Recent posts, Who are you? and Who are you? (Part II), examine the losses of emotional security and comfort caused when our civilized way of life replaced our ancestral one. Common sense, personal experience, and timely mid 20th century ethnographic research reveals this. (See The Harmless People) This post and the next cover some thoughts on how to deal with the trade-offs humanity made for civilization and its many material benefits.
Great Story, Lousy Follow Through
Finding a truly effective way to put theory into practice, or story into deed, is the hitch. One key to this lies in how perceptions drive actions. Or more importantly, how misperceptions run us into the ditch of life. For humans, thinking and its accompanying stories determine the veracity of perception, and so it’s the place to begin. Buddha’s Right Comprehension, Right Resolution, and Right Thinking sound good theoretically. However, chapter 71 bluntly reveals the severe problem that cognition can cause: Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. It all comes back to the verity of our perceptions.
One thing is certain; our deeds inexorably follow our perceptions. The chain goes like this: perception begets comprehension; comprehension begets resolution; resolution begets practice — action and deed. The key question then becomes, how do we know when our comprehension is true (Right Comprehension) and not just more daydreaming, or worse a misperception leading to a dead end? Simply put, how do we know we know?
A symptom’s point of view helps, which parallels Jesus’, “by their fruits ye shall know them”, or the adage “just follow the money”. The Holy Grail is Right Comprehension, for only that can lead to Right Resolution and the right deeds that follow.
The temporal paradigm in which we grow up, along with the bio-hoodwink, entraps us. I’m afraid there is not much we can do about the latter. However, perceptions greatly influence how the bio-hoodwink plays out, so escaping the tyranny of one’s paradigm is feasible. Among other things, that entails undertaking some ‘unlearning’, so to speak.
Seeking the ‘Meta-Story’
The problem with any storyline, including whatever I write, lies in how it blinds us to whatever lies beyond its narrative. The root word “meta” suggests beyond. The Tao Te Ching certainly points to a beyond… and above, behind, and below. Its meta-story begins right off the bat by its disclaimer at the beginning. To paraphrase chapter 1, The story possible to express runs counter to the constant story.
Science and history can serve as a meta-story if viewed broadly enough. Alas, cultures often exploit history narrowly biased enough to validate their raison d’être. The people who uphold the cultural story are true believers and patriots; those who challenge it are heretics and rebels (1) (2). Indeed, any historically and scientifically based meta-story can be existentially challenging, but taking on this challenge helps one conform to nature’s reality. As chapter 68 puts it, This is called matching of Nature’s ancient utmost.
Remember though, the Tao Te Ching is barely yesterday’s story, and nearly contemporary to our time. It is in fact a symptom of the loss of the old way. A deeper understanding comes more readily with a longer-term perspective, and that entails seeing where we’ve come from and why these solutions, religious and otherwise, exist in the first place. The following is a brief rundown of the human journey to date as broadly as I can see it at present. See if this historical sequence benefits your perspective as well as it does for me.
A History of Human Security and Comfort
(1) Hominids evolved over millions of years. They (‘we’) acquired our emotional comfort and security organically via an intimate hunter and gather existence — the old way.
Along the way, our brain developed sufficiently for thought to create its virtual reality. That allows us to perceive — even inhabit — two realities; one is real and the other a reflection of our core instincts of need and fear. This sets up a tension between what is and what we imagine — our expectations and ideals.
The Book of Genesis 2:17 indirectly refers to this cognitive issue: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”. Interestingly, chapter 71 happens to hit the nail directly on the head: Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Archeological evidence shows that we found various ritualistic ways of coping with this ‘disease’ and integrating them into the old way.
(2) The discovery of agriculture offered us greater worldly comfort and security. How could we resist? Agriculture required larger populations in a settled existence to function. The intimate, stable circumstances of the old way receded as people settled in large numbers as less connected individuals. Civilization evolved to provide a story to help individuals cope and function as a pseudo tribe.
(3) An ideal of individuality needs to exist to peel social allegiances away from the core family, and link them to civilization’s ‘extended family’. Civilization utilizes various stories for individuals to connect; religion being the most powerful, although politics, sports, music, professions, art, etc., also accomplish that purpose. This is probably a co-production; the civilization and the individual produce each other, perhaps along the lines of chapter 2’s Hence existence and nothing give birth to one another.
The stories offer a way for the “I” to join a “we”. These replaced the organic way this happened in ancestral times. Its effectiveness varies according to the individual’s nature. Some find a niche and thrive, most make do, and others don’t so they act out.
All religions have at their core a story of civil decency and restraint. To the extent we can’t embrace this narrative, we find ways to rationalize our emotional drives and any destructive actions that may ensue. The destruction spans everything from the usual self-destructive activities we all fall into occasionally to murderous extremes. Indeed, humanity’s predators… thieves, tyrants, tycoons, and terrorists are just the tip of the disconnection-iceberg we all share ever since leaving the old way. Finding the optimum solution to our own disconnection is the task before each of us.
(4) The loss of the old way meant that people needed to look increasingly to the external material world for ways to ensure and enhance their comfort and security. However, worldly comfort and security can’t truly substitute for emotional comfort and security. This has generated an exponential growth in sophisticated substitutes to fill the vacuum.
The circumstances of civilization channel our innate disposition (strengths and weaknesses, fears and needs) into niches of ostensibly sophisticated expertise. These promise individuals a path to meaningful purpose and a way to contribute to society… the ‘extended family’ of civilization.
(5) Since the Agricultural Revolution, poverty has been a strong motivation for people to pull together, up until recently. This has centered mostly on family ties — a shadow of the old way.
Indeed, family has played a major role in giving individuals a deeper connection — a degree of emotional comfort and security that civilization’s stories can’t impart. However, that is changing. As the economic survival pressures that pulled the family together wanes, family ties weaken.
(6) The effective harnessing of electricity — the Electric Revolution — may turn out to be even more revolutionary than the Agricultural Revolution millenniums ago. This eventually unlimited source of energy means that the world’s population will achieve sufficient worldly comfort and security within centuries, if not sooner.
Besides weakening poverty’s social pull, the Electric Revolution also influences the story. Electric powered media (radio, movies, TV, Internet) allows more angles from which to ‘see the proverbial elephant’. That dilutes the narrative of the ‘party line’. The Internet is the real game changer here.
The Internet offers ready access to everyone seeking a niche to connect. When moderate healthy ways to belong weaken, extremist cult paradigms jump in to fill the void. Nothing fills the void as ‘satisfyingly’ as a cult or an obsession. Radicalization over the Internet works well to attract disaffected and disconnected souls seeking re-connection… or more to the point ‘religion’ (from ligo “bind, connect”, i.e. re- (again) + ligare or “to reconnect,”)
Giving every person immediate and complete access to any story out there greatly weakens the ability of hierarchical authorities to keep their herds in line; we can now think for ourselves! This threatens hierarchical structure — the backbone of civilization!
Weakening civilization’s backbone should turn out to be a major leap into the unknown. There is no old way for us to return to for optimal connection. This can only leave many people increasingly disaffected and disconnected. Oh well, such is evolution. As chapter 5 puts it, The universe is not benevolent, and all things serve as grass dogs (‘sacrificial lambs’).
(7) The challenge for people post Electric Revolution will be to find a way to foster and maintain emotional comfort and security. The old forms: family, church, music, sports, politics, stamp collecting, work, etc., will prove to be less and less effective or sufficient. With the advent of the computer, the paradigm is evolving at light speed, or so it feels.
Possible Silver Linings
Now I’ll hazard a prediction, notwithstanding chapter 38’s Foreknowledge of the way, magnificent yet a beginning of folly. About a decade ago, it occurred to me that humanity’s salvation might lie in the fact that the median age of the population is steadily increasing, largely due to the Electric Revolution. When the median age of Earth’s population doubles, as it surely will, the effects will be profound. See Don’t trust anyone under 60, (p.193) and Core Issues of Human Nature: Ethics (p.594) for more thoughts on this.
When people are fully engaged in the material survival side of life, they have little time or energy left over for dwelling on subtler existential concerns. That helps account for the fact that philosophers come from the more affluent social strata.
As the world’s standard of living continues to rise, people gain more free time to mull over their own subtler existential concerns. The simple pat answers that civilization’s institutions offer (especially religious and political) will no longer suffice, forcing more people to look deeper for truth. The dilemma now becomes peering into the void for meaning. In a sense, the burden of life will shift from physical survival to psycho-emotional survival.
Our human ancestors didn’t choose the civilization in which we’re stuck. It all happened gradually over thousands of years in a natural quest for greater comfort and security. We didn’t realize that we were trading emotional comfort and security of the old way, for the worldly comfort and security we sought… alas, unintended consequences! Ah yes, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results, and … not knowing this knowing is disease.
Major changes for humanity began with the development of our cognitive ability 1-3 million years ago, the harnessing of fire half a million years ago, and the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. This last event launched humanity into a gradual transition between the stable old way and what will eventually be a somewhat stable updated old way, I predict. Agriculture paved the way to metallurgy, literacy, economics, religion, bureaucracy, and other hallmarks of civilization. All this, in turn, brought us to what is the most profound turning point since we harnessed fire — the Electric Revolution. I call this riding the wave of evolution…
(1) Hunter-gatherers seldom went overboard with their cultural narratives. Such reinforcement just wasn’t necessary; they acquired their emotional security organically. Conversely, civilization’s narratives have more work to do. Both loyalist and rebels radically need their respective story line to shore up their sense of self, self-security, and self-righteous authenticity.
It’s ironic that we believe civilization helps us rise above our animal nature. Not so — civilization merely gets us to act civilized. We suppress our animal nature, which then must find other less healthy outlets. For hunter-gatherers, periodically using music, dance, and trance were enough to ease any emotional, intertribal stresses they encountered. In large disconnected populations, this doesn’t come easily. For example, we need alcohol, drugs, and occasional periods of war- followed-by-peace to help us open up, let go, and feel temporarily more connected.
(2) I should stipulate that story, narrative, paradigm, and even theory are at least semi-synonymous for me, i.e., they correlate.