Archive for the ‘Deep Prehistory’ Category

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 must 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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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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I’ve been trying for several years to come up with a comprehensive explanation of the sequence of visions that has formed the backbone of human history. I’ve never felt entirely satisfied with any of my attempts, but my recent exploration of the interaction between the visions and the romantic and occult materials that I’ve described as the “underground stream” has given me some fresh ideas.

The excavations at Qesem Cave which I mentioned in the previous entry provide a useful starting point. They indicate that as early as 400,000 years ago, the cave’s inhabitants had developed an ability to orient themselves in both space and time. They divided up their living space according to various functions and they had established a production line for making stone blades that reduced the process to a maximally efficient series of steps.

These capacities correspond to what I identified some while back as a uniquely human ability to construct mental maps of the world around us and share those maps with others through a sophisticated use of language.

I further suggested at that time that the visions through which we make sense of existence arise out of those same mental maps, but with an added element of mystery and imagination. The maps are limited to factual knowledge, but the visions go beyond those limits. They combine known and unknown, the familiar places of everyday and the distant realms of story, the world as it is and the world as it might be.

And I concluded that the dual nature of the visions represents our best attempt to reconcile the intellectual approach of ordinary knowledge with the intuitive flashes and mystical intimations of higher knowledge by granting each its own separate domain of applicability.

That conclusion was fine as far as it went, but it never accounted for all the pieces of the puzzle — and now I’m starting to believe the visions must involve not two but three different modes of awareness.

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Much of what I’ve written at this blog has involved tracing out human history in terms of a succession of visions of the nature of reality.

Each of these visions begins as an attempt to account for an entire area of human existence using a limited set of premises and conclusions. Once a vision matures, it expands its scope to become a general philosophy of life, but at the cost of losing much of its inner coherence. The tensions and contradictions this sets up ultimately lead to the birth of a new vision, founded on very different premises, while the parent vision becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant and finally collapses.

At least, that’s the story as I’ve been telling it up to now. I’ve tended to treat the visions as a closed system, with each one being influenced by visions drawn from other areas of experience but not by anything outside the system. I’ve occasionally speculated that there must be an outside factor which launched the cycle of visions in the remote past and has since kept it in motion, but I haven’t ever managed to pin down just what that might be.

Since last winter, however, I’ve been examining what I’ve called the “underground stream” — a persistent current of occultism and magical thinking that is cruder and less intellectual than the visions but also more idealistic and romantic — and I’m coming to believe that could be my missing X factor.

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Suppose as a thought-experiment that you are the first true human, living some 400,000 years ago. You have been awakened by a stroke of higher knowledge to a sense of your own nature and potential — but you have no one with whom to share that awareness.

The near-humans around you are by no means dumb. Their brains are probably larger than ours today. They have prodigious memories and an encyclopedic knowledge of the local plants and animals and inorganic materials. But they are very literal minded. They take their guidance from a collective belief system that tells them what to think and how to act, and they are incapable of seeing beyond that.

What would you do? How would you go about breaking them out of their limitations and raising them to a higher level of awareness? You are, after all, just one person, with a narrow lifespan and little chance of finding disciples among your contemporaries.

Your only option is to institute changes in the belief system itself that will live on after you.

Those changes will have to fulfill three criteria. They must have an immediate social value that will cause them to be accepted and maintained even by the unenlightened. They must include a subversive element that will chip away at rigid assumptions and speak directly to those who are prepared to break free of their cultural conditioning. And they must contain coded information that will provide those few with clues on how to further the great project of humanization.

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I went back to the previous entry after posting it and found it kind of murky, so I reworked it a bit to make my points clearer and tie up most of the loose ends. There was, however, one point that I’d deliberately deferred until later, because I knew it would take an entire entry to do it justice. That is the question of intentionality.

The dilemma I’m facing is that the cycles can look very different depending on the angle from which you view them. Seen from a distance, they give a strong impression of conscious design — especially the phase which extends from the collapse of one dominant partnership to the formation of the next. That’s why I wrote in the previous entry that “this cascade of adjustments, which I’ve repeatedly compared to a wacky Rube Goldberg device, might be better characterized as a deliberate juggling act, guided at every point by higher intentionality.”

On the other hand, if you examine these changes from the perspective of someone living through them, there’s no obvious sense of deliberation. They appear instead as the summation of a host of spontaneous decisions on the part of many autonomous individuals. We all contribute to this process through the attitudes we endorse, the people with whom we associate, even the clothing we wear and the food we eat. Some of us may take a more active role by offering new interpretations of existing visions or giving artistic and philosophical form to the vague hints of emerging visions. But it’s always done on-the-fly and in-the-moment and shows no sign of being coordinated on any higher level.

But then again, if you step back and focus on the picture instead of the pixels, all those individual choices start to blend together into something that resembles the thought processes of a single great mind — mulling over the deep questions of existence, trying out various experiments and marking them as successes or failures, occasionally arguing with itself about how to proceed, and crafting increasingly elaborate frameworks for understanding.

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I’ve spent most of the last year wrestling with one specific question: how the cycle of visions began and what keeps it going. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve become too narrowly obsessed with this one issue, but I don’t see any way past it. My goal is to present a coherent theory of human history, not just an eccentric set of speculations, and for that I need a plausible mechanism.

In the previous entry, I hit on something I think is very important — that the birth of the spirit vision came about when the first true shamans found themselves completely alienated from their larger society. To rectify that, and to prove they weren’t crazy, they needed a model of reality that would verify their perceptions and make it possible to communicate them to others.

My initial assumption was that this extreme degree of alienation must have been a one-time-only event, because each new vision since then has emerged from a predecessor of the same type. But as I thought about it, I realized that the same situation arises whenever the romantic aspect of the outsider vision has been marginalized and demoralized to the point where it no longer serves as a vehicle for higher possibility. That leaves its adherents as isolated and unable to explain themselves as any shaman of 250,000 years ago.

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Sometimes I feel as though this blog is crawling along one tiny step at a time, but then a dam suddenly breaks and sets off a cascade of reconsiderations. The previous entry triggered one of those avalanches, and I’m still sorting out its implications.

When I initially developed my theory of the visions, I assumed that the basic unit of the cycles was the individual vision and that what kept things moving along was the gradual loss of transcendence as each vision matured. This was adequate as a working hypothesis, but it never answered certain fundamental questions: Precisely what happens when a new vision is born? How and why did the cycle of replacement get started? And why does the same pattern recur in such similar form from one turn of the cycle to the next?

Now I’m realizing that my problems arose from trying to take the visions in isolation and that they are better seen as forming an ecosystem in which each one reflects all the others. When any vision falters, it leaves an empty environmental niche, and the system is thrown out of balance until it can respond by repairing the damage and filling the gap.

This self-maintaining quality might be compared to the ability of DNA to repair itself — an ability that marks the dividing line between non-living matter and living beings. In a similar way, the self-repairing ability of the system of visions might be seen as a crucial accomplishment that pushed us across the threshold from almost-but-not-quite-human to fully human.

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I wasn’t altogether satisfied with the previous entry, and though I’ve done some rewriting to tighten it up, it still has one major flaw: It presents the birth of a successor to the transformation vision and the split within the kinship vision as if they were two separate events, when they were actually the product of a single, interconnected movement of thought.

This is something I only realized as I began the current entry, and though I’m still working out the implications, two points are already clear. One is that in order to maintain our engagement with higher knowledge, we need access to fully transcendent visions of all three types at once. The other is that this access is so crucial that whenever the transcendence of a vision is at risk, we will leap to restore it — or if it is lost despite our efforts, we will quickly devise a substitute.

Like everything involving higher knowledge, our need to draw on each type of vision simultaneously is something of a mystery, but it appears to result from the inadequacies of human perception. Because we are unable to grasp existence as a whole, we rely instead on three separate streams of knowledge — scientific, social, and inner experience. However, none of these is designed to facilitate profound understanding, and they all suffer from unavoidable blind spots and distortions.

Our best solution has always been to observe reality through the lens of all three modes in combination. Not only does this provide a more complete picture, but the effort to resolve the contradictions among them pushes us into the intuitive and integrative thought processes typical of higher knowledge. For that reason, the three newest and most transcendent visions regularly operate as a triad.

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In the last several entries, I’ve been trying to solve the riddle of why the cycle of visions always follows an identical pattern, even though each individual vision is a unique expression of higher knowledge. The answer appears to lie in the demands of ordinary life, which put severe constraints on when we have access to higher knowledge and how far we are able to pursue it.

One effect of those constraints is that even though every vision starts off as a bridge between what is and what might be, its practical side gradually gains dominance over the mystical. Eventually, the vision becomes entirely pragmatic, no longer performs its original function, and can only be replaced.

Another is that this process is not continuous but proceeds in sudden bursts. These occur mainly during times of crisis, when entire societies briefly adopt a more flexible and intuitive style of functioning that greatly enhances their receptivity to higher knowledge.

The third, and most subtle, is that these periods of openness have two contradictory outcomes. They give many people the courage to give up on their failing institutions and turn for guidance to the most mature of the emerging visions. But at the same time, a relative few realize that popular acceptance of the vision is draining it of transcendence and start to pursue alternatives.

The recognition that a vision is beyond repair is not arrived at lightly or without emotional turmoil. But eventually it become undeniable — and that happened for the first time in a transition that began around 170,000 years ago.

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