The Rules of the Game

on December 27, 2014

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.

These principles also apply to the visions. Each one starts off with a small number of premises about the nature of reality. To this is gradually added a set of practical rules for interpreting and applying those premises. And once the vision has fully crystallized, those rules and premises are transmitted just like language from generation to generation. That is how the visions remain coherent even over many centuries and among different cultures

However, this model doesn’t only apply to the individual visions. There’s also a meta-system with its own rules that acts as a kind of traffic cop to maintain order among the visions and fend off conflicts among them.

I’ve referred to those meta-rules quite often. One is that the visions come in three flavors, based respectively on science, society, and inner experience. Another is that there can be only five active visions at any time — two mature visions that dominate society, one outsider vision that acts as a source of cultural ferment, and two emerging visions that have not yet crystallized.

I’ve previously taken these meta-rules as a given, something rooted in human nature that is inevitable and unchanging. However, now I’m starting to see them instead as the product of a series of ad hoc solutions that were adopted over an extended period of time to keep successive visions from stepping on one another’s toes.

As I’ve discussed in earlier entries, I believe the sequence of visions began with one unified vision of the world that was created by a small group of our not-quite-fully-human ancestors over 400,000 years ago. That single vision was sufficient until the human community expanded and became and more diverse and it was found necessary to adopt a second vision that would both uphold the sense of human unity and regulate the fine points of interpersonal relationships.

There were significant differences between the first two visions, but they were handled by drawing a dividing line between human society — with its adherence to the rules of kinship and other cultural norms — and the realm of nature.

And then a third vision entered the picture. Some time after 300,000 years ago, our species underwent a final evolutionary leap that made us more intuitive and somewhat inclined to madness. The first shamans were born of that shift — and the world as they perceived it was very different from either the natural world or human society. It was an ever-shifting domain of ghosts and spirits and unaccountable changes in form and size.

This trickster view of existence could have presented a direct threat to the stability of human culture — and perhaps for a time it did. But it was ultimately resolved in the same way as before, through the invention of a spirit realm that had its own rules and was as separate from the world of everyday as the human realm was from the realm of nature

At that point, the original Vision of Everything had been whittled down until it applied only to the material world. It still included the mysteries of growth and decay, the secrets of animals and plants, and the enigmatic properties of water and fire and stone, but it had lost much of its original transcendence.

That may have been what prompted the birth of a fourth vision, perhaps shortly after 200,000 years ago. This new vision received its inspiration not from anything on earth but from the heavens, which appeared as a supernatural realm that was visible yet forever beyond reach.

This cosmic order vision presented a problem of a new kind. It was based upon observations of physical reality, just like the ancient vision of the natural world. It was specifically focused on changes among the celestial bodies, just as the older vision was focused on transformations among the beings and substances of earth. To a large extent, they inhabited the same cognitive territory.

But there were also major differences between them. The transformation vision emphasized death and rebirth and unpredictability, while the heavens were eternal and almost perfectly regular in their movements. That created a deep philosophical rift that could never be resolved — but the repeated attempts to do so were the chief source of the meta-system of the visions as we now know it.

That conflict didn’t become clear all at once. For a long time, the new vision was the obsession of only a small handful of astro-geeks. It offered no challenge to the established order and could even be considered a special case of its older predecessor. That is what happens with emerging visions even today.

The same method of conflict resolution through obscurity was applied again when a successor to the kinship vision was born, perhaps 70,000 years ago. At that point, something like our current five-way system came into effect: the mature transformation and kinship visions to guide society, the insurgent spirit vision of the shamans, and the emerging cosmic order and aristocracy visions.

But nothing in human affairs ever holds still, and that tidy setup collapsed when the end of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago brought with it a series of cosmic disasters and planetary upheavals. The two mature visions no longer had the flexibility needed to explain or cope with those disasters — so the spirit vision and the rapidly developing cosmic order vision stepped forward instead.

If things had worked then the way they do now, the transformation vision would have been discarded, a new partnership between a refurbished kinship vision and a toned-down version of the spirit vision would have taken over the direction of society, and cosmic order would have assumed the outsider role.

That happened to a degree — but the transformation vision didn’t vanish. Instead, it was fused with cosmic order in a new dichotomy of Heaven and Earth that was reflected in myths of a world-axis that reached from the underworld to the heavens and megalithic monuments that harmonized the energies of the earth with those of the stars.

This was an extraordinary intellectual accomplishment, but the trick could only work once. When the kinship vision failed to address the social turmoil that accompanied the onset of the Bronze Age, there was no similar effort to reconcile it with aristocracy.

The aristocracy vision had been born out of discontent with the rigid egalitarianism of traditional kinship systems, and its central premise was that there were certain extraordinary individuals who outshone their fellows just as the heavens outshone the earth. This notion was initially expressed in the form of hero-stories, but by the end of the Neolithic a wealthy elite had developed, and it embraced the aristocracy vision as its own.

The members of that elite were fixated upon the stars and on their own almost godlike superiority to ordinary mortals. Their goal was to reshape the earth and human society according to the model of the heavens — thereby creating what we know as civilization — and they had little use for either the fertility cults of the Neolithic or the traditional bonds of kinship.

Those two most ancient visions weren’t completely eradicated, but they were relegated to the peasantry and lost both philosophical depth and intellectual sophistication. And a pattern was established whereby the elite leaders of society repeatedly prove their superiority by ruthlessly purging each fading vision and coopting its successor as it begins to take on worldly influence.

The effect has been a great acceleration of the historical process, as visions rise and fall in a dizzying swirl — but at the same time, it seems that each new vision is stupider and more simplistic than the ones before it. We have lost touch with the immemorial traditions of human wisdom, and there is no point in continuing any further down this path.

We can’t go back to the unified perceptions of the Paleolithic or even the brilliant synthesis of the Neolithic. Old visions are going to continue to fail and new ones to be born. But there has to be a more tolerant and inclusive way to deal with those changes.

Our best hope is that the current rules of the meta-system are not set in stone. We invented them only 5000 years ago and we can reinvent them now. In fact, there are already signs that we have started to treat our collection of past visions not as a junk heap but as an essential cultural repository.

Read the Previous Entry: The Moral Case
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