The following is an essay I originally wrote about two years ago, revised for my blog, Colorado Confluence, a little over a year ago, and revised again more recently to reflect some of the developments in this line of thought that followed this essay. Those developments can be found in a series of essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. Another series of essays exploring what I call “the politics of reason and goodwill” are found linked to in the second box on that same page. The remaining boxes contain essays on various aspects of social systemic dynamics, epistemology, political ideology, and a wide range of policy issues.
Political discourse habitually loses the forest for the trees, because too rarely do we discuss human consciousness in political terms, though consciousness is both the soil from which all of our other endeavors grow, and the essence of the fruit which those endeavors strive to bear.
Consciousness is both political and evolutionary: It is fought over every step of the way, but carved on a lathe of trial and error such that it transcends, over time, the battles that comprise it. Economist John Maynard Keynes summed up this apparent paradox most eloquently (and humorously): “[People] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.”
British Biologist Richard Dawkins framed this process in terms of “memes,” cognitions which, like genes, are packets of information which self-replicate (through communication), mutate (through interpretation, synthesis, and innovation), compete for reproductive success (in individual choices of what to believe and what techniques to utilize, which aggregate into social institutions and technological regimes), and thus evolve.
American Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn, at about the same time (the mid-1960s), framed the process as one invigorated by the emergence of dominant paradigms (from the chaos of competing views), thus allowing focused investigation within that paradigm, the subsequent accumulation of anomalies (findings that are incompatible with the paradigm), and an eventual paradigm shift through attention to and resolution of those anomalies.
Combining these two independently developed theories into a single framework, we can discern in the realms of human consciousness and social institutions (which are two sides of a single coin) one very robust manifestation of the ubiquitous interplay of the parts and the whole, the more local (or microcosmic) and the more global (or macrocosmic), an interplay that exists across levels from the quanta or superstrings of physics to the universe in its entirety, and across our arbitrarily siloed categories of natural phenomena. The reproductive robustness of memes and the shifting of paradigms are interdependent phenomena, with the robustness of memes being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the paradigms into which they coalesce, and the robustness of paradigms being a function, to some extent, of the robustness of the memes that comprise them.
For instance, the “anomalies” of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts are an example of memes whose reproductive robustness is diminished first by countervailing empirical evidence (and subsequently, for the public at large, by a removal of the stamp of the endorsement of expert opinion), thus leading to an eventual replacement of the entire paradigm. As a result, other memes that comprise that paradigm but are not found in the paradigm that comes to replace it are weakened (though not necessarily eliminated) in tandem with the paradigm itself, even if no other evidence or social processes arose to undermine those memes.
(This also points to the value of attempting conceptually to separate memes and the paradigms to which they belong to some extent, since a discredited paradigm doesn’t necessarily imply that all of the memes that comprise it are similarly discredited, nor do discredited memes within a paradigm necessarily discredit that paradigm in its entirety. So, for instance, there are those who roundly reject the concept of “God,” an amazingly robust meme throughout human history, because they rightly criticize some of the paradigms which have evolved around it, though, as I argue in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, the meme of god and gods may have great positive value to human consciousness if embedded in other kinds of paradigms.)
George Lakoff offered another angle of insight into this set of both political and evolutionary processes in his book The Political Mind. Lakoff emphasizes that the human mind thinks in frames and narratives which can as easily support rational or irrational beliefs and opinions; it is by appealing to the human mind as it really works (by fitting new information into existing frames and narratives), rather than as we would like to believe it works (weighing out competing arguments on their merits, and selecting the most rational one), that particular memes and paradigms (with their implications for how well they serve either reason and goodwill or their opposites) are advanced.
Referring back to paragraph two of this essay (including the quote by John Maynard Keynes), the irrational exploration of “all other alternatives” is a function of how well those alternatives often appeal to our existing frames and narratives, while the eventual triumph of “the rational thing” is a function of how relentlessly utility seeps into those frames and narratives and oh-so-slowly weeds out those that are irrational and self-destructive, creating the paradox of a horrifying prevalence of irrationality in the short run, serving a remarkable florescence of highly sophisticated rational forms in the long run.
The complexity and subtlety of these processes are dazzling, with many apparent contradictions as a result. To begin to explore these complexities and subtleties, please peruse my series of essays that give this paradigm a more precise and comprehensive treatment: Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.
Nested within these intertwined progressions of memes and paradigms are bitter battles over what is and is not true. Scientists might discern a heliocentric solar system, but inquisitors can obstruct and punish the dissemination of this knowledge. There is, however, no a priori reason to assume that either the heretics or the defenders of the faith (whether religious or secular), in any given instance, are on the side of truth or utility: Either can be right, and either can be wrong. History is defined by the accumulation of victories of innovative memes over established memes, but this belies the vaster number of innovative memes that did not prevail, often due to their relative superficiality or naiveté. Just as in biological evolution, in which the vast majority of mutations are disadvantageous to the reproductive success of that gene, so too the vast majority of radical new ideas are less useful to human welfare than their well-established counterparts honed by the genius of time and numbers.
Of course, that genius is forever skewed by concentrations of political and economic power, such that existing memes and paradigms may disproportionately favor those already materially favored, and new ideas that may produce less human welfare may be at least momentarily popular if they are either effectively disseminated by and in service to those with more political and economic power, or if they are products of certain kinds of intense reactions to that power, promising to distribute that which is produced more fairly, but succeeding only in destroying or undermining existing institutions in ways destructive to the interests of the poor and disenfranchised as well as the rich and powerful. Often, some combination of these two forces is at work, as in the case of the current Tea Party Movement.
Many, if not most, marginal extensions of the franchise, on the other hand, have historically led to a more robust rather than less robust production of human welfare, enriching the rich as well as the poor. The lessons of history, therefore, suggest that increasing distributional justice generally increases total wealth, increases social justice, and contributes to the social stability that is conducive to both, but that the increase in distributional justice must not be overly dismissive of the complex and highly functional social institutional landscape that has evolved over time, even though it has evolved to favor the interests of some over others.
Modern political struggles are defined by these dynamics: Conservatives (in theory) defend the tried-and-true wisdom of established institutions, while progressives (in theory) strive to extend the franchise and refine the social institutional landscape in service to human welfare. To the extent that we can all acknowledge the wisdom and utility of both agendas, and devote ourselves collectively to their simultaneous realization, we will have increased the efficiency of this evolutionary process, wasting less time and effort on blind ideological disputes, and devoting more productive energy to cautious innovation. This is not to suggest that we are capable of eliminating partisanship or of living by a happy consensus, but rather that reasonable people of good will can be drawn toward a center defined by the application of careful analysis to reliable data in service to human welfare. Let our disputes be increasingly defined by the limits of our reason rather than by the extent of our bigotry.
More than anything else, my own efforts have always been, and continue to be, focused on human consciousness, and on the goal of ushering in a paradigm shift in how we predominantly perceive and address this inevitable political-evolutionary process. In one sense, the paradigm shift I hope for is the mere continuation of an historical trajectory long underway, passing through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the political revolutions (including our own) informed by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the accelerating stream of social, technological, political, and economic innovations that have ensued ever since.
History, Social Theory, Science, and Philosophy all conspire to impress upon us that change is, in a sense, the only constant. Certainly, the human mind reaches beneath that frothing sea of change, and looks for the constants that underwrite it. But those underlying relative constants, too, like the laws of physics, change, at least as far as our awareness of them is concerned, and we must reach further down still, as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Dawkins (and many others) did, to find the relative constants that underwrite those rules of change (See The Wizards’ Eye for a fantasy-fiction representation of this). As the Taoists understood thousands of years ago, whatever we can reduce to words or equations is not the immutable truth. It is essential, therefore, that while we admire the brilliance of our founding concepts, and respect their power and sophistication, we honor them by understanding that they, like those that preceded them, are meant to grow richer and subtler under the patient lathe of historical experience.
It is in this spirit that I suggest that it is time to recognize that “Liberty,” that most precious and fundamental of our values, should not be treated as the ossified talisman that it has become for so many, but should be appreciated for the living concept that it in reality is. “Liberty,” to too many, merely means “freedom from government.” While that was the core of its meaning at the time of the American Revolution, it has evolved, as good memes do, to embrace the mobilization of our consciousness, of our entire social institutional and technological landscape, to actively augment freedom, to produce and distribute a wealth of sustainable opportunities through which human beings, and the human spirit, can more effectively and enduringly thrive.
For those who find this suggestion heretical, consider the words of Thomas Jefferson himself: “[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Even in Jefferson’s time, the government that defined and enforced property rights was seen to augment rather than interfere with individual liberty. With the growth of the discipline of economics, we have come to understand that the government that reduces transaction costs and internalizes externalities in order to facilitate a more robust and efficient market economy augments individual liberty and human welfare as well. Who now doubts that the government that amended the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery and to extend the franchise to women, and that passed legislation to protect civil rights even from private infringements, augmented individual liberty and human welfare by doing so? And who does not recognize that the expansion of government more “socialist” than any before or since in American history, the institutionalization of free and compulsory public education, is not absolutely necessary to the individual liberty and life-long welfare of all of those who benefit from it?
If the state were to be removed from the equation, people would band together for predation or defense, violent gangs eventually coalescing into local governments, in a sense pressing the reset button on political history, and leaving us with an undoubtedly more tyrannical government than the one it replaced. The state is an inherent part of the formula, for good or for ill. The challenge of using it for good is the one we must face. The threat to liberty is not state action, but rather failure on any level to ensure equality of opportunity and diffusion of political and economic power: A government captured by any faction is tyrannical, but a government effectively designed to act as the agent of the people is liberating.
Of course, the latter challenge is never fully met. The disparate ideologies and interests of the people ensure that some will never feel that their government is acting as their agent. But this country has laid a brilliant foundation for addressing the challenge, by combining representative democracy with constitutionalism, thus enabling the many to prevail, with constitutional limits protecting minorities from their tyranny. Within this context, government is far more our agent than our enemy.
Doing the best we can with the materials we have is the essence of the human endeavor, to which all reasonable people of good will can and should dedicate themselves. Neither obstinate obstructionists clinging with ideological purity to historical memes unadapted to changing circumstances, nor rash radicals dismissing and disdaining our rich and highly sophisticated social institutional heritage, are contributing most effectively to this enterprise.
Let’s join together in common cause, rational people of good will striving to do the best we can. We will continue to debate the details, and form parties around our differences. But let’s leave blind ideology, whether of the Right or of the Left, on the dust heap of history, and instead, with eyes and minds wide open, use our accumulated wisdom, our historical experience, and our improved techniques, to wear a coat that fits us now, rather than be straight-jacketed by the one that fit us as a child.