Theories of EverythingCory Panshin on May 23, 2010
In looking back over the previous entry, I realized that I’d understated the importance of dominant partnerships when I implied that they are merely practical and results-oriented. Their surface appearance may be designed to meet the immediate challenges of the moment, but there is also something far deeper and more enduring to be found in the philosophical connection which binds each pair of visions together.
That philosophical connection is necessary because we humans experience life in three very different modes — physically through our senses, emotionally through our family and social relationships, and implicitly through our dreams and inner reflections. Each of these modes gives rise to a radically different image of the universe, and yet we maintain an unshakable conviction that they all point to the same ultimate reality. As a result, we persistently attempt to harmonize these various pictures with one another.
Where each vision represents a model of reality drawn from just one area of experience, every partnership represents an attempt to synthesize two different areas. Compared to the visions themselves, partnerships are intellectual and somewhat arbitrary — which is why they always fall apart in the long run. But at their peak, they provide a brief glimpse of ultimate oneness that can be a source of brilliant artistic and cultural creativity.
The roots of any partnership go back to long before the partnership itself is constructed — to the moment when what will become the senior vision first gains self-awareness through being touched by intimations of what will become the junior vision. The overpowering sense of higher unity which is present at that moment will persist over many generations, even as the two visions go through their separate evolutions, to become the glue that eventually binds them together in a dominant partnership.
The science-and-democracy partnership, for example, was rooted in the 1600’s, when the spirit of open inquiry which underlies modern science was inspired by revolutionary yearnings for freedom and equality. In the same way, the democracy-and-chaos partnership began with the 18th century realization that the unalienable rights of man can flourish only in a context of government by the consent of the governed. And the chaos-and-holism partnership that will come into being perhaps a dozen years from now was already implicit in the mid-19th century recognition that an evolving universe must be one whose basic nature is unfixed and constantly changing.
But there is more to the philosophical underpinnings of a dominant partnership than that initial spark. By the time a partnership comes into being, its senior member has lost most of its original visionary fervor, but it has evolved instead into a sophisticated intellectual structure that promises to provide a definitive explanation for all of existence.
When the science-and-democracy partnership was constructed in the 1930’s, for example, it was based on the belief that a single set of physical laws would ultimately be found to underlie everything in nature — including human society and the workings of the human mind. So powerful was this belief that for a time even the chaos vision was subordinated to it.
Between about 1937 and 1942, it briefly appeared that all of human experience could be fitted within a single theoretical framework. A vast amount of cultural energy was released by that intellectual synthesis — which is why science fiction, comic books, and several other areas of popular culture all experienced a golden age during those years.
But it couldn’t last. In the course of World War II, chaos gradually began to move off into darker and more irrational areas of human mentation. Those tentative notes of rebellion in the 40’s and 50’s would pave the way for chaos to break away entirely when the science-and-democracy partnership collapsed in the 1960’s — and that in turn would set up the conditions for a new synthesis based on the pairing of democracy and chaos.
The democracy-and-chaos partnership, which attained its definitive form between 1979 and 1984, was structured around a belief that the democratic model of dynamic interactions among different interest groups offers a better understanding of the way the universe actually works than the overly-schematic mathematical formulas of 20th century physics.
This new philosophical model — whose explanatory power has been greatly enhanced by the use of computer simulations — is currently being applied to everything from interactions among different areas of the human brain to interactions among simple physical particles.
But there is something odd going on here, because not only is the underlying philosophy behind democracy-and-chaos still vibrantly creative, even as the partnership itself falls into ruins on the political level, but the older science-and-democracy philosophy remains active and influential as well.
This is perhaps most apparent in the field of economics. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has confessed that he was influenced as an adolescent by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1942-49), possibly the ultimate expression of the philosophy of science-and-democracy:
Admittedly, there were those science fiction novels. Indeed, they may have been what made me go into economics. Those who read the stuff may be aware of the classic Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. It is one of the few science fiction series that deals with social scientists — the “psychohistorians”, who use their understanding of the mathematics of society to save civilization as the Galactic Empire collapses. I loved Foundation, and in my early teens my secret fantasy was to become a psychohistorian. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing (yet). … Someday there will exist a unified social science of the kind that Asimov imagined, but for the time being economics is as close to psychohistory as you can get.
I don’t have a complete explanation for why there should be this kind of “lag” in the philosophical aspects of the partnerships as compared with the political aspects. It may be that the more abstract implications of each synthesis develop only gradually and then are equally slow to fade. But I also see an additional factor that may be at work.
I’ve noted previously that in each partnership the senior vision is subordinated to the junior vision, supporting the younger vision’s goals rather than its own. But this is not only true of the visions themselves, but of the entire areas of human experience from which those visions are drawn. The result is something like the game of rock-scissors-paper, with each area of experience trumping a second and being trumped, in turn, by a third.
Every partnership between an older social vision and a younger inner experience vision, for example, leads to a belief that the overriding purpose of society is to further the aspirations of its most outstanding members. The identity of those favored individuals varies, from the shamans and warriors of ancient times to the highly-paid entertainers and risk-taking entrepreneurs of the era of democracy-and-chaos. But the principle remains the same.
Similarly, each partnership in which an inner experience vision is subordinated to one based on the physical universe inevitably concludes that individuals are at the mercy of cosmic forces — though this acknowledgment can be expressed in ways that range from worship of a benevolent creator god to Lovecraftian terror of ravenous other-dimensional monsters.
And any partnership between a vision based on the physical universe and one based on human society will tend to perceive nature as having no other purpose than to be exploited for the benefit of civilization, as was the case with science-and-democracy.
These conclusions don’t always go down easily, of course. Partnerships which subordinate the needs of society as a whole to those of a favored elite tend to incite rebellion on the part of the dispossessed. Those which subordinate the individual to the cosmos produce dissidents like the occultists and religious fundamentalists of the late 1800’s, who questioned the validity of scientific materialism. And those which subordinate nature to civilization eventually produce a tree-hugger backlash on behalf of the natural world.
But for those who do believe, it’s possible to believe in two of these subordinations at once — to conclude, say, that the individual trumps society at the same time as society trumps nature.
This is why our own culture can accommodate the conclusions of both science-and-democracy and democracy-and-chaos — with nature being left sitting in the ashes like Cinderella. Only when a chaos-and-holism partnership arises and nature is once again seen as trumping the individual will the science-and-democracy model finally be discarded.
Meanwhile, there is a disconcerting duality apparent in the policies of the Obama administration, with the philosophical assumptions of science-and-democracy and those of democracy-and-chaos often seeming to point in opposite directions.
War and national security, for example, along with the economy, are still dominated by the science-and-democracy approach of attempting to invent a “formula” for victory and apply it single-mindedly. These are the areas where Obama has been most scathingly criticized from the left.
At the same time, other aspects of foreign and domestic policy are edging towards the democracy-and-chaos approach of arriving at mutually-satisfactory arrangements through negotiations among all affected parties. And that approach has been under constant attack by the Cheneyite right.
But neither the conservative nor the liberal approach seems capable of dealing with a disaster like the current BP oil spill. That will change only when a chaos-and-holism partnership is constructed in the 2020’s and set to the task of cleaning up the messes left by its predecessors.
Once that happens, the lingering influence of science-and-democracy will be dispelled, chaos will be shorn of its egotism and reduced to an abstract philosophy of existence, and nature will again be in the driver’s seat.
But those developments are still a good ways off. The problem before us now is to nurture a holism-based counterculture that can challenge the existing order of things and develop the tools for dealing with greater troubles that lie ahead.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
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