A Living Universe

on June 10, 2016

I continue to have trouble moving my account of the cycle of visions along, and that usually means I’m overlooking something important. I suspect the underlying problem is that I keep trying to cast the visions as an automatic consequence of the facts of human nature and brain function — and that just isn’t the way creative processes work.

The history of innovation makes it clear that radical departures from the existing order of things are never inevitable. In the beginning, all is flux and uncertainty and decision points that lead to alternative paths. It’s only when one preferred solution takes hold that the wave function collapses and the rest follows a predetermined course.

This is true of art and science and politics and religion — and it would have been supremely true of the visions, since those were the first and greatest expression of human creativity upon which everything since has been built.

At the onset of our long experiment in being human, when everything was new and surprising, there were many choices to be made. There were choices about things we now take for granted, like how language works and the pattern that stories follow. There were even deeper choices involving the way we define ourselves and our relationship to one another and the world around us.

Our most ancient stories tell of a Dreamtime when nothing was yet determined and everything was a matter of choice. And though those stories surely date from a time much later than when the fundamental choices were made, they reflect an ancestral memory that everything we now accept as given is the result of decisions made in the distant past.

The people who made those decisions weren’t quite like us, but they were no dummies. Our present-day myths about the beginning of all things insist that our own species dates to only some 200,000 years ago. But while that might be true in terms of our DNA, those long-ago ancestors stood at the endpoint of a process that must go back two or three times as far. The most important decisions had already been made by then, the earliest visions were in place, and everything we have accomplished since grows out of our attempt to fulfill the compact upon which our species was originally founded.

In some ways, our prehuman ancestors were more human than we are, because they had a clearer sense of what it means to be human. They knew where they had come from and where they were going. They honored the culture bringers who designed the beliefs and practices that distinguished them from animals. And they embraced those norms because they marked out the path towards an even greater degree of humanity.

The closest we come today to what it might have been like back when everything was in flux is during the brief moments when all existing visions fail or falter and a new vision is born. As it happens, we’re in such a period right now and will be for perhaps another four or five years. And though it can be distressing to live when everything is coming unmoored, it’s only at such times that we have a chance to update our definitions of who we are and what we can become.

It’s no coincidence that 2016 is being widely compared to 1968. That was the last time things went off the rails in quite so definitive a fashion. But the details are very different now because the relevant visions have all moved on a notch.

The psychedelic counterculture of the mid-1960s was based on the chaos and holism visions. Turn on, tune in, drop out — that sort of thing. Destabilize your mind, connect with the wider universe, and ignore society. But between 1968 and 1972, the chaos part first turned into a bad trip and then was coopted and sanitized and used to sell consumer goods.

This prompted a shift to a slightly different counterculture that combined holism with the younger horizontalism vision. It was the “gotta get back to the land” counterculture of Woodstock, the Earth First Catalog, and rural communes. And the same shift gave birth to the creative imagination vision, which is now superseding chaos as a paradigm for understanding the mysteries of the human mind.

We’re presently going through a comparable transition. Since around 2010-11, we’ve witnessed a series of protest movements grounded in a combination of holism and horizontalism. But with global warming changing from a distant threat to a looming disaster, the holism vision is being reluctantly embraced by the forces of establishment sanity, who will soon wrest it away from the dissidents and idealists and turn it to more practical ends.

As a result, horizontalism — which has been the primary energy source for everything from Occupy Wall Street to Nuit Debout — is forming a new alliance with creative imagination. This can be seen in recent efforts to set aside the dystopian nightmares of the last few years and imagine a brighter, wouldn’t-you-like-to-live-there tomorrow. It is also provoking scattered suggestions that our problems won’t be cured by either technology or politics but only by a global spiritual awakening.

This change in the zeitgeist — and especially its spiritual aspect — portends the birth of a new vision.

Defining a vision before it actually comes into being is like catching moonbeams in a butterfly net — but certain assumptions can be made. One is that it will be a direct successor to the holism vision and as such will be based on current leading edge science and technology. A second is that it will react against the narrowly biological focus of holism to incorporate new ways of seeing the world. And a third is that it should be possible to find occasional hints of it within the holism of the past century, just as the first hints of holism can be found in the scientific materialism vision that preceded it.

Scientific materialism was born in the late Middle Ages out of the perceptions of the artisans who were inventing clocks and windmills and other automatic devices. Its guiding metaphor was that the physical universe was a vast machine. This mechanical image of the world flowered in the 1500s and 1600s with the birth of modern science, became dominant in the 1800s, and generally crapped out in the rebellions of the 1960s.

The holism vision was born in the mid-1800s as a reaction against scientific materialism. However, glimpses of it can be seen in the preceding centuries, when science was known as natural philosophy and sought to understand all of nature in non-supernatural terms. It was only after science narrowed its focus and began to proclaim that matter alone was real and life was merely a by-product of the laws of physics and chemistry that a separate vision became necessary.

The holism vision took living organisms as its primary point of reference, insisting that they had to be viewed as real in themselves and not as random assemblages of molecules. It flowered in the first half of the twentieth century, took the lead in overthrowing the mechanistic philosophy of scientific materialism in the 1960s, and is now moving into a position of cultural dominance.

But as it does, it will inevitably become narrower and more formulaic and will reject its own most radical and unconventional elements. And though this narrower version will demonstrate its utility by providing solutions to the pressing environment problems of the day, it will quickly lose its capacity for creative change. Ultimately, it will become dogmatic, ideological, and repressive and will be rejected in turn.

But well before that happens, a successor will be waiting in the wings.

The building blocks of that successor are already in position, although they have yet to be assembled into a meaningful whole. One is quantum theory, which has never fit comfortably into either scientific materialism or holism. Another is chaos theory, which allies with quantum physics in suggesting that non-living matter is not deterministic but is constantly fresh and surprising. And a third strand involves our most advanced technological devices, which increasingly relate to us as quasi-living, even though they show no signs of developing “artificial intelligence” in the twentieth century sense.

It’s especially noteworthy that this last perception goes back to the earliest days of holism. It can be seen in the conclusion of Alice Through the Looking-Glass, where the soup-ladle starts “walking up the table towards Alice’s chair, and beckoning to her impatiently to get out of its way.” It’s apparent in the non-meat creatures of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and in the dancing trains and apartment buildings of early animated cartoons. And it’s implied by the early twentieth century philosophy of organicism, the immediate precursor of holism, whose exponents suggested at times that even non-living matter was alive if we only had the subtlety of perception to recognize it.

These intimations of a living universe faded in the 1930s as holism disavowed its original mystical underpinnings and aimed to appear more materialistic. But they were never quite forgotten, and they seem poised to resurface now as the premise for a new, post-holism vision.

And that makes me wonder whether something similar was true of spirit. Was the vision that came together some 300,000 years ago based on intimations that predated even the birth of the transformation vision around 600,000 years ago? And had those intimations been temporarily set aside as our own species turned to mastering first the natural world and then their own social relationships?

Were we magicians first and scientists and politicians only second? If so, that could be the elephant in the dark I’ve been overlooking.

Read the Previous Entry: The Era of High Strangeness
Read the Next Entry: The Boundless Realms of Invention

2 Responses to “A Living Universe”

  1. John Nuck says:

    “The holism vision was born in the mid-1800s as a reaction against scientific materialism. However, glimpses of it can be seen in the preceding centuries, when science was known as natural philosophy and sought to understand all of nature in non-supernatural terms. It was only after science narrowed its focus and began to proclaim that matter alone was real and life was merely a by-product of the laws of physics and chemistry that a separate vision became necessary.”

    I am finishing up and I highly recommend George Musser’s “Spooky Action at a Distance.” Musser shares that the belief in magic spurred the great increase of experimentation and the eventual rise of Natural Philosophy. I found that very interesting, and wondered if there was some paradigm shift in Proto-humans 600,000 years ago that led to a belief in a thing called magic to explain the world–that this belief actually delineated humans from animals.

    Musser also delves into quantum theory that you brought in your article and, specifically,non-locality. It brought to mind a passage in a review by Adam Goonik of Musser’s book that I recently read regarding scientists and the nature of the cosmos:

    “One way or another, science really happens. The claim that basic research is valuable because it leads to applied technology may be true but perhaps is not at the heart of the social use of the enterprise. The way scientists do think makes us aware of how we can think. Samuel Johnson said that a performer riding on three horses may not accomplish anything, but he increases our respect for the faculties of man. The scientists who show that nature rides three horses at once—or even two horses, on opposite sides of the universe—also widen our respect for what we are capable of imagining, and it is this action, at its own spooky distance, that really entangles our minds.”

  2. allynh says:

    Here’s another example of how to look at your cycle of visions.

    Ambiguous Cylinder Illusion | How it Happen? | Revealed

    The same object looks completely different depending on how you look at it, which is why you keep going in circles. HA!

Leave a Reply