Archive for the ‘Higher Knowledge’ Category

I keep finding there’s more to say about the underground stream before I move on with 1940s science fiction.

One thing I’m particularly coming to appreciate is the extent to which the underground stream functions as an altered state of consciousness. It operates out of its own strain of dream logic that has little in common with the formal premises and conclusions of the conventional visions. It seizes hold of the imagination in such a way that works produced under its influence often display a strangely hypnotic quality.

It is also like dream and intoxication in that we may forget its insights when we return to a more rational state of mind, only to recall them instantly once we are back in the dream. This is why there is typically a direct continuity of attitudes and assumptions from one period when the underground stream is prominent to the next.

There were, for example, multiple links between the fantasies and mythic speculations of the 1940s and the birth of the creative imagination vision at the end of the 1960s. Similar affinities tie the most utopian dreams and most radical works of imaginative fiction of the 1980s and early 90s to the present day.

The interplay between the dream states of the underground stream and the intellectual formulations that reach their culmination in every dominant partnership also appears to underlie the recurring four-phase sequence of the cycle of visions.

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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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There can be something intensely liberating about referring back to old research notes. They may appear outdated or irrelevant, but they can also remind you of forgotten truths and send your mind racing off in unexpected directions. That’s what happened to me in the course of writing the previous entry, and I wound up expressing opinions that were at odds with much of what I’ve recently said about dominant partnerships.

I’ve been somewhat scornful of dominant partnerships lately, dismissing them as fossilized and untranscendent in comparison with the younger visions — but that wasn’t always the case. When I first recognized the existence of the cycle of visions, it was because the dominant partnerships leaped out at me. It seemed plain that they set the distinctive tone of each era, legitimized its social and religious institutions, and inspired its major cultural achievements.

It took me longer to realize that younger visions were already developing around the margins of the partnership, and even then I focused chiefly on the next one in line, which serves as a focal point for discontent and opposition to the reigning worldview. I regarded the two newest visions as no more than vague, mystical intimations that might inspire the occasional artist or philosopher but had little impact on society as a whole.

Over the last year or two, however, my attitude has undergone a complete reversal. I’ve become fascinated by the birth and growth of the youngest visions, and I’ve come to see them as having a mysterious, subterranean power that inspires the most creative and progressive aspects of society and serves as the engine of cultural evolution and transformation.

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The most radical implications of W.E. Ritter’s philosophy of “organismalism” could not have been apparent when he published The Unity of the Organism in 1918.

For one thing, there was a crucial vagueness in his assertion that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.” Was he simply trying to say that science could not understand cells or organs without a recognition of the roles they played in the complete organism? Or did he have something deeper in mind?

Over the next few years, however, both the vocabulary and the concepts of the new philosophy came into sharper focus. By 1926, Jan Smuts had introduced the more streamlined term “holism,” which he defined in the 1927 Encyclopedia Britannica as “the theory which makes the existence of ‘wholes’ a fundamental feature of the world.”

“It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as ‘wholes’ and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts,” Smuts explained. “It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour.”

Ritter was quick to adopt this simpler terminology of wholes and parts. In a book co-authored with one of his students in 1928, he wrote, “Wholes are so related to their parts that not only does the existence of the whole depend on the orderly cooperation and interdependence of its parts, but the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts. … Structurally, functionally, and generatively, they are reciprocals of each other.”

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I finished the previous entry with an expression of surprise at the idea that the first half of the 20th century might have produced an outbreak of higher knowledge as world-changing as those of the first millennium BC and the Renaissance. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes — and I’m realizing that my doubts were based on nothing but my own prejudices.

One of those prejudices involves my dislike of the kind of American exceptionalism which proclaims that there has never been a time or place in the history of the world to equal the contemporary United States. I’ve always hated that attitude, and part of what drew me to the idea of historical cycles in the first place was a desire to demonstrate that whatever is happening here and now has happened many times before.

But setting the boosterism aside, there really was a great historical turning-point in the early 20th century that was centered in the United States. This was not due to any special American virtue, but was because the U.S. — like Classical Greece or Renaissance Europe — had the advantage of being on the periphery of the civilized world and therefore free of the most extreme forms of elite domination.

A more serious source of my doubts, however, was the fact that 20th century culture offers nothing to equal either the grandeur of the great philosophical and religious formulations of the ancient world or the brilliance of the art and literature of early modern Europe. The best American popular culture — whether pulp fiction, Hollywood films, or jazz — displayed an impressive blend of energy and grace, but it also suffered from a relative shallowness and superficiality.

I wrestled with that dilemma with for a week — until it finally struck me that this apparent shallowness was, as they say, not a bug but a feature.

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Since there’s nothing that human beings can’t crap up, even higher knowledge has its downside.

Many of the problem arise because there are never more than a few individuals who can consistently experience the insights of higher knowledge in a focused manner. It therefore falls upon those few — the shamans, prophets, and visionaries — to convey their intuitions to the rest of us in the form of art, philosophy, and religion.

But as they do, distortions inevitably creep in. Compromises are made with what the audience already believes to be true. The message is watered down to look more like the simple cause-and-effect of ordinary knowledge. And insights that can not be simplified may take on an air of impenetrable mystery that discourages further inquiry.

The result is a kind of “higher knowledge for dummies” — which is as close as most of us are likely to get to the real thing. And though even this diluted version may trigger flashes of genuine higher knowledge in those who embrace it, it can also act as an impediment if they take it at face value and refuse to seek further.

And this is what happens in ideal situations, when those transmitting the messages of higher knowledge do so with no thought of personal gain. If elements of ego and dominance are allowed to intrude, things can go very wrong indeed.

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I’m not done with my survey of wacky 1940’s science fiction, but I’m finding that I can’t proceed without taking a break to define more clearly what I mean by “higher knowledge.”

I’ve made a variety of assertions about higher knowledge in the course of these entries. Each of them is true within its own frame of reference, but they come at the subject from different angles and have different implications, and I suspect that even my own thinking on the subject has gotten a bit fuzzy and could use some sorting out.

I suggested two years ago that from a scientific viewpoint, higher knowledge can be understood in terms of a theory that the human brain generates sudden “neuronal avalanches,” which spark intuitive insights by creating novel connections among scattered bits of information.

When I first mentioned this idea, I associated it with recent speculation that an evolutionary leap to a new form of brain organization around 80,000 years ago might have distinguished us modern humans from our equally intelligent but less creative forebears. I still believe that, but I’m now convinced that the change must go back fully 200,000 years, to the very dawn of our species, and that we humans have from the start been the people of higher knowledge.

The theory of neuronal avalanches, however, can only take us so far — because our sudden intuitive flashes lead not only to the recognition of new relationships among existing information, but also to what appear to be profound insights into the nature of reality itself.

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The account that the mad inventor in Fredric Brown’s “Paradox Lost” gives of himself may provide the most obvious way to make sense of the story’s wacky events, but we don’t necessarily have to take his assertions at face value. If we focus instead on the experiences of the “normal” Shorty McCabe, a very different picture emerges.

From Shorty’s point of view, the weirdness starts while he is sitting in a boring college class in the year 1943, listening to his philosophy professor drone on about the difference between impossible and unpossible and keeping his mind occupied by thinking up nonsense phrases and watching a blue bottle fly buzz around the room.

Suddenly the fly zooms down from the ceiling, passing an inch in front of Shorty’s nose, and vanishes into thin air. Shorty stretches his hand out to where he last saw it — and his fingers vanish from sight as well. So he tosses a few paper clips to determine the size and shape of this hole into nothingness, then stands up, takes a step forward, and finds himself in “blackness.”

At that moment, someone sneezes.

It’s the mad inventor, of course. He acts annoyed, telling Shorty, “You’ve got no business here,” but eventually he softens up and explains that Shorty is still in the same classroom, only now in the year 1948. He encourages Shorty to grope around in the darkness, and Shorty’s hand encounters “something soft that felt like hair.” He tugs on it and it jerks away.

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Since doing the previous entry about the birth of new visions, I’ve been thinking a lot about the possible nature of the successor to the holism vision.

It’s not possible to figure out intellectually what form that vision will take, of course. A new vision is born when higher knowledge catches a glimpse of its own reflection in the mirror of ordinary knowledge, and there is no way to predict where the lightning will strike.

But my comparative timetables suggest that early intimations of holism’s successor ought to have begun popping up over the past two or three years, much as the first hints of creative imagination were appearing among Tolkien fans and proto-hippies on the eve of the 60’s counterculture.

That means it should be possible to identify signs of change, such as areas where holism is showing its limitations or aspects of science that hold an unrealized potential for being perceived as transcendent.

As I’ve noted previously, the greatest weakness of holism has always been its lingering elitism. The proto-holists of the early twentieth century were frequently appalled by the modern world of skyscrapers and factories and dreamed of getting back to a time when there was “less noise and more green.” And though holism eventually threw off its most blatant aristocratic biases, the utopian ideal at its core has remained decidedly low-tech and low-population.

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As anyone who’s been following this blog will know, much of my attention has been focused on developing a theory that all of human history is the product of a series of successive visions of the dynamics of the world around us. These visions are of three different kinds — drawing their inspiration variously from science, society, or inner experience — and new ones emerge in regular succession to replace older ones of the same type.

In my set of entries on the “Dance of the Visions,” I was chiefly concerned with examining how each vision interacts with those of the other two kinds that immediately precede and follow it in the sequence — sometimes contending with them and at other times engaging in mutually fruitful partnerships.

That’s not the only way to look at things, however, and my latest excursion into the nature of higher knowledge has got me thinking more deeply about the process by which each vision is born, gradually assumes the power to transform the world, and finally fades into irrelevance.

I’ve been suggesting for some time that every vision grows out of a combination of mysticism and practical experience, but I’ve always been somewhat fuzzy on the details. Last fall, for example, I proposed that the visions are the product of “a raging desire to make sense of the world” fueled by an “ineffable glimpse … of inherent pattern and meaning beyond the disorder and uncertainty of ordinary existence.”

I wouldn’t exactly disagree with that now — but I think I went way overboard on the “raging desire” and “ineffable glimpse” part. I’d say instead that evolution has gifted us with two distinct ways of perceiving the world — ordinary knowledge and higher knowledge — and that the visions represent a series of ambitious but imperfect attempts to understand them as varying perceptions of the same reality.

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