Juggling Act

on March 4, 2015

Almost two months have gone by since my last entry, but that’s because I’ve been thinking things over and trying to get a sense of the larger picture.

When I stumbled on the cycle of visions back in the 1970s, my first question was whether it really existed or if I was imposing a pattern on events where none existed. I finally concluded that the cycle is real — but I’m still wrestling with the problem of how a recurring sequence of cultural changes can repeat over and over with such precision for tens of thousands of years.

Since starting this blog, I’ve come up with a number of plausible hypotheses, several of them based on the latest archaeology and brain research, but no one of them in isolation is sufficient to explain everything. It seems as though the cycle of visions must exist at the confluence of several different aspects of human nature and represent our best attempt to make them all come out even.

Hypothesis #1: Rules-Based Systems

There is a DNA-like duality to the visions. They offer us instruction in how to live our lives and construct our societies, but they also contain within themselves the necessary information to be self-repairing and self-replicating. Every vision strives to maintain its own identity while simultaneously adapting to neighboring visions within its local ecosystem. This creates a kind of cognitive friction that eventually erodes the vision’s integrity and makes it simplest to just junk it and start over with a fresh replacement.

However, that raises a second point, which is that even though the visions may appear at times as an external force that determines our thoughts and actions, they are ultimately something we create ourselves. Every detail represents a hard-won solution to a specific problem that proved effective enough to be incorporated into either one particular vision or the overall structure of the cycle.

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This article showed up today, nicely confirming one of the suggestions I made in my post two days ago.

“Scientists have found compelling evidence for the co-evolution of early Stone Age slaughtering tools and our ability to communicate and teach, shedding new light on the power of human culture to shape evolution. . . .

“In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication – versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures – yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the least amount of time and with the least waste. . . .

“‘If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you,” Morgan said. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do.’ . . .

“‘At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language,’ Morgan said.”


Not In the Rules

on January 11, 2015

I’ve had a number of follow-up thoughts since doing the previous entry. One is that the visions must go back much further than I’ve previously dared to imagine.

Based on various lines of evidence, I’ve dated the birth of the spirit vision to around 280,000 years ago, followed by the cosmic order vision and then the aristocracy vision at roughly 100,000 year intervals. This suggests that the kinship vision must predate spirit by at least as much — which would take it back to some 400,000 years ago, when our likely ancestors in the Middle East began showing signs of an enhanced mastery of space and time.

That in turn means the initial Vision of Everything muse be older yet. And because of the air of immemorial antiquity that hangs over it, I would wager it ruled our lives for much longer than a mere hundred thousand years. It could easily date back another 500,000 years or even a million.

HandaxeThis isn’t as weird as it might seem on first glance. As I’ve discussed in the past, even the very earliest handaxes must have been the product of a well-defined algorithm that specified what actions to perform in what order. And the more elegant and symmetrical axes of 700,000 years ago imply a further advance in our ability to define and carry out rules-based processes.

The mental capacity required for tool-making may have prepared our minds for the more elaborate rule-based systems of language. And language in turn would have made more complex tool-making possible, creating a positive feedback loop between the work of our hands and the work of our tongue.

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The Rules of the Game

on December 27, 2014

As I’ve worked with the cycle of visions, I’ve always found the rise and fall of successive visions and the interactions among them fairly easy to identify . The hard part is figuring out the source of this recurring pattern and the mechanisms that keep it going over vast stretches of time and space with an amazing degree of regularity.

I’ve used a variety of analogies to attack this question, but the one that appears most relevant is language.

The central feature of language is that it is rules-based. Toddlers who are just learning to talk string words together loosely, but they don’t produce fully-formed sentences. The complete range of human speech becomes available to them only once they master the detailed grammatical rules that indicate how the elements of a sentence fit together.

Different languages employ different rules but the capacity for creating and learning rules-based systems appears to be innate — and it is not confined to language. It also underlies our love of games. It is the basis of law and government. It plays a role in both art and science.

Rules-based system are naturally coherent because the same rules always apply under similar circumstances. This is why speakers can utter novel sentences and still be understood. It is why judges or gamemasters can hand down decisions and feel confident they will be accepted.

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The Moral Case

on December 6, 2014

At times when the visions are rapidly shifting and mutating, people begin to choose up sides on the basis of their allegiance to one vision or another and act out the consequences in public. Right now, the chaos vision is tied in with the worst abuses of the current social order, so it is at the center of the conflict between those who benefit from that order and those who suffer under it. This is why racism and sexism have become such flashpoints.

The chaos vision emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a perception of the human mind as fundamentally irrational and chaotic. It went through its period of greatest moral purity from the 1920s to the 1960s, when it provided the justification for throwing off the inhibitions and puritanical condemnations of the Victorians. But even then, it was perceived ambivalently — sometimes regarded as liberating and empowering but just as often blamed for violence and social disorder. And now that it is entering its rancid old age, the negative outcome of both these perceptions is becoming overwhelming.

For more than a century, the most chaotic and irrational aspects of the vision have been associated with African-Americans. At the peak of “scientific” racism in the early 1900s, Negroes were portrayed as low in intellect, given to superstitious fears, frequently hopped up on drugs, and unable to control their passions. None of that stopped white people from appropriating jazz and other aspects of black culture — but generally only after they had been cleaned up and shorn of their most raw and vulgar elements.

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When my son Toby recently proposed that he and a friend interview me as a bonus episode for their comic book podcast, one of his suggested questions was, “Does the rise of superheroes during WWII–their slump thereafter–and their rise again during the cold war corollate with real world events.”

That really confused me. In my own timeline, the Cold War began immediately after World War II. And it would never have occurred to me in the early 1950s, when I was a little kid bouncing off the furniture with an old baby blanket pinned around my neck for a cape and pretending to be Superman, that I was living in the middle of a superhero slump.

But apparently I was. As Toby explained it, there had been a great proliferation of superheroes during the war, but by the time I began reading comics around 1952, they’d been pruned back to just Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And even those titles weren’t particularly memorable — not compared to Carl Barks’ brilliant Uncle Scrooge stories, which I was reading at the same time. The superhero genre wouldn’t get back on track until 1956, by which time I’d outgrown the kid-oriented comics of the day.

Once I started to think about it, though, a number of things fell into place, and I realized that the answer to Toby’s question had to do with science. After the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, science came to be viewed as a destructive force rather than a savior, and that made science-based superheroes a lot less appealing. Over the next decade, even science fiction backed off from scientific extrapolation in favor of sociological SF, reality trips, and rationalized fantasy.

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With the outcome of this week’s elections in the US, we have moved one step closer to the complete meltdown of the democracy-and-chaos partnership. Not only has the partnership consistently failed to address the economic and environmental crises of the moment, but the two partners are now at one another’s throats.

The Democrats remain bound to the failing democracy vision, even though it is no longer able to produce a viable campaign platform. Meanwhile, the Tea Party Republicans have pledged their souls to the darker side of chaos and seem to be looking forward to dismantling as much of the structure of government as possible.

That’s how these things always go, so there’s no use crying too many tears over it. It’s the process by which every fossilized partnership passes into the dustbin of history. The real challenge of the next few years will be to preserve the health of the planet and its peoples as they come under unrelenting assault from a dying system.

That’s exactly what the adherents of the younger holism and horizontalism visions are already trying to do. But there’s about to be an even younger vision joining the mix and sending things off in a new direction — because as the chaos vision becomes completely unmoored from reality, the creative imagination vision will be set loose to follow its own path.

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Holism Upgraded

on October 25, 2014

We’ve now reached the onset of one of those recurring points in the cycle of visions when all the current visions mutate, realign, and take on new roles. Those changes are going to be extremely interesting to watch as they unfold — both for their own sake and as a real-time experiment in how the visions do what they do.

In the previous entry, I discussed the ongoing collapse of the aging democracy vision, the resulting breakdown of the democracy-and-chaos partnership, and how this has enabled the younger holism and horizontalism visions to take center stage.

Over the next decade or so, each of these four visions is going to move along one step. The democracy vision will fade away, except as an increasingly nostalgic point of reference. The chaos vision will shed its current arrogance and take a back seat to the holism vision in a new dominant partnership that will assume the leadership of society. And once that happens, the horizontalism vision — which will have played an instrumental role in these other changes — will be elbowed aside and forced into the role of the rowdy outsider.

However, all this will take a while, and the chaos, holism, and horizontalism visions will have to go through some painful adjustments along the way. Meanwhile there will be no dominant partnership to stabilize society, so we can also expect the next ten or twelve years to be a time of increasing social and philosophical fragmentation.

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I’ve spent the last five years at this blog laying out a theory of human history as determined by a succession of visions of the nature of existence. But although I have no doubts about the reality of that sequence, I’m still struggling to identify the underlying mechanisms.

I’ve most recently been developing what I think is a plausible scenario for how the earliest visions arose out of the changes in brain organization that first made us human. But that scenario can’t explain why those initial visions should have failed and been replaced by others — or why those others then failed and were replaced in turn, following an amazingly consistent pattern of events.

I’m therefore trying out a new hypothesis which assumes that the mechanisms behind the visions operate on two different levels. On the intellectual level, each vision is elaborated out of a limited set of fundamental premises — comparable to the rules of grammar or the axioms of mathematics — that is believed to explain an entire area of human experience. This produces a tightly woven logical structure which gives each vision a high degree of coherence and enables it to remain intact over an extended period of time.

However, any system that narrowly based can only provide a partial picture of reality. Newborn visions may dazzle us with their ability to tap into areas of experience that have previously been neglected, but as visions age they get stale and over-familiar and start to reveal gaps and weak spots. This is one reason why new visions become necessary.

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Dreams of the Dead

on September 8, 2014

The last time I wrote about the second vision of existence — the kinship vision — I described its emergence in largely practical terms. I suggested that it became necessary when our earliest ancestors, having acquired the useful ability to create mental maps of their surroundings in space and time, began to flourish and spread out in all directions.

As the human community expanded, the kinship vision made it possible for the members of different bands to continue perceiving one another as family rather than as strangers. The Neanderthals never managed that trick, but our own ancestors did. I would guess this occurred around 340,000 years ago, when the ending of an ice age had opened up new territories.

Two elements went into the making of the kinship vision. One was the sense of belonging to a larger whole provided by higher knowledge. The other was a structuring of human relationships using the same mental tools that had previously been applied to the natural world. The basic family roles — mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers — were generalized to encompass more distant relatives. People began assembling mental maps of their own family trees and using those as a basis for action.

At least that’s how I accounted for the origins of the kinship vision two years ago. But at the time, I wasn’t factoring in the underground stream — the magical and occult current of thought that adds an element of the unknown and the uncanny to the otherwise rational and mystical materials of every vision.

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