Higher Intentionality

on November 18, 2013

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.

My own assumption is that both these impressions are true — but the question is how to reconcile them.

One possible answer is that we humans operate in much the same way as schools of fish or flocks of birds. Just as birds pick up clues from their neighbors and adjust their flight so that the whole flock wheels in unison, so we pick up clues from everyone around us and either accept, reject, or expand upon their opinions.

But although that could help explain the development of individual visions — how they progress from mystical intimations to utopian dreams and then settle in as conventional wisdom — it doesn’t seem adequate to account for the tightly coordinated process of devising new visions, triads, and partnerships. Those developments occur at a high level of abstraction and often involve individuals who are not even in direct contact with one another.

This issue of coordination becomes more perplexing when we think of past transitions, when the period between the failure of one partnership and the construction of the next would have lasted not a dozen years but 300, or 3000, or 30,000. How could a creative effort of that sort be maintained over such a stretch of time and distance?

The only solution I can see is that the visions themselves must encode the knowledge which is needed to carry on their further development. It’s like those TV cooking shows where one chef starts a recipe and then hands it over to another, who has to examine the ingredients and utensils, figure out what’s been done so far, add a touch of their own creativity, and produce a finished dish. Or like medieval cathedrals that took centuries to complete but carried in their unfinished fabric the blueprint for how to proceed.

If we accept that analogy, however, we’re faced with the fact that every recipe and every cathedral starts off with a coherent plan, the vision of a single creative mind. The evolving structure of the visions appears to have no such creator — and yet it displays all the hallmarks of deliberate design.

To get a better sense of just how deep this dilemma goes, it may be useful to consider the question of so-called “intelligent design” in nature.

These days, the theory of intelligent design serves chiefly as a fallback position for fundamentalists who see it as a way to sneak divine creation into the school curriculum. But two hundred years ago, it represented a serious effort to reconcile science and religion by pointing to the seemingly miraculous adaptations of living creatures.

The classic argument was offered by William Paley in his Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802). There he wrote:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Paley, of course, meant his analogy to serve as an argument for the existence of God. Charles Darwin, however, read Paley’s works in college and spent the rest of his life working up explanations for how it could be possible to get watches without any need for watchmakers. Not surprisingly, the Paleyites and the Darwinists have been at each other’s throats ever since.

At present, a sort of intermediate position is popular — namely that the existence of watches may imply watchmakers, but the watchmakers only need to be competent mechanics and not divine artificers. That’s roughly the assumption which underlies the concept of the self-organizing universe, in which each generation of organisms designs its own successors to be just a bit more complex and a bit more capable.

But incremental self-organization still doesn’t answer Paley’s central point about high-level designs that seemingly appear out of nowhere.

If we study a range of human artifacts, it soon becomes apparent that some are more deliberately designed than others. A Frank Lloyd Wright house, for example, is clearly the product of a single creative will at a given moment in time. Everything is integrated, proportional, and works to a common end. But the house down the block is just as likely to be a total hodgepodge — the result of successive owners adding a new wing here and an extra story there, or shoving over-sized modern kitchen appliances into a former pantry.

The great puzzle of evolution is that it has aspects of both. Some adaptations represent breathtakingly elegant solutions to problems of bioengineering, while others are total kludges.

And the cycle of visions is like that as well. In some places it’s clearly improvisational, the result of people muddling through and doing the best they can, often with substandard materials. But at other points — and particularly in the elaborately interlocking nature of the cycles themselves — it displays a level of design that’s almost beyond comprehension.

The best explanation I can come up with is that the cycles, much like a cathedral or a Frank Lloyd Wright house, are not there simply to be admired from a distance. They are machines designed to alter the consciousness of those who dwell within them — and perhaps eventually to turn them into designers as well.

Or to put it a slightly different way, the visions should not be regarded as a group mind but as an augmented mind. They provide a kind of exoskeleton that enables us jumped-up apes to see further, think more deeply, and plan more comprehensively that we could manage without their direction. Individually, we may be idiots, but collectively — at least within the context of the visions — we are a multifaceted genius.

When I wrote about the origin of the visions a year ago, I suggested that our species started out with a single vision of existence which included everything we knew and was held in common by every one of us. The marvelous new tools of language and story-telling kept this mono-vision tightly synchronized and allowed it to be improved upon and expanded in a collective manner.

If that was the case, we would have constituted more of a genuine hivemind at the start than at any time since, with all of us thinking the same thoughts and pursuing the same goals. Our almost-but-not-quite-fully-human ancestors of some 400,000 years ago might appear strangely Borg-like to us if we were to meet them now.

But eventually cracks appeared in this group mind. A few scattered individuals began to take their cues from higher knowledge instead of merely swapping tips with their fellows about The Way Things Were. And that gave them the ability to stand outside the system, view it as a limited construct rather than an all-in-all, and eventually hack it by inserting their own sense of higher possibility into the ongoing narrative.

If an original designer of the cycle of visions is to be found anywhere, it is in that handful of ancestral geniuses working their magic over many generations back in the Dreamtime. They not only dreamed us into being but also created the machinery that could transform us into the stuff of their dreams.

To be continued…

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Read the Previous Entry: Upgrading the Narrative
Read the Next Entry: Culture Hacking at the Dawn of Time

One Response to “Higher Intentionality”

  1. Cheryl says:

    love your comments on “all those individual choices start to blend together into something that resembles the thought processes of a single great mind ” fish schools, birds swooping – “emergent behavior” which I find fascinating. also don’t forge Richard Dawkins’ “memes”.

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