Multiple perspectives

… the world is richer than it is possible to express in any single language. Music is not exhausted by its successive stylization from Bach to Schoenberg. Similarly, we cannot condense into a single description the various aspects of our experience. We must call upon numerous descriptions, irreducible one to the other, but connected to each other by precise rules of translation (technically called transformations).

Prigogine, From Being to Becoming, 51

Another side of learning

Learning is a natural process of pursuing personally meaningful goals, and it is active, volitional, and internally mediated; it is a process of discovering and constructing meaning from information and experience, filtered through the learner’s unique perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.

— American Psychological Association, 1993 (in McCombs and Whisler 1997, 5)

When we consider learning as a constructive process, we think of experience and information as the material inputs to the process. But the other side of the learning coin is a process of integrated differentiation, like the development of a bodymind from a single cell. In this process we learn by making distinctions within the phaneron; and the ‘bits’ of information which appear as inputs in the construction model are really products of the analysis which we do in order to describe the process.

Can we coordinate?

The history of human society shows that population growth has tended to foster subordination rather than coordination in social guidance systems.

With the advent of agriculture, ‘high population density led to centralized authority and stratified societies, and a new mode of social organization emerged’ (Morowitz 2002, 168). Christopher Boehm (in Katz 2000) argues that the earliest human communities were egalitarian, morality being enforced by the group as a whole rather than specialized ‘police forces.’ As they grew bigger, especially after agriculture became established, need arose for central leadership, and it could no longer be controlled by group consensus; so the leadership became the controlling (governing) agency, with or without the consent of the governed. Religious and political groupings were indistinguishable in this respect until very recently. David Sloan Wilson (2002) gives a similar analysis.

Stuart Kauffman traces a similar development in biological terms, in ‘An Emerging Global Civilization,’ the final chapter of his (1995) book At Home in the Universe. Drawing upon work by Brian Goodwin and Gerry Webster, he begins with Kant, who

writing in the late eighteenth century, thought of organisms as autopoietic wholes in which each part existed for and by means of the whole, while the whole existed for and by means of the parts. [Goodwin and Webster] noted that the idea of an organism as an autopoietic whole had been replaced by the idea of the organism as an expression of a ‘central directing agency.’ The famous biologist August Weismann, at the end of the nineteenth century, developed the view that the organism is created by the growth and development of specialized cells, the ‘germ line,’ which contains microscopic molecular structures, a central directing agency, determining growth and development. In turn, Weismann’s molecular structures became the chromosomes, became the genetic code, became the ‘developmental program’ controlling ontogeny. … In this trajectory, we have lost an earlier image of cells and organisms as self-creating wholes.

— Kauffman (1995, 274)

Thus we have managed to conjure up ‘central control’ both above and below the scale of human bodymind. Some of the conflict between ‘science and religion’ in the twentieth century was really a struggle between partisans of these competing control agencies. But these conflicts can only distract us from the real question: Can humanity as a moral (guiding) agency self-organize, replacing subordination with coordination? Or will it take a central agency (religious or political) to unify humanity by imposing a ‘new world order’ upon it?

Wilson (2002) poses a related question. It seems that religions have evolved their current forms by competing with one another and with other social structures. But the next major transition would require them to give up the competition that has made them what they are. Can they do this? In political terms, can a community or a nation open itself to cooperation with others instead of closing itself off from others and trying to dominate them?

The same goes for science. In order for a truly comprehensive model to appear, must one of the competing paradigms win? Or can a new level of modelling emerge from dialog itself (without the partners to the dialog necessarily being conscious of that level)?

… in the depth of social reality each decision brings unexpected consequences, and man responds to these surprises by inventions which transform the problem.

— Merleau-Ponty (1964, 205)

Can we reinvent ourselves?

What we’re up to is down to you.

A public consensus is like ‘a fortified city built upon a high mountain’ (Thomas 32) – difficult to build, but also difficult to attack or ignore, or to change.

As Robert Theobald (1997) pointed out, our success (in exploiting resources for our own purposes) is now the greatest obstacle to our well-being.

Is there such a thing as progress toward a greater connectedness in this expanding universe?

Every day some connections are made, and some are broken.

We can only imagine where it’s all going.

Only you can imagine what we’re all doing.

Janusian equilibrium

Perhaps a conceptual consensus needs to be continually challenged in order to stay healthy.janus

Arthur Koestler (Barlow 1991, 97) says that ‘when the organism or body social is functioning steadily, the integrative and self-assertive tendencies are in a state of dynamic equilibrium – symbolized by Janus Patulcius, the Opener, with a key in his left hand, and Janus Clusius, the Closer, jealous guardian of the gate, with a staff in his right.’ A ‘state of dynamic equilibrium’ would be contradiction in terms if it didn’t refer to a continuous interplay of two opposing tendencies. This ‘state of equilibrium’ is one manifestation of the requirement for a living organism to maintain itself ‘far from equilibrium’ (Prigogine) where ‘equilibrium’ would mean the entropic state devoid of all energy flow.

The consensual model constructed by a culture or society is referred to by Berger and Luckmann (1966) as ‘the symbolic universe.’ The culture maintains itself by making sure that its members see this universe as a ‘reality’ prior and external to their practice; and much of their practice goes to maintaining this virtual reality (or this illusion, as an alien observer might call it). But if the culture succeeds too well in closing its universe to actual realities or new information, it begins to die of self-suffocation.

Being and serving

In order to ‘serve humanity,’ or ‘save all sentient beings,’ do you have to believe that such an entity as ‘Humanity’ is more real than you are?

A question like this revives the thousand-year debate between nominalism and realism (introduced in Chapter 12), by showing its ethical and social implications. Which has priority, the individual or the collective (the community, the state, ….. )? In biological terms, which really counts, the individual organism or the species? For Peirce, this was perhaps one of the most momentous of logical questions.

But though the question of realism and nominalism has its roots in the technicalities of logic, its branches reach about our life. The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals, is the question whether there is anything of any more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence.

— Peirce (EP1:105)

Certainly the question is fundamental when it comes to political institutions. But as Northrop Frye pointed out (Chapter 8), you cannot escape the question by turning from secular politics to religion, for ‘religious bodies do not effectively express any alternative of loyalty to the totalitarian state, because they use the same metaphors of merging and individual subservience.’ States and religious bodies are the larger-scale systems which ‘contain’ individual humans; but suppose we consider the social evolution and spiritual progress of humanity over an expansive time scale while maintaining the spatial scale of the human bodymind. Then we can see each human individual as a current version of humanity rather than a minute cell in a huge organism. This would seem to be compatible with the following remarks by Frye, which continue from those already quoted in Chapter 8:

In our day Simone Weil has found the traditional doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ a major obstacle – not impossibly the major obstacle – to her entering it. She points out that it does not differ enough from other metaphors of integration, such as the class solidarity metaphor of Marxism, and says:

Our true dignity is not to be parts-of a body.… It consists in this, that in the state of perfection which is the vocation of each one of us, we no longer live in ourselves, but Christ lives in us; so that through our perfection Christ … becomes in a sense each one of us, as he is completely in each host. The hosts are not a part of his body.

I quote this because, whether she is right or wrong, and whatever the theological implications, the issue she raises is a central one in metaphorical vision, or the application of metaphors to human experience. We are born, we said, within a pre-existing social contract out of which we develop what individuality we have, and the interests of that society take priority over the interests of the individual. Many religions, on the other hand, in their origin, attempt to be re-created societies built on the influence of a single individual: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, or at most a small group. Such teachers signify, by their appearance, that there are individuals to whom a society should be related, rather than the other way around. Within a generation or two, however, this new society has become one more social contract, and the individuals of the new generations are once again subordinated to it.
Paul’s conception of Jesus as the genuine individuality of the individual, which is what I think Simone Weil is following here, indicates a reformulating of the central Christian metaphor in a way that unites without subordinating, that achieves identity with and identity as on equal terms. The Eucharistic image, which she also refers to, suggests that the crucial event of Good Friday – the death of Christ on the cross – is one with the death of everything else in the past. The swallowed Christ, eaten, divided, and drunk, in the phrase of Eliot’s ‘Gerontion,’ is one with the potential individual buried in the tomb of the ego during the Sabbath of time and history, where it is the only thing that rests. When this individual awakens and we pass to resurrection and Easter, the community with which he is identical is no longer a whole of which he is a part, but another aspect of himself, or, in the traditional metonymic language, another person of his substance.

— Frye (1982, 100-01)