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.

The paradoxical nature of the relationship between us and the visions suggests that our brains are hard-wired to build up systems of rules one step at a time — but also that each new rule becomes a precedent that constrains the freedom of succeeding decisions.

This delicate balance between freedom and determinism is what gives us the ability to pick up the mechanics of an unfamiliar system, contribute to it in a meaningful way, and collaboratively produce a harmonious structure whose components work together organically. This approach can be seen in the evolution of our games, our legal systems, and our computer applications.

But over time, the collaborative design process breaks down. We forget what we originally set out to accomplish. Our systems become top-heavy and riddled with internal contradictions. They turn into bloatware. And this is as true of the visions as of anything else.

Hypothesis #2: Occultism, Reason, and Mysticism

The rules-based nature of the visions explains a lot about their rise and fall, but it doesn’t explain everything. In particular it doesn’t explain the cycle itself — the elaborate but remarkably consistent sequence of alternations between idealism and cynicism, pragmatism and romanticism which helps drive that rise and fall.

It also doesn’t explain why the visions generate such intense passions. If they were merely intellectual paradigms designed to explain physical reality, human society, or consciousness on the basis of a few simple premises, they would be a lot simpler and more rational. They wouldn’t have the power they do to inspire individual dedication or set off world-chanting cultural movements. They wouldn’t cause people to choose up sides on the basis of adherence to one vision or another and battle to the death.

Rather than being purely rational, the visions appear to operate on three different levels at once — the mystical, the rational, and the occult. And this is where things get really interesting.

The occult level — which I’ve often referred to as the underground stream — is that sense of things barely glimpsed out of the corner of your eye that I believe must go back to the common ancestor of ourselves and the Neanderthals, over a million years ago. It is primal and powerful and in many ways pre-conscious.

The rational level appears to date to around 400,000 years ago, when a shift in brain organization enabled the ancestors of modern humans to embark upon a way of life that depended on rules and information and the use of language as a complex information-storage system.

And the mystical level arose between roughly 300,000 and 200,000 years ago, when the continuing growth in brain size needed to facilitate our new information-based way of life introduced a certain slosh into our mental processes. Instead of being purely linear thinkers, we developed a tendency for distant brain regions to fall out of touch and then suddenly reestablish communication in a way that leads to intuitive flashes and intimations of unknown higher forces.

All three of these factors play a role in the sequence of visions.

The rational and the occult appear to represent a basic polarity, and they alternate in influence several times over the course of every cycle. The classical balance and harmony that accompany the formation of a new dominant partnership soon give way to the emotional turmoil and paranoia of the “romantic break.” This over-intensity is eventually brought under control by a forceful reimposition of rational norms — but only at the cost of a growing sense of alienation from nature, society, and our own inner selves. In the end, the partnership implodes, and strange theories and beliefs run wild until a new partnership is constructed to restore tranquility.

These two poles appear to correspond to what Nietzsche described in The Birth of Tragedy as the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The former he associated with structure and moderation, the latter with both “the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumbfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena” and “the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis.”

If that recurring alternation was all there was to the cycles, however, they would be no more than an emotional and stylistic roller coaster — which is what I took them to be at the start. It’s only the involvement of the mystical side of our nature that makes them something more.

On one hand, the mystical aspect plays a mediator’s role. When the affinity of the underground stream for sex and violence gets out of hand, mysticism allies with reason and fosters a calm and restrained appreciation of existence. When an excess of reason renders life dry and sterile, mysticism allies with the occult to insist on an acknowledgement of invisible higher powers.

But through all these twists and turns, the mystical is also following its own imperative — which is not just to keep us running around in circles but to guide us along an ascending spiral.

Whenever there is a significant “gap” in the cycle — when gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through — we are forced to look to the oneness of all things to transcend the limitations of both the rational and the occult. Those gaps serve as portals through which higher knowledge enters to generate new constructions of reality, new solutions to our problems, and new visions.

We are caught up in just such a gap at the present moment, which is why our cultural attitudes are being transformed at a breakneck pace even as our society is falling to pieces around us.

Hypothesis #3: Messiness

But there is one last factor which influences all the others and appears to be as deeply embedded in human nature as any of them. That is our insatiable curiosity — our desire to know everything and have it all fit together and make sense.

That desire resonates with our mystical faith in the ultimate oneness of existence. It underlies our rational attempts to unify existing knowledge in ever more-inclusive systems of rules. And it creates a deep nostalgia for the original Vision of Everything, when all our experiences formed a seamless whole.

But at the same time, it is impossible of attainment, because we humans are such determined information hoarders. Once we come up with a good idea, we’re unable to let go of it, even after the vision to which it was once attached has been discredited and discarded. The result is that we keep bits and pieces of all our former visions sitting around, like the workshop of an obsessive tinkerer full of ancient vacuum tubes and the guts of long-dead televisions. And every time a new vision comes along, we go downstairs and rummage through the storeroom in search of spare parts to recycle.

It strikes me that the human hivemind must be prone to ADHD, mingled with touches of OCD. We forget important things for eons and then suddenly recall them again. We become obsessed with some seeming bit of trivia for a century or two and then drop it just as suddenly. We compulsively collect stuff that’s of no earthly use — except that sometimes it is.

Seen from that perspective, all of human history appears as a vast memory palace through whose corridors we can roam, shaking our heads over the follies of the past but also unearthing forgotten treasures or occasionally being stunned by some hidden window opening on a higher-dimensional reality.

In fact, the visions themselves may be nothing more than a crude and childish attempt to sort through the information we’ve accumulated over a million years while shielding ourselves from being overwhelmed by the sheer massiveness of it all. As card catalogs go, it’s hardly an ideal system. It seems designed more to keep knowledge out than to let it in. But for the time being, it’s the best we’ve got.

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