing things in the whole context of evolutionary dynamics means recognizing that embarking on the path of Civilization inevitably – if also inadvertently — entails a step out of Order and into Disorder. And, as can be shown, that this form of Disorder inevitably generates a social evolutionary force that drives the creature’s civilization to develop – regardless of the species’ nature and desires — in destructive ways it did not choose but could not avoid.
The root of my “integrative vision” is that there are hugely significant, yet long unrecognized, consequences that inevitably flow from any species starting to develop civilization. The breakthrough into Civilization – a new kind of life-form in that it is shaped not by natural selection but by the creative intelligence of the creature — is probably the most important point of discontinuity in the history of life. It inevitably makes for a whole new ball game.
(It is certainly the only juncture in Life’s history that has generated the possibility that Life-on-Earth might be destroyed not by some cataclysm from the non-living cosmos (like a huge asteroid) but from within the living system itself.)
I imagine that it is because the process of absorbing the elegant and illuminating Darwinian perspective remains incomplete, and is still continuing our era, that this has been an opportune historical moment for discovering important, but previously unrecognized, implications of the evolutionary perspective.
Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, but the social thinkers that followed show that, for the most part, they had not integrated a Darwinian view of things into their understanding. (In his Civilization and Its Discontents¸ for example, Freud asserts that humans have difficulty functioning in society, whereas the evolutionary view makes it plain that our ancestors had been social animals for millions of years before becoming homo sapiens.)
Even over the course of the last half-century – during which I’ve been discussing these matters with audiences – I’ve seen the evolutionary perspective gaining ground. Gradually, the idea of “the beginnings of human history” has come to mean less “the first cities” and more “our hominid ancestors.”
In that context, it seems unsurprising that, by 1970, when the idea that changed the course of my life came to me, people had not looked very thoroughly at what it would mean for a creature to “extricate itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.”
It turns out that quite a few rather consequential developments follow from a species taking that step.
Like these several key points argued in previous entries in this series, all of which become more evident when the human story – the civilization-creating creatures — is seen in an evolutionary perspective.
- Any creature, on any planet, anywhere in the cosmos, that steps onto the path of civilization will inevitably be swept up in a social evolutionary process as destructive and tormented as that which has marked human history.
When we see what a species’ departure from the natural evolved order inevitably implies – that it will plunge into an anarchic situation whose resulting “war of all against all” combines with the open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation to generate an unfortunate process of selection, in which what survives and spreads are “the ways of power,” and in which therefore “the Spirit of the Gangster” is given a disproportionate voice in shaping how that creature’s civilization will develop — we realize that…
When we look at the brokenness that inevitably results from the struggle for power that the emergence of civilization inevitably gives rise to, and at how that force reverberates through the civilized world, over time — as each way things get broken in the human world generates other forms of brokenness — it becomes clear that
- The rise of civilization inevitably unleashes “a coherent force that consistently makes things worse” – i.e. a Force that acts much as “Evil” has been traditionally understood to operate. And that “Force of Evil” (or Destructive Force, or Force of Brokenness) will inevitably be a powerful “player” in the drama of the civilization-creating creature.
All of which means that any creature that steps onto the path of civilization will inevitably get caught between two evolutionary processes – the biological evolution that crafted its inborn nature, and the social evolutionary process that got unleashed when it escaped from the niche in which it evolved. The result is that the world of the civilization-creating creature will inevitably be caught up in a kind of “battle” between two coherent forces. One of those forces will be continually pushing things in life-serving directions, the other in directions that degrade that creature’s world.
- Thus Civilization – whether launched on earth by homo sapiens or elsewhere by some other creature with the level of creative intelligence such a breakthrough requires – inevitably generates a dynamic that can reasonably be called “a Battle Between Good and Evil.”
It is a given that any creature that can invent civilization will have the capacity to transmit culture through the generations. Inevitably, the accumulation of innovations will eventually bring the powers wielded by that creature’s civilization to the point where they could, if wielded destructively, end that species’ story in self-destruction.
What this implies is that the breakthrough into civilization – by any species, on any planet — inevitably brings with it a Central Challenge:
- Will that species be able to order its civilization well enough – soon enough – to avoid its story ending in catastrophe?
Through a separate line of thinking, the evolutionary perspective also provides a much-needed illumination of two essential dimensions of the human world: the Moral Dimension and the Spiritual Dimension.
The evolutionary perspective reveals these as two emergent realities—aspects of reality that come into existence (and can only exist) once the evolution of life has generated creatures with the requisite experiential capacities. The evolutionary perspective readily demonstrates that
- “Value,” which provides the basis for the Moral Dimension, is not only real, but it is also life-serving in important ways. For natural selection has inscribed an inborn system of Value — what the creature experiences as “better” or as “worse” — that serves to motivate creatures in directions that, in the ancestral past, enhanced the chances for survival.
- The “Spiritual Dimension” — an experiential capacity that is factually part of our species inherent nature — likewise, is real. The evident impactfulness of that level of experience testifies to its importance. And the selection for that capacity constitutes powerful evidence that it has played a life-serving role in the human world.
I’m looking for people who would care to know those things, if they were valid, and if the case made for them held water well.
Needed: Amendments to the Secular Worldview So that It Sees More Whole
This “integrative vision” puts together a variety of pieces — the selection for power, the reality of Evil, the proper regard for the moral and spiritual dimensions – as a way of seeing the human story (more) Whole.
Each of those ideas can also be seen as fleshing out some important areas in our civilization’s secular worldview that have proved dangerously undeveloped.
Through history and around the world, most cultures used religious systems to provide a set of ways of understanding what the human experience compels people to deal with. And these religious frameworks of understanding developed over millennia.
By contrast, the emergence of this secular worldview, as a major force in civilized societies, is a comparatively recent development. For whatever set of reasons (the rise of science? of technology? of market economies?), a significant segment of societies like ours withdrew from the worldview of received religion and adopted a different approach to getting to truth.
The turn to the secular worldview meant leaving behind the answers religions have provided to some important questions, without necessarily having anything to replace them with. The result was that there were some important realities that the secular worldview did not comprehend.
Some things that religions taught, that are important and true, and that the predominant secular understanding has not included, include these points just made above:
- Operating in the human world, there is something reasonable to call a “Force of Evil.” (Meaning, “a coherent force that consistently works to make things worse”).
- At the center of the human drama, there’s a conflict between two coherent forces that can reasonably be called “a Battle Between Good and Evil.”
- The moral and spiritual dimensions of our experience are real, important, and life-serving.
The secular worldview should be regarded as a work-in-progress. It has its strengths (scientific, etc.) and its weaknesses (lacking understanding of the nature of the Forces (and “Spirits”) at work in the human world).
In my life’s work, I have tried to help fill in some of the missing pieces– pieces that we can infer are important because their absence has proved, in our times, to jeopardize much that we hold sacred.
All We Hold Sacred is on the Line
The “integrative vision” is offered as a way of understanding. But the purpose is to have an impact at the level of action.
Each of those points above has proved relevant to the ability of the American body politic to protect itself from the rise of a fascistic political force.
- If one does not have a conceptual space for the existence of something like a Destructive Force, or Force of Evil, one will be hindered in recognizing the nature of such a Force if it should arise before one’s eyes.
- If one does not give the moral and spiritual dimensions of human reality the deep respect they warrant, one will not connect fully with the moral and spiritual passions that equip one for fighting powerfully and effectively against such a Force.
Not seeing WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST made it possible for conduct that should incur political costs to instead reap political benefits. That enabled a destructive force to continually gain in power, because it was not properly combatted. And the power of this destructive force ultimately the point where the very survival of American Democracy is in jeopardy.
Which means that so much that we hold sacred – that gets crushed when Fascist regimes rule – is in jeopardy.
“The Battle between Democracy and Fascism” – which has moved in a worrisome direction not only in the American power-system, but also on a global scale – has a direct bearing on the still larger question of “The Fate of Human Civilization.” Will our species be able to get its civilizational act together so that humankind can survive and thrive for the long haul, or will human civilization destroy itself? Fascism consistently shows its connection with the kinds of forces that threaten to make our self-destruction the answer.
That points to one other thing that the religious traditions provided that should be included in the secular worldview: the understanding that human beings have a responsibility with respect to the Battle Between Good and Evil. (For a generation following the rise of the likes of Limbaugh and Gingrich, the political force to which fell the task of protecting America from Fascism showed itself clueless about there being any such responsibility.)
That Central Challenge articulated in the first entry of this series lays before us such a task: for humankind to get its act together in time to prevent the human story from culminating in self-destruction?
We should understand humankind’s success or failure in meeting that challenge as the ultimate outcome of the millennia-old Battle Between Good and Evil. The secular understanding of the human situation should include the understanding that everything we hold sacred is at stake in which of those forces ultimately prevails.
Wired to be Inspired
The evidence suggests that we humans are wired to be inspired to fight and win such a battle.
Consider the biggest blockbusters among our movies: the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Avatar.
In each of those fictional narratives, we identify with heroes who are striving to protect what is Good and sacred against an Evil Force.
My image is that there are a lot of people, who understand the world in purely secular terms, who have gone to the theater and vicariously thrown themselves into the Battle Between Good and Evil with an intensity and passion in the fictional worlds of those movies. But who have been hindered in bringing the same spirit to the battle visible in the real world.
Even though these real world battles (for American Democracy and for the survival of human civilization and the earth) are fundamentally the same battle as those fought by our heroes in the films. (The same as Luke’s against the Death Star, or as the Hobbits’ trying to protect the world against the evil Sauron’s lust for Power, or as Sully’s in his fight to stop the power of Greed to destroy sacred Life on a beautiful planet in its spiritually pathological quest for unobtainium).
The artistry of the films brings our understanding of the fictional conflict, and our passions, to the point where we throw ourselves vicariously into the Battle Between Good and Evil. (And we gladly spend good money for the experience.) But when it comes to the real world, a secular worldview that lacks some essential pieces provides no bridge-of-understanding to get many of those same people to that same important destination.
The secular culture needs a rational/empirical understanding of the nature of the drama being played out in the real human world that provides a bridge to those moral and spiritual passions that can make people heroic in their fight for what is life-serving against what is life-destroying. That “integrative vision” I am seeking to convey is an effort to help provide that bridge.