The Patterning Instinct | Reflections & Notes

Jeremy Lent. The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Prometheus Books, 2017. (569 pages)


@JeremyRLent has given humanity an absolutely brilliant gift in this book. May we now use and share this gift wisely.

The Patterning Instinct is a vast sweep of human history that reveals and illuminates the cognitive pathways that have shaped our world. Through synthesizing together anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, religion & philosophy, and a host of other diverse fields and disciplines, we are able to see the deeper structures of human thinking and behaving. That kind of global and comprehensive perspective accomplishes two main highly beneficial tasks. First, it educates us on how we got to where we are, and adds understanding to our identity as humans. But second, and perhaps more important, it liberates us from the cognitive “soup” in which we swim and in which we are confined, unleashing worlds of imaginative possibilities for new ways of thinking, and new conceptions of the world we want to build.

This is more than a mere esoteric exercise for intellectual elites who are fascinated by niche elements of academia. This is quite literally about the kind of life we live, the thriving or suffering we endure, the sustaining or collapsing of our world, and the meaning we make of it all. Our ability to care about life through our agency and capacity will be greatly enhanced by understanding The Patterning Instinct.

I wish to express an additional admiration for the author’s artistic and compositional skill. The book’s construction, flow, structure, and readability are exemplars of the grand synthesis that is explicated in the pages. It is captivating to read an artifact that is itself an expression of the artifact’s idea.

My quibbles with the thesis are articulated below in my interlinear comments (in blue). In short, I was disappointed with the section on monotheism (as a driver of violent intolerance) and much of Lent’s apparent disdain for Christian intellectual heritage. I write this not as an apologetic for Christian history, but to simply say that Lent’s treatment did not seem commensurate with a broader historical perspective. This is especially true given Lent’s conclusion in the book—which is beautifully compelling—about a “web of meaning” and “universal human rights,” and “emerging systems view of life—recognizing the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth and seeing humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world,” and “quality of life” and a “shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all.” I share all of these ethics, and am moved by his visionary articulation of them in the closing pages. I would simply mention that all of those ideas, and more, owe much to the Hebrew and Christian heritage that fostered, carried, and promulgated them into our current cultural milieu. Admittedly, this is the great complication of religious history; that we can point out a religion’s faults and delinquencies only because we have inherited the religion’s ideals, morals, and values. (For more, see The Triumph of Christianity, Dominion, and The Passion of the Western Mind. See also Here All Along, Why You’re ChristianSimply Christian, and Humilitas.)

Regardless, I am tremendously grateful to @JeremyRLent for contributing to the “scales falling from my eyes,” for his wonderfully articulate yet accessible writing, his research, and his introducing me to literature, authors, and ideas that have glutted my book wish list. Most of all, I am tremendously grateful for his positing a compelling, redemptive, and beautiful vision for the future of our humanity. I join you in the quest—and invite you, dear reader with us—to continue the journey with The Web of Meaning.



The Cartesian partition has penetrated deeply into the human mind during the three centuries following Descartes, and it will take a long time for it to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality. —Heisenburg

The key achievement of cognitive science, in my view, is that it has overcome the Cartesian division between mind and matter that has haunted scientists and philosophers for centuries. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories but are seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: process and structure. At all levels of life, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected. (14)

| The Santiago theory of cognition, in particular, identifies cognition (the process of knowing) with the very process of life. The self-organizing activity of living systems at all levels of life is “mental” or cognitive activity. Thus, life and cognition are inseparably connected. Cognition is embedded in matter at all levels of life. Moreover, the theory asserts that cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world but rather a “bringing forth” or “enacting” of a world through the process of living. (14)

Preface: A Cognitive History of Humanity

This book takes an approach to history that recognizes the power of the human mind to construct its own reality. It offers a simple thesis: culture shapes values, and those values shape history. … In today’s world, reeling from global crises and transfixed by the dazzle of technology, it is more important than it has ever been to understand how values have shaped history and, consequently, how they might also shape our future. (15)

| This book introduces an approach I call cognitive history. In the broadest terms, cognitive science is the analytical study of the human mind. (15)

Truth and Reason … Or Geography and Greed?

Man is “not a figure in the landscape; he is the shaper of the landscape.” [Jacob Bronowski, “Part 1: Lower Than the Angels,” The Ascent of Man, episode 1, aired May 1973 (BBC, 1973).] (16)

…I was watching a view of history that fit snugly within the cultural metaphor of CONQUEST OF NATURE. (16)

In the postwar generation, the West had the magnanimity to invite the “Third World” nations to a seat at its table, as long as they learned to play by its rules. Underlying these rules was a cognitive framework that went something like this: the Truth has been discovered by Science, which leads to continual Progress as a result of Man using his unique faculty of Reason for the benefit of all. While other cultures might have something to offer, they were generally viewed as complementing the rule of Reason as defined by Western civilization. (16)

In his book Orientalism, Edward Said showed how centuries of cultural prejudice had shaped the West’s romanticized image of Oriental mystique. A series of critiques by a school of French philosophers coalesced into a movement known as postmodernism, which attacked the notion that objective truths could be applied universally under the rubric of such capitalized abstractions as Truth, Science, Reason, and Man. Included in this attack was the tradition of “cultural essentialism,” by which Northrop and those who followed him had sought to ascribe a particular set of universal characteristics to the Orient, the West, or, for that matter, any racial or cultural stereotype. (17)

…the postmodernists proposed that reality is constructed by the mind and can never therefore be described objectively. Each culture, they argued, develops its own version of reality that arises from its specific physical and environmental context. If you try to “essentialize” a culture’s frame of reality and compare it with that of another culture, you risk decontextualizing it and therefore invalidating its unique attributes. The postmodernists accused Westerners who had attempted to do so of engaging in a form of cultural imperialism, seeking to appropriate what seemed valuable in other cultures for their own use while ignoring its historical context. (17)

Something these, and other influential modern histories, have in common is a rejection of cultural essentialism. It’s assumed there are no intrinsic behavioral differences between the people of various parts of the world, and, therefore, we need to look to environmental factors to explain how each developed in different ways. This approach is an admirable improvement over the racist assumptions of Western superiority that previously infused theories of history, but it inevitably creates its own form of cultural imperialism by implicitly assuming a new set of human universals. The distinctive values and beliefs about human nature that form the bedrock of Western thought are silently assumed to be those that drive people all over the world and throughout history. (18)

A Cognitive Approach to History

This book takes an entirely different approach from historical reductionism. Instead, it offers a cognitive approach to history, arguing that the cognitive frames through which different cultures perceive reality have had a profound effect on their historical direction. The worldview of a given civilization—the implicit beliefs and values that create a pattern of meaning in people’s lives—has, in my opinion, been a significant driver of the historical path each civilization has taken. … In this respect, the book shares much with the postmodern critique of Western civilization, recognizing those capitalized universal abstractions such as Reason, Progress, and Truth to be culture-specific constructions. In fact, a significant portion of the book is devoted to tracing how these patterns of thought first arose and then infused themselves so deeply into the Western mind-set as to become virtually invisible to those who use them. (19)

When drastic change occurs to a given society, its cognitive structures—and, ultimately, its entire worldview—canc change equally drastically within a generation or two. … Through this process, I would argue that—especially since the mid-twentieth century—what had once been the Western worldview has now become the dominant worldview of those in positions of wealth and power who drive our global civilization, from Bangkok to Beijing and from Mumbai to Mexico City. (20)

the relationship between cognition and history is not one-way but reciprocal. (20)

Creating Our Own Reality (Without Really Trying)

“niche construction.” As organisms adapt to their environment, they are not just finding their niche but actively constructing it, and, by doing so, they are shaping the environment for themselves, their offspring, and the other organisms around them. (21)

What was the niche that humans constructed for themselves as they evolved? Many evolutionary biologists have come to agree it was an entirely different kind: it was a cognitive niche, a result of using their unique cognitive powers to learn to cooperate with others and collectively discover new ways to manipulate their environment. … A crucial outcome…was the power it unleashed by allowing them to work together as a group. … The importance of this social aspect of human evolution has led some researchers to argue that the human niche might instead be called a socio-cognitive or cultural niche. (21)

| From this cognitive niche, human culture emerged as a set of shared symbols and practices that ties a group together and is passed down from one generation to the next. And here we have a new feedback loop to consider: in a process known as gene-culture coevolution, culture has shaped the human niche so profoundly that it’s caused changes within the human genome, affecting the very direction of human evolution. (21)

[via: Ranchers = individual. Farmers = collective. Rice = cooperation. Wheat = independence.]

How do these cultural differences get passed on from one generation to the next? …a more convincing explanation—and one that forms a foundation of this book—is that each society shapes the cognitive structure of individuals growing up in its culture through imprinting its own pattern of meaning on each infant’s developing mind. (22)

cf. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

…the language we speak from birth—although it doesn’t prevent us thinking in different ways—establishes structures of cognition that influence us to perceive, understand, and think about the world according to certain patterns. Or, in its simplest terms: language has a patterning effect on cognition. (22)

| And in yet another feedback loop, the patterning each person uses to impose meaning on the world ultimately affects the actions and choices they mak in the world. When aggregated to an entire civilization, these patterns of meaning shape history and fundamentally alter the world around us. (23)

…metaphorical concepts…structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. —George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By

Making Sense of Complexity

These reciprocal feedback loops are not just complicated—they’re also complex. … A system can be complicated but not complex, no matter how large, if each of its components and the way they relate to each other can be completely analyzed and given an exact description. A jumbo jet, an offshore oil rig, and a snowflake are all examples of complicated systems. A complex system, on the other hand, arises from a large number of nonlinear relationships between its components with feedback loops that can never be precisely described. Any living thing or system comprising living things, is complex: a bacterium, a brain, an ecosystem, a financial market, a language, or a social system. (23)

In this book, I’ve taken the view that human culture itself can be viewed as a certain type of complex system. (23)

Complex systems have some indicative characteristics. They have a large number of elements, each of which interacts with and influences other elements within the system through nonlinear feedback loops. They constantly interact with their environment, and, frequently, they contain smaller systems within them while themselves being nested within bigger systems. They are never in equilibrium but are continually in flux, evolving through time as a result of both their previous conditions and the environment around them. (23)

| One important attribute of a complex system is a special type of reciprocal causality: each part of the system has an effect on the whole, while the system as a whole affects each part. Because of this, a complex system can never be fully understood by reducing it to its component parts. (24)

…a complex system can be highly resilient,… However, at a certain point, the cohesive set of reciprocal causal relationships that form the system can rapidly become unraveled, and when that happens, the system undergoes what’s known as a critical transition, leading to a new stable state that can be either more or less complex than the previous one. When this happens, it’s very difficult for the system to shift back to the state it was in previously, a characteristic known as hysteresis. (24)

…can we use this framework to understand the great critical transitions in our history? I believe (24) we can, with the caveat that when we apply this framework to human society, there is yet another crucial feedback loop to consider. Because of our unique cognitive capacity, human social systems need to be understood as a pair of two tightly interconnected, coexisting complex systems: a tangible system and a cognitive system. (25)

Much of this book is devoted to tracing these complex feedback loops. In some of the most significant transitions of human history—the appearance of language, the rise of agriculture, and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions—we’ll see how the cognitive and tangible systems of the period interacted with each other, causing a newly coherent system to emerge and usurp what had gone before. I think it’s a fascinating story in its own right, but this approach gains extra relevance when we turn to our present era. There seems little doubt that we are currently in the midst of one of the great critical transitions of the human journey, and yet it is not at all clear where we will end up once our current system resolves into a newly stable state. My hope in writing this book is that it can offer a valuable framework for readers to come to their own assessment of humanity’s future path—and their own potential role in shaping it. (25)

[via: I’m in!]

Introduction: Shaping Our History

[Book draft, Introduction.pdf]

cf. Admiral Zheng, 1405.

Is it our true nature to be selfish and competitive, or empathetic and community-minded? How did the rise of agriculture set the state for our current ecological crisis? Why did the Scientific Revolution take place in Europe and not in China or Islamic civilization? What are the root causes of our modern global culture of rampant consumerism, and is there any way we can change it? (27)

| Pioneering the new field of cognitive history, this book will show how different cultures construct core metaphors to make meaning out of their world and how these metaphors forge the values that ultimately drive people’s actions. (27)

[via: Our “cognitive OS”.]

AN Archaeology of the Mind

We can think of a society’s worldview like a building that’s been constructed layer by layer over older constructions put together by generations past. (29)

Unlike modern houses, in which the foundations are part of the blueprint and constructed specifically for the house, the foundations of a worldview comprise the earlier worldviews of previous generations. As we probe further into history, we excavate deeper into the cognitive layers of our ancestors. (29)

…our worldview is based on root metaphors we use to frame other aspects of meaning without even real-(29)izing we’re doing so. These core metaphors, which arise from our embodied existence, structure how we conceptualize the world. HIGH is better than LOW; LIGHT is better than DARK; our life is a JOURNEY along a PATH. THroughout this book, we’ll see how root metaphors have played a crucial role in structuring the worldviews of different cultures. (30)

…unlike other mammals, we humans possess an insatiable appetite to find meaning in the world around us (30)

FIsh gotta swim; birds gotta fly.
Man gotta sit and say why? why? why?

The PFC mediates our ability to plan, conceptualize, symbolize, make rules, and impose meaning on things. It controls our physiological drives and turns our basic feelings into complex emotions. It enables us to be aware of ourselves and others as separate beings and to turn the past and the future into one coherent narrative. (30)

The Patterning Instinct

…these PFC-mediated modes of thought may be called our conceptual consciousness. Now think of what we share with other mammals: hunger, sexual urges, pain, aggression, desire for warmth, caring for our offspring—we can call this collection of cognitive experiences our animate consciousness. (30)

the PFC is the most connected part of the brain, and one of its primary functions is to make sense of all the inputs it receives from other parts of the nervous system: the senses, primary emotions, feelings, and memories. One important way it does this is to detect patterns in what it receives: What’s new? What’s recurrent? What’s important? What correlates with something else? Out of these patterns, as infants, we begin to make sense of our surroundings: recognizing family members, picking up on speech formations, and gradually learning to become members of our community. As we grow older, we continue to rely on our PFC to make meaning of all the different events we experience and to construct models for how to live our lives. (31)

| Through the capabilities of the PFC, our species has evolved a patterning instinct: an instinct unique to humans that lends its name to the title of this book. It deserves to be called an instinct because it emerges in human behavior at the earliest stages of development, well before any cultural learning has taken place. … This human instinct for patterning is embedded in our cognition, maintaining its activity throughout our lives. We create narratives about our past and future; we construct identities for ourselves; we categorize things, putting more value on some and less on others. And, just like our distant ancestors, we continually search for meaning in our lives and in the world around us. (31)

Core Patterns of Meaning

The path from the earliest human search for meaning to our current precarious situation…can be segmented into different periods, each characterized by the core pattern of meaning by which people made sense of their world. (32)

Part 1. Everything Is Connected

Part 2. Hierarchy of the Gods

Part 3. The Patterns Diverge

Westen Pattern: Split Cosmos, Split Human

Eastern Pattern: Harmonic Web of Life

Part 4. Conquest of Nature

Part 5. The Web of Meaning?

Part 1. Everything Is Connected

Chapter 1. How We Became Human

[Book draft, chapter 1.pdf]

A Story That Matters

The Birth of Mimetic Culture

So what, specifically, was the change that led humans to populate the world with seven billion of us, building cities, surfing the internet, and sending rockets into space, while chimps and bonobos still live in the jungle and face the threat of extinction? (40)

If we think of the community of early hominids stranded in the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley as a complex system, we can begin to trace a network of feedback loops that tie together each of these biological differences into a cohesive story of how humans and other primates began to diverge. As the trees became sparser, the hominids who were able to get around more easily on the (40) ground were better adapted to the new terrain, leaving offspring who gradually became bipedal. …this new, precarious environment required them to work more closely together than when they were in the forest. Without trees to protect them from the big cats, they found that defending themselves as a group was more effective than each member simply looking out for himself. (41)

| The other great apes of Africa live in strictly hierarchical communities with an alpha male that exercises sexual dominance over the other males in the group. … In the challenging environment of the savannah, the stranded prehominids began shifting toward a new, more effective, form of social interaction. They began to cooperate extensively with each other. …groups that cooperated more tended to be the ones to survive, leaving more descendants. (41)

| Gradually, the large canine teeth of the males, once so crucial for intergroup battles for dominance, became less important in the new social order. However, the rivalry between males for sexual access to females continued to be a source of conflict within the group,… In those groups where the females’ overt signs of ovulation were diminished, the intergroup rivalry was lessened,… (41)

With their cooperative habits, the groups increased in both size and social complexity. A new form of cultural bonding emerged, one that cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald has called “mimetic culture.” …a complex (41) network of multiple forms of nonverbal communication between individuals, incorporating such activities as eye contact, dancing, rhythmic chanting, body language, gesturing, facial expressions, and varying tones of voice. (42)

We’ve added language on top of it, but our mimetic communication is still the most powerful form of interaction between us, shaping our identity with others. You can get a feeling for the power of mimetic expression when you think of our own nonverbal forms of expression: prayer rituals; dancing; chanting and cheering in a sports stadium; expressions of contempt or praise, intimacy or hostility. Mimetic culture, Donald notes, is so all-encompassing that it “underlies all modern cultures and forms the most basic medium of human communication.” (42)

Social Brain (Selfish Gene)

In early hominid societies, as the complexity of social interaction became more pronounced, the most successful in passing on their genes to future generations were those who navigated skillfully through the maze of mimetic signals, understanding the needs of others and conveying their own needs effectively. (42)

The idea that the human brain grew in size and intelligence as a result of social complexity is known as the “social brain hypothesis”… (42) …species of monkeys and apes that typically live in larger groups have a larger neocortex (the more recently evolved part of the brain that contains the PFC). This correlation exists even with nonprimates. … With humans, though, the relative size of the cerebral cortex is far greater than in other animals. (43)

Perhaps the most important step in this understanding is the recognition that other people have minds like we do, and that, by thinking about how we ourselves respond to things, we can make predictions about how they might respond. This realization is known as “theory of mind,”… (43)

While the idea of the “selfish genes” (44) still holds currency in the popular imagination, it has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, theorists offer a view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, in which the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other in a variety of ways over different time frames. And, regarding our intrinsic human nature, a new generation of scientists has pointed to our ability to cooperate, rather than compete, as our defining characteristic. (45)

Competition and Cooperation

The instinct for social competition, [Michael Tomasello] argues, may have driven the evolution of primate intelligence, but the cognitive skills that have enabled humans alone to develop language, culture, and civilization have been driven by social cooperation. Tomasello focuses on a uniquely human capability he calls “shared intentionality”; our ability to realize that another person is seeing the same thing we are, but from a different perspective. This enabled early hominids to work collaboratively on complex tasks and transform their mimetic culture into cognitive communities that enabled them to share values and practices. (45)

| THere’s a major flaw, however, to the theory that cooperation was the evolutionary driver of human uniqueness: the free-rider problem. (45)

Welcome to the ultimatum game. (46)

It seems we humans have evolved a powerful sense of fairness. So powerful, in fact, that we would rather walk away with nothing than permit someone else to take unfair advantage of us. Researchers call this “altruistic punishment.” (46)

…in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies, people join together to prevent powerful males from taking too much control, using collective behaviors such as ridicule, group disobedience, and, ultimately, extreme sanctions such as assassination. He names this kind of egalitarian society a “reverse dominance hierarchy” because “rather than begin dominated, the rank and file itself manages to dominate.” (47)

The Emergence of Symbolic Thought

cf. Oldowan artifacts; Homo habilis, or “handy man”

These tools give archaeologists a good idea of how our ancestors might have procured their food. They would now have been able to dig up termite colonies or scavenge big game carcasses in the savannah, cutting through bones into the nutritious marrow. The extra calories available to them would have fueled the development of their larger brains, which demanded more metabolic energy. Their larger brains, in turn, gave them the social intelligence to thrive in their newly complex societies, creating a positive feedback cycle, leading to the evolution of even more powerful brains capable of developing more complex tools. (48)

Homo erectus, began producing far more elaborate tools, with sharp points and bilateral symmetry, known as the Acheulean industry.

A number of cognitive breakthroughs were necessary for Homo erectus to have achieved this new technology. First, they needed to conceptualize the tool they wanted in advance and hold that idea in their minds. Then, they would have had to logically think through each step that would be required and maintain their goal orientation to follow through. This entire sequence of steps would have required what is known in cognitive science as “mental time travel”: using one’s imagination to create a vision of a hypothetical future—in this case, a future when it would be worthwhile to have a completed tool. (48)

One critical factor is that the PFC is connected to virtually all other parts of the brain, which gives it a unique capability to merge different inputs—such as vision and hearing, instinctual urges, emotions, and memories—into one integrated story. (49)

Researchers have identified three discrete regions in the modern human PFC, each of which is more activated by certain cognitive tasks: the ventromedial region is more involved in emotional and social processing; the dorsolateral region activates more strongly in abstract, logical processing; and the orbitofrontal is crucial to repressing instinctual drives for a future goal. (49)

Could it be the integration of these different domains of PFC processing that led to the emergence of modern humans? …at some time int he development of the modern human mind, we developed what [Steve Mithen] calls “cognitive fluidity,” whereby we started combining these domain-specific intelligences into an integrated meta-intelligence. (49)

“working memory”: the ability to consciously hold a variety of things in our mind for a short time. (49) … But working memory is more than just short-term memory. Comparable to the random access memory of a computer, it’s the process used by the mind to keep enough discrete items up and running so they can be combined to arrive at a new understanding or a new plan. It’s sometimes referred to as a “global workspace” for the brain, or “the blackboard of the mind.” (50)

A widely known fact about our working memory capacity is that it can only hold about seven pieces of information at one time. That might be barely enough to construct an Acheulean tool, but it could hardly cope with the “cognitive fluidity” arising from merging the different domains of human intelligence. The solution to this capacity constraint came in the form of a cognitive breakthrough that has allowed humans to think in a way that, most likely, no other creature on earth has ever achieved: symbolic thought. (50)

[via: Could we say that seven as a cognitive limitation is codified in our use of the number 7 for ideological perfection / wholeness / completeness, in addition to the ordering of our universe via planets, stages of age, and days of the week?]

| A symbol is something that has a purely arbitrary relationship to what it signifies, which can only be understood by someone who shares the same code. (50)

Thinking in symbols allows humans to break through the capacity constraints of working memory and construct the elaborate patterns of meaning that shape our lives. (50)

…there’s another equally powerful aspect of writing that one word, “BREAKFAST,” on the blackboard. Every schoolchild has her own experience of what she ate that morning, but, by sharing in the symbol BREAKFAST, she can rise above the specifics of her own particular meal and understand that there’s something more abstract being communicated, referring to the meal all the kids had before they came to school, regardless of what it was. For this reason, symbols are an astonishingly powerful means of communicating, allowing people to transcend their individual experiences and share them with others. (51)

No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. —Ernst Cassirer

perhaps the uniquely defining characteristic of humanity is the patterning instinct we evolved along the way, which allowed us to develop the capacity for symbolic thought, and which incessantly drives us to construct patterns of meaning everything we experience. It’s through these patterns that we’re able to look back over history and try to make sense out of it, to look forward to our future and try to direct where it will take us. (51)

Chapter 2. The Magical Weave of Language

[Book draft, Chapter 2.pdf]

What’s Special about Language?

…we are constantly linking words together to create meanings…known as syntax. (54)

This crucial element of language takes two completely separate aspects of reality…to create a brand-new concept—a process that’s referred to as conceptual blending. (55)

This ability of language to create hypothetical situations out of thin air is known as a counterfactual. (55)

If language is like a net of symbols, we can think of syntax as a magical weave that can link each section of the net to any other section at a moment’s notice. (56)

[via: I’m noticing, what I’ll call—right now, anyway—the “great impossibility,” as Lent generously uses metaphors to explain metaphors.]

There are two areas in the left hemisphere of the brain—known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas,… Broca’s area is adjacent to the part of the brain that controls our mouth, tongue, and larynx, and Wernicke’s area is adjacent to our auditory cortex. Most likely, these areas evolved as key nodes in the language network of the brain, enabling us to speak the right words and understand what we hear, which would explain why people lose the ability to speak normally when these areas are damaged. (56)

From Grooming to Gossip

[Leslie] Aiello and [Robin] Dunbar ingeniously calculated how much time different species needed to spend grooming for their social group to remain cohesive. Larger groups required significantly more time, with some populations spending as much as 20 percent of their day grooming. Based on the group sizes early humans probably lived in, they would have had to spend 30-45 percent of their day grooming to maintain social cohesion—probably an unsustainable amount of time. Gradually, mimetic forms of communication—gestures, grunts, and other vocalizations—would have become more significant, offering a more efficient form of social interaction than grooming, until finally developing into language. (57)

| Language, then, can be understood as a network enabling enhanced communication. In fact, the emergence of language offers an ancient parallel to the recent growth of the internet. One person could no more come up with language than one computer could create the internet. In each case, the individual node—a human brain or a computer—needed to develop enough processing power to participate in a meaningful network, but, once it got going, the network itself became far more important as a driver of change than any single node. (57)

Language Evolution: “Gradual and Early” or “Sudden and Recent”?

It seems reasonable to expect that language users would have left some trace of symbolic artifacts, such as painted shells, figurative carvings, cave paintings, and maybe musical instruments. (58)

That time was not three hundred thousand years ago but around forty thousand years ago in Europe, when a veritable explosion of symbolic expression occurred, known as the Upper Paleolithic revolution… (58)

[Bill] Noble and [Ian] Davidson, along with other theorists, believe that because of the networked nature of language, you can no more have a “half language” than you can be half pregnant. The logic is powerful. In much the same way that the internet is rapidly transforming the modern world, once a group of humans realized that a symbol (i.e., a word) could relate to another symbol through syntax, the sky was the limit. Any word could work. All they needed was the set of neural connections to make the realization in the first place. Once a large enough community stumbled upon this miraculous power, there would have been no going back. (59)

A Language Instinct?

[Noam] Chomsky believes every human being has an innate knowledge of language, which he calls a “universal grammar.” … [Steven] Pinker calls this universal grammar “mentalese,” explaining that knowing a language is simply “knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa. People without language would still have mentalese.” [Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, 4-5.] (60)

…a barrage of criticism has recently been leveled against it based on the premise that language is far too intricate and rapidly changing for any combination of genes to have evolved to control for it specifically. It seems to make more sense to look for the underlying capabilities that evolved to enable language than to view language itself as a natural product of evolution. (60)

Language is easy for us to learn and use, not because our brains embody knowledge of language, but because language has adapted to our brains. [Daniel Margoliash and Howard C. Nusbaum, “Language: The Perspective from Organismal Biology,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13, no. 12 (2009): 505-10; Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater, “Language as Shaped by the Brain,” Behavioral and Brain Scinces, no. 31 (2008: 489-558.)] [et. al.]

As time goes on, the infant becomes increasingly adept at distinguishing the sound patterns of her own language and ignoring those that don’t fit into the patterns she’s already identified. This amounts to strong evidence that humans in fact possess a patterning instinct rather than a language instinct. (61)

…in [Patricia Kuhl’s] words,…“language experience warps perception.” By a very early age, an infant’s brain has literally been shaped by the language she hears around her, causing her to notice some distinctions in sounds and ignores others. This early shaping quickly hardens, like a resin, and is set for the rest of her life. (61)

If we have a patterning instinct, and the sounds we hear as infants affect the sound patterns we hear for the rest of our lives, what does that mean for other kinds of patterns in language? After all, language is not just about sounds; it’s also about symbols and meaning. Is it possible that language shapes our perception, not just of the sounds we hear, but of the very symbols we perceive as having meaning? If this is the case, it implies that language may have been instrumental in shaping how we think, perhaps even how the connections evolved within our brains. (61)

The Coevolution of Language and the PFC

The adaptive effect of language would have been especially powerful at a group level: groups more effective at using language would have outcompeted others and, consequently, left more descendants. It was no longer the biggest, fastest, or strongest prehumans who were most successful, but the ones with the most advanced PFCs. (62)

Three Stages of Language Evolution

[Ray] Jackendoff proposed nine different phases of language development, which can be condensed into three clearly demarcated stages. (63)

Stage 1: Mimetic language. …single words that could be used in different contexts, thus differentiating them from the vervet calls discussed earlier, which only have meaning in a particular context. (63)

The correlative level of technology would have been the Oldowan and Acheulean stone tools that persisted over millions of years. (63) … Oldowan toolmaking showed no PFC activity at all, while Acheulean tools required limited use of the PFC, activating an area that mediates hierarchically organized action sequences. (64)

Stage 2: Protolanguage. …chains of words linked together in a simple sentence, but without modern syntax. (64)

These innovative techniques, known as Levallois technology, show an order-of-magnitude increase in complexity, with differences between geographical regions suggesting the emergence of particular cultural traditions. (64)

Stage 3: Modern language. … The correlative level of technology is the sophisticated grinding and pounding tools, spear throwers, bows, nets, and boomerangs associated with the Upper Paleolithic revolution. The same brains that could handle syntax and recursion could also handle the complex planning required to conceptualize and make these advanced tools. (64)

…the Upper Paleolithic revolution…also delivered the first evidence of human behavior that was not purely functional but had symbolic significance. For the first time, humans were creating art, regularly decorating their bodies, and constructing musical instruments and ritual artifacts. These innovations may correlate with one particular aspect of language that also likely emerged at this time: the use of metaphor. (64)

The Metaphoric Threshold

…the first first use of metaphor in language was not just another milestone in the increased sophistication of human linguistic abilities. It was the threshold that human thought had to cross to achieve abstract thought of any kind, including the search for meaning in life and the creation of mythic and religious ideas. In short, the crossing of this metaphoric threshold opened the floodgates to the power of the patterning instinct and catalyzed the Upper Paleolithic revolution. (65)

| This, in turn, led to the emergence of a new mythic consciousness in human thought, imposing meaning on the natural world based on a metaphoric transformation of the tangible qualities of everyday life, using them as scaffolding for (65) more abstract conceptions. The patterning instinct that evolved through community would now be applied to the vast universe about which early humans were becoming aware. (66)

Chapter 3. The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

[Book draft, Chapter 3.pdf]

The Great Leap Forward

cf. The Lascaux Cave:

cf. Hohle Fels

This period in history has been aptly summed up by Jared Diamond as humanity’s “Great Leap Forward.” (68)

It’s generally agreed that humans were anatomically modern 150,000 years ago or earlier. Why did it take so long for symbolic thinking to get going? This rather awkward question was first framed by archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who referred to it as the “sapient paradox.” (69)

Out of Africa

…there’s evidence that the beginnings of cultural modernity may have occurred at least seventy-five thousand years ago. It’s just that these early stirrings of modernity showed up not in Europe but in southern Africa. (69)

Ochre with cross-hatching from Blombos Cave

Around seventy thousand years ago, a certain lineage of humans expanded throughout Africa, reaching as far north as Ethiopia. A small contingent, no more than a few hundred strong, then migrated across the mouth of the Red Sea, through Arabia and eastward along southern Asia until reaching Australia. At some point during this migration, a splinter group headed north into western Asia, eventually arriving in Europe, where their descendants would instigate the (70) Upper Paleolithic “revolution.” A couple of startling implications arise from this epic journey. The first is that all non-Africans alive today are descendants of the small group that made its way across the Red Sea. Second, because of this, there is far wider genetic diversity among different African populations than among all other non-Africans on the planet. (71)

| It’s a grand story, but it still doesn’t explain the sapient paradox. If humans were already modern in their behavior, why is there so little to show for it in the archaeological record until the explosion of artifacts in Europe forty thousand years ago? (71)

…ten thousand years after Homo sapiens appeared on the scene, the Neanderthals were extinct. (71)

We may never completely settle this question, but one thing we know for sure is that by thirty thousand years ago, the Neanderthals were extinct. There was only one subspecies of Homo left in the world, from which we are all descended. (72)

The Tragedy of Cognition

…these powers came at a terrible cost, something that has been fittingly named the “tragedy of cognition.” (72)

| Once you understand that those around you are thinking and feeling people like you, a disturbing crescendo of implications is likely to occur in your mind when somebody dies. It’s clear that the life force previously animating that person has vanished. As that happens to those around you, you soon realize this will eventually be your own fate, leading to profound dread at the inevitable future reality of your own death. (73)

| It seems reasonable to assume there’s some connection between that dread of death and the earliest signs of our ancestors burying their dead. …“the birth of metaphysical anguish.” (73)

…Bronislaw Malinowski theorized that religion is the “affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul and that this is immortal,” which has since inspired a school of thought called “terror management theory.” In this view, just as an infant gains comfort and security from the authority of her parents, so as she grows up and becomes aware of death, she is comforted by the notion of deities, who are frequently patriarchal or matriarchal figures. (73)

However, since the fear of death extended all the way back to Neanderthals and other prehumans, it doesn’t seem like enough to account for the complexity of religious beliefs. Was there something else in the symbolic breakthrough of the Upper Paleolithic revolution that could have been responsible for the emergence of religious thought as we now know it? (73)

Religion as a Spandrel

A spandrel doesn’t, by itself serve any purpose. It simply exists as an architectural by-product of the arches that hold up the dome. But if someone looked at the beautifully decorated spandrels without knowing anything about architecture, they would see them as an integral part of the architectural design. The living world, according to Gould and Lewontin, is full of evolutionary spandrels: features or functions that seem to have evolved for a specific purpose but, on closer evaluation, turn out to have been a superfluous by-product of something else. (74)

Spandrels in St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice

To see how a religious spandrel arises, let’s consider an example, such as the ubiquitous belief that a spirit exists separately from a body. …[cf. “object permanence]… From this, we realize that people continue to exist even while they have disappeared. … Given the central role of social intelligence in human cognition, it may be easier for us to think of someone still existing but not being physically present than to conceive of that person ceasing to exist altogether. (75)

Besides believing in spirits, little children also intuitively believe everything exists for a purpose, a viewpoint known as teleology, which is inextricably intertwined with religious thought. (75)

we never completely overcome the powerful drive in our minds to assign agency to inanimate objects and actions. … We have, explains anthropologist Scott Atran, “a naturally selected cognitive (75) mechanism for detecting agents—such as predators, protectors, and prey.” It’s clear how this served a powerful evolutionary purpose: there’s no harm in mistaking the wind for an intruder, but mistaking an intruder for the wind could cost you your life. (76)

When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically, just like a human. (76)

The human patterning instinct used the intuitive reflexes of social cognition as scaffolding for a new mythic consciousness in much the same way that it had used embodied experiences as scaffolding for the metaphors that enabled abstract thought. The cognitive processes of toolmaking, for example, by which things were designed and constructed for a particular purpose, may have inspired the belief that natural objects were also created for a purpose. Similarly, the intuitive sense of fairness that was crucial to the stability of hunter-(76)gatherer societies would have implied the need to maintain equally harmonious relationships with the spirits of the natural world. (77)

Culture as Sculptor

Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in his world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of his universe. (77)

…early brain development is essentially a pruning process. … As the infant grows, this synaptic reinforcement continues… (77)

We can think of each distinct culture as the cumulative network of meaning constructed by countless generations of minds within a given tradition. …the relationship between an individual and a culture is, to a certain degree, mutually interactive, although the impact of the culture on the individual is far greater than vice versa. (78)

…in a process known as deep enculturation, she inevitably grows up with a set of beliefs and values about the world embedded within her unconscious, which shapes how she conceptualized virtually every aspect of her experience. (78)

The integration of symbolic meaning between individuals and their culture has allowed the human race to effectively “pool their cognitive resources,” both from each other and from the past, and thus achieve the dominance over the rest of the world that we experience today. (78)

Culture’s Power Tool

“external symbolic storage”: the entire set of physical objects constructed by humans to hold and communicate a symbolic meaning beyond mere utilitarian function. The most obvious examples include cave art, sculptures, personal ornamentation, and musical instruments, but external symbolic storage can also refer to more subtle symbolic signaling, such as stonework styles and even the spatial patterns of how a campsite is used. (79)

The power of external symbolic storage to shape the human mind arises from its fixed and stable attributes: its nature is different from the meaning that arises solely within a human mind. (79)

By stabilizing meaning within a group, external symbolic storage permits communities to expand massively in size and complexity while maintaining a cohesive framework of values and beliefs. Institutions we take for granted in today’s society, such as marriage, money, and government, exist only because their reality is grounded in a common understanding that relies on external symbolic storage to maintain consistent meaning. (79) … Without external symbolic storage, human civilization could never have developed. However, its power severely limits the autonomy each of us has in constructing our own pattern of meaning from the world. (80)

“Ensnared in an Inescapable Web”

Like an alien force from a sci-fi movie, our culture maintains its existence outside any one of us and yet, at the same time, pervades our minds. (80)

The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web. Like a “mind virus,” the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistible urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propagates itself throughout the world. —Terrence Deacon

It is only through a clear identification of these underlying structures that we can perceive them in our own minds, thereby gaining some freedom to disentangle ourselves from the “inescapable web”—and, ultimately, perhaps, to influence the shape of the culture that will sculpt the minds of future generations. (81)

Chapter 4. The Giving Environment: The World of the Hunter-Gatherers

[Book draft, Chapter 4.pdf]

The Riddle of the Scrawny Ox

“cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.” The uniformities tend to exist under the surface, leading to underlying patterns of thought that are remarkably similar across cultures, even while their manifestations in each culture’s beliefs and practices are profusely variable. (84)

Everything Is Connected

Probably the most pervasive underlying pattern in the hunter-gatherer worldview is the belief that all aspects of the world—humans, animals, ancestors, spirits, trees, rocks, and rivers—are related parts of a dynamic, integrated whole. The natural environment is, for hunter-gatherers, fully alive. (84)

The Giving Earth

Unlike the religious traditions most of us are used to, hunter-gatherers don’t worship their gods; rather, they converse with the spirits as they would with their own elders. (86)

Continual Transformation

…a root metaphor can become so embedded in the collective consciousness of a culture that it’s no longer viewed as a metaphor but as reality. For hunter-gatherers, the spirits surrounding them are not like family—they are family. (87)

…specific individuals are believed to have the power to transform themselves and journey to a world where direct communication with the spirits is possible. These individuals are known as shamans, and the set of beliefs and practices around their spirit journeys…shamanism. (88)

Journeying to the Spirit World

In hunter-gatherer communities, a shaman is believed to have the ability to mediate between the everyday world and the spirit worlds (usually an upper world in the sky and a lower world beneath the earth.). (88)

The significance of shamanism goes beyond its hunter-gatherer origins: it influenced agrarian cultures around the world, and elements of it can be seen in Indian Yoga, certain practices of ancient Chinese culture, and in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica. (88)

It seems likely that both explanations are true: shamanism probably is an intrinsic part of early mythic consciousness, and its beliefs diffused with the original Out of Africa migration. In this case, shamanism might have something important to tell us about the evolving role of the patterning instinct in the early human mind. (89)

The idea of the shaman’s spirit journey requiring the symbolic death of the body is an important motif in shamanism. It is powerful evidence of the belief, (89) prevalent throughout the hunter-gatherer world, in a spirit’s separate existence from the body. (90)

The “Affluent Forager”

Our modern skulls house a stone age mind. — Leda Cosmides, John Tooby

…who argue that, in order to understand the psychology of people living in today’s world, we must realize that our minds evolved in hunter-gatherer societies for 99 percent of our species’ history. “The key to understanding how the modern mind works,” they tell us, is to realize that it wasn’t designed to deal with the challenges of urban life but rather “to solve the day-to-day problem of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” For example, it’s easier to deal with groups roughly the same size as a foraging band than with crowds of thousands. For the same reason, we instinctively fear a snake rather than an electric socket, even though electric shocks pose far greater risk to us. Similarly, in conducting an archaeology of the mind, we must examine the core values of hunter-gatherers if we want to understand the foundations of our modern value system. (90)

Marshall Sahlins proposed in 1968 that hunter-gatherers comprised the “original affluent society.” Sahlins explained this radical notion by observing that there are two paths to affluence. There’s the modern course of market economies, which assumes that human needs are considerable and that the more an economy produces the closer it comes to meeting those needs. Then, there’s what Sahlins called the “Zen strategy,” based on the notion that human material needs are few, and there is therefore very little to do to fulfill those needs. Foragers, Sahlins argued, follow the “Zen road to affluence” because they need very little and they don’t have to work too hard to get it. Further research on the !Kung people provided concrete evidence for Sahlins’s viewpoint, showing that each adult !Kung typically spends only two or three hours a day on the basic needs of food and shelter. (91)

Not only did hunter-gatherers have more leisure time, they were also much healthier than the farmers who came after them. Foragers tend to enjoy a wide variety of food sources providing sufficient amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Early farmers, on the other hand, would often concentrate on a few principal crops that grew more readily, providing a narrower range of nutritional needs. Also, for a farmer, a crop failure might result in famine, whereas foragers could simply move to someplace else where another food source was more plentiful. Most importantly, early hunter-gatherers enjoyed a life virtually free of infectious disease. Most diseases that became endemic, such as plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, or cholera, were originally acquired by humans from their farm animals, and the diseases only achieved critical mass on account of the high population densities of towns and cities that sprang up following the rise of agriculture. (92)

…at the end of the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers in Europe had an average height of around five feet ten for men and five feet six for women. After the adoption of agriculture, by about 4,000 BCE, the average height had fallen to five feet three for men and five feet one for women. These studies reveal agriculturalists as far more disease ridden, with skeletal remains showing more rickets, scurvy, dental cavities, and lesions from leprosy and tuberculosis. (92)

It’s important to remember that the foraging nomadic lifestyle offers no safety net if someone becomes sick or injured. There is no permanent shelter for someone to rest and be cared for. This applies even more drastically to infants: a study of modern hunter-gatherers found that infanticide is regularly carried out in the vast majority of the societies examined. One study estimates that an infant born into a forager society has a 15-50 percent chance of being killed. So perhaps one reason those ancient hunter-gatherers were so healthy was that the weak and sick had already been killed. (92)

Giving and Taking

A World without Boundaries

A common principle that emerges from each aspect of the hunter-gatherer worldview is the blurring of boundaries between domains. Whether it’s between the living and dead, the everyday and the spirit world, human and animal, owning and giving, or family and nonfamily, fluidity in relations is a universal feature of hunter-gatherer societies. (95)

Parochial Altruism

Imagine two early forager societies fighting each other, with one group of fighters only looking out for themselves, while the other group consists of fighters willing to risk their own lives for the sake of their community. It’s not hard to imagine how the group-oriented fighters would be more successful in battle. The altruism of these warriors, though, only extended to the boundary of their particular group, which is why [Samuel] Bowles calls it “parochial.” … Bowles speculates that this new form of altruism might have been responsible for the rapid expansion of modern humans out of Africa and the consequent extinction of the Nean-(96)derthals. “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the grisly evidence of our warlike past may help explain our distinctly cooperative nature.” (97)

Exploiting Nature’s Easy Pickings

If the parochial altruism of hunter-gatherers calls into question any claim that they represent an aspirational model for human behavior, their approach to the sustainability of their environment explodes it to smithereens. In fact, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were responsible for mass extinctions of some of the most spectacular species that have lived on the earth. The forager view of the natural world as a giving environment was only too literal. The environment gave and gave, and our hunter-gatherer ancestors took and took, until they had wiped out the natural world’s easy pickings. (97)

…[Paul] Martin calls the “overkill hypothesis.” (97)

Beginning roughly a hundred thousand years ago, half the 167 genera of large mammals across the world became extinct. (97)

Thus, while the hunter-gatherers’ worldview cause them to respect the spirits of the natural world and trust nature to be a giving environment, the power of the patterning instinct propelled them unwittingly into an unsustainable cycle of exploitation. For generation after generation, the world presented itself to them as a universe without boundaries (both literally and conceptually), without hierarchies, without ownership, without existential angst. It was a world of continual transformation, but, gradually, as the easy pickings all got picked, this world transformed into a different one: a world of limitations, a world of anxiety, a world where their capabilities for technological and conceptual invention were increasingly required for survival. The giving environment had given way to the world of agriculture. (99)

Part 2. Hierarchy of the Gods

Chapter 5. Agriculture and Anxiety

Enkidu and the Temptress

What made hunter-gatherers settle down and start sowing their own seeds, preparing the soil, and doing the countless other back-breaking jobs involved in agriculture, when they had been blithely foraging for untold generations? How did agriculture take over across the entire world? In exploring these questions, we’ll see how the rise in agriculture engendered a new constellation of values, hitherto unknown in human society, which we implicitly accept nowadays. And we’ll see how the agrarian worldview transformed the hunter-gatherer’s sense of nature as a giving environment into one of a cosmos demanding far more from its human participants, giving birth to a world filled with the existential anxiety that has remained with us ever since. (104)

Storing the Barley

Gradually, the Natufians began to do something no humans had done before: they settled down. Instead of wandering from place to place, they began building permanent houses of stone and wood, and their communities grew to several hundred people. They began behaving differently from other foragers, burying their dead with elaborate rituals within their settlements and grinding the wild cereals with mortars and pestles. …they began the sedentary lifestyle that eventually made agriculture possible. (104)

Sedentism is the name given to the lifestyle of living in permanent dwellings, and it’s considered by many to have been the most important step in prehistory. (105)

something happens to a community that becomes sedentary. Material things take on a new importance. (105)

Sedentary communities are sometimes referred to as “delayed-return” societies because people plan ahead, setting aside food and other supplies for later. In delayed-return societies, accumulation of property leads inevitably to inequalities between people.a “change in ideology.” The foraging principle of food sharing has to be transformed or given up. There is less reliance on kinship and friendship for protection when things go wrong, and more reliance on building up your own stores of wealth. Attitudes toward time begin to change: the past (when you accumulated your goods) and the future (when you might need them) become more important, replacing a simple, consistent focus on the present. Attitudes toward work also shift: rather than doing just what you need to feed yourself that day, there’s an incentive to work harder to invest in the future. This all leads to a changed view of nature, with people relying on their own planning and storage rather than an ever-providing natural world.

Thus, storage expresses a distrust of nature. — Alain Testart

The Domestication of the Human

Perhaps the most important thing to recognize about the rise of agriculture is that it wasn’t preplanned. It’s very unlikely that anyone ever made a decision to stop foraging for food and begin planting seeds for themselves. Most likely, agriculture emerged as the result of a powerful dynamic between humans and the wildlife they relied on, with the result that—like Enkidu—it was humans who got domesticated as much as the plants and animals. (106)

Light from the Near East?

One consequence of agriculture was a dramatic population explosion. … Heavy technology,… Cereals… …women’s fertility increased. …domesticated animals,… As a result, it’s estimated that the population of Southwest Asia, ground zero for agriculture, increased from just a hundred thousand people to five million between 8000 and 4000 BCE. (107)

| This population growth put severe pressure on both the environment and the social equilibrium. Assaulted by forest clearance, soil tillage, and animal pasturing, the fragile environment of Southwest Asia quickly degraded. …these pressures led to population dispersal,… In central regions, where pioneering wasn’t an option, these pressures led to ever-increasing complexity of social organization, ultimately resulting in the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. (107)

ex oriente lux, or “light from the Near East.” In [Gordon Childe’s] view, over thousands of years, farmers from Southwest Asia colonized Europe, bringing their domesticated plants and animals along with ceramics and tools. The hunter-gatherers already there could do very little to resist the advance. (108)

…some researchers have argued against this model of aggressive colonization. Rather, in their view, it was the foragers themselves who gradually took up agriculture in a process of cultural diffusion. (108)

The last hunters were the first farmers.

There’s more at stake here than just an academic debate. This is a question about the founding dynamics of our ancestry. Are we virtually all descendants of violent, colonizing aggressors, or do we come from an ancient tradition of cultural tolerance and diffusion? (108)

In recent years, advanced DNA analysis seems to have settled the dispute in favor of the colonizing theory. … It seems that agriculture was, in fact, disseminated throughout the world by the brute force of colonizing farmers. Analysis of modern European populations has found that most male chromosomes descend from Near Eastern farmers, whereas maternal lineages are mostly from hunter-gatherers, indicating that farming males had a reproductive advantage over their foraging rivals. Similar male-female patterns of DNA have been associated with the Bantu agricultural expansion in Africa and the spread of agriculture in both India and Japan. Whether you interpret these findings as evidence of ancient conquest and rape on a massive scale or as a more genteel narrative of forager women being attracted to high-prestige farmers as husbands, the message seems clear: agriculture conquered. (109)

A Revolution in Values

Agrarian culture emphasized a new suite of values such as accumulation of property, hierarchies, and planning for the future while inhibiting the urge for instant gratification. Imposing their willpower over short-term gratification would have been particularly necessary during difficult times, when farmers would have to force their families to go hungry rather than let them eat the seed grain and breeding stock required for the next season. The very word “agriculture” suggests a radically new process where the wild field (ager) is cultured and turned into a human construct. The first farmers didn’t just transform the wild; they also invented the notion of home as a domain separate from wilderness. In this sense, they literally domesticated themselves. (109)

The Symbolic Revolution. [Jacques Cauvin] points to the transition in Southwest Asia, after the emergence of agriculture, from circular dwellings to square and rectangular houses. The natural world is filled with circular or curved shapes, but squares and rectangles are almost entirely human constructions. (109)

Along with squares and rectangles, boundary lines emerge, separating not just farmland from the wild but also one farmer’s landholding from another. The land itself—previously free—becomes a valuable asset,… Wealth becomes an intrinsic value… (110)

Once material possessions have value, they can be compared with each other and bartered or traded, leading to new levels of economic and social complexity. (110)

The new emphasis on wealth and hierarchy … The issue of inheritance emerges… The authority of the patriarch becomes paramount. Women are perceived as commodities,… New values emphasizing hitherto unknown concepts of honor, virginity, and sexual fidelity now become major issues dominating people’s lives. (110)

Inanna: As for me, my vulva,…
Me—the maid, who will plow it for me?
My vulva, the watered ground—for me,
Me the Queen, who will station the ox there?

Dumuzi: Oh Lordly Lady, the king will plow it for you,
Dumuzi, the king, will plow it for you.

Inanna: Plow my vulva, man of my heart!

Chorus: Plants rose high by his side,
Grains rose high by his side.

[The Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi]

It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic expression of the fusion of agriculture, social status, sexuality, and abundance into one combined set of values. (111)

Anxiety and Authority

There was one tremendous downside to the new agrarian emphasis on material possessions: you could lose them. … No matter how diligently they worked, they were dangerously vulnerable to natural forces outside their control, such as drought, flood, or crop failure. (111)

| This led, in the words of archaeologist Graeme Barker to “a very different kind of spirituality characterized by a separation from and distrust of nature,” which generated “the anxiety over cosmic disorder that seems to lie at the core of all the agrarian religions.” No longer was nature a generous, giving parent; instead, it was increasingly something to “control and appropriate rather than be a part of.” (111)

On the one hand, the very idea of (111) agriculture opens the possibility of humans controlling their destiny through their actions. On the other hand, the parameters under human control remain painfully limited. A sure recipe for distress. (112)

As humans exerted increasing control over other animals, their gods took on a more human form. …as early as the Natufians, images of animals began to be superseded by human forms, primarily female “mother goddess” figurines. (112)

[via: e.g., cybele / magna mater]

| These new gods take on a position of authority, a concept unknown to nomadic foragers. Images of deities begin to show humans around them with their arms raised in the position of supplication. … “The theme of the ‘supplicant’ introduces an entirely new relationship between god and man…a new distinction at the heart of the human imagination between an ‘above’ and a ‘below’, between an order of a divine force, personified and dominant, and that of an everyday humanity.” Gone are the days of nature as mother and father providing food unconditionally to their children. Instead, nature now provides food only in return for the right conduct. (112)

[via: “mother nature” became the “magna mater”]

The increasing complexity of human society was reflected in ever more elaborate notions of how the divine world connected with the human domain. The relationship between people and their gods was taken over by priests, mediating a communication that had once been direct. As people began living in urban settlements, it became increasingly difficult to conceive of deities existing only in the natural world. How could people now communicate with them? The emergence of idols solved this problem. Now, just as a natural object such as a tree could hold a divine essence, an idol could too. (112)

Spirits Everywhere

The Aztecs believed this divine presence, called teotl, was physically manifested in a lake, a thunderstorm, or a mountain. The Yoruba called this force ase… For the Inca, there were sacred places in the earth known as huacas

In many cultures of prehistory, the word for breath is the same as for wind and for the life force animating a living being. The ancient Indians used prana with each of these meanings; the Chinese used qi; for the Hebrews, the analogous words were ruah [רוח] and nephesh [נפש]; and the early Greeks used pneuma [πνευμα] and psyche [ψυχη] to capture the same ideas. (113)

…to early cultures…the human soul was presumed to have a material, if somewhat evanescent and numinous, quality. (113)

Virtually every early culture saw humans as having more than one spirit: usually two or three, and sometimes more. Paralleling the modern distinction in cognitive neuroscience between conceptual and animate modes of consciousness, one spirit was frequently related to the mind and another to the life force animating the body. (113)

In contrast to hunter-gatherers, who believed spirits of the deceased became part of the natural world, recently departed spirits in agrarian communities tended to remain in the home, where they were thought to continue to eat and sleep with the family, causing nightmares and calamities if they weren’t treated with sufficient respect. This led to the development of elaborate sacrificial rituals, with reverential worship of individuals from several generations back and a more general veneration of the entire ancestral family. (114)

Actively Participating in the Cosmos

Appeasing the gods wasn’t just a matter of following the rules. There was also a sense that if you used the right techniques, you might even get those cosmic rulers to bend a little for your benefit,… (114)

Foragers never felt any responsibility to keep their world abundant. Farmers, on the other hand, grew accustomed to a systematic, never-ending schedule of tasks, such as plowing, sowing, irrigation, weeding, and harvesting, all of which needed to be conscientiously performed, or disaster might ensue. Is it any wonder, then, that they should apply these habits of thought to their worldview, believing that cosmic order could only be preserved if they diligently and continuously worked on it? (115)

…Egyptians…held an equally powerful notion of cosmic order, called ma’at, which they believed translated directly into political and social order and could only be maintained by continuous attention. (115)

| The rituals themselves paralleled the agricultural seasons with their recurrent cycles. There was a strong sense shared around the world that, at the beginning of the universe, the gods performed actions in certain ways, and it was the (115) sacred duty of humans to repeat those actions on a cyclical basis. (116)

But equally significant are the different directions these cultures took as they elaborated their views on the universe. … From this point on, the world’s great cultural traditions begin going their own ways. (116)

Chapter 6. Going Their Own Ways: Early Civilization

In the ensuing millennia, three of the most advanced civilizations we’ll investigate turned to dust, only to be rediscovered by modern archaeologists. The culture that was most successful in bequeathing its pattern of thought to modern times had not even achieved literacy. And only one of those early civilizations would remain intact through the thirty-five hundred years to the present day. That one was China. (117)

China: The Orderly Cosmos

Egypt: The One and the Many

The struggle for ma’at

Ma’at literally means “base,” as in the base of a throne, and it was understood by the Egyptians as the foundation of the entire world order. … If these efforts failed, the dreaded alternative was isfet, or “lack”—a lack of order that manifested in disease, scarcity, violence, injustice, and death. (120)

It was believed that when you died, you faced a trial with a judge (usually the god Osiris),… If you failed the trial, the crocodile-headed Amamet, the “Gobbler,” stood by, ready to devour you. We see here, for the first time in recorded history, what scholar (120) Robert Wright calls a “morally contingent afterlife,” ordaining that your actions in this life have a direct effect on your experience of the next. (121)

One god or many gods?

Around 2200 BCE, the Old Kingdom—a peak of civilization that produced the Great Pyramid of Giza—suffered decades of drought. … During this epoch, people began to wonder whether their destiny was, in fact, driven by what [Jan] Assman calls “the inscrutable will of a hidden god.” (122)

| In the Coffin Texts, dated to the period following the Old Kingdom’s collapse, the traditional names of the most powerful gods are avoided, and in their place are phrases such as “one who came into existence by himself.” As the centuries wore on, ancient Egypt recovered and emerged even stronger during a period known as the New Kingdom. A new theology developed, centered around the great temple complex at Karnak, which worshipped a god called Amun-Re in terms that seem to approach the totality of monotheism. In the Hymn to Amun-Re, the entire universe, including all other gods, is described as Amun-Re’s creation. Here is a passage from around 1600 BCE: (122)

You are the sole one, who has created all that is,
The single sole one who crated what exists;
From whose eyes humankind came forth,
From whose pronouncement the gods came into existence.

The evolution of Egyptian thought took a drastic turn during the short reign of Akhenaten from 1353 to 1336 BCE. … Akhenaten was the first person to introduce true monotheism to human history. In a dramatic power play, he abolished any worship of Amun-Re and imposed the worship of the sun god known as the Aten. This was a huge disruption to the traditional lives of the people, and Akhenaten enforced his new theology with unprecedented brutality, terrorizing the population and hacking Amun’s image out of every monument in the land. (122)

The monotheistic revolution of Akhenaten was not only the first but also the most radical and violent eruption f a counter-religion in the history of human kind. —Jan Assman

With Akhenaten, a new intolerance entered Egyptian theology. (123)

Another characteristic of monotheism, seen here for the first time, is a shift in the source of sacredness from the world up to the heavens. … Now, with a single transcendent creator god, the natural world begins to be seen as merely the recipient of the god’s beneficence rather than the source itself of such powers. (123)

Reconciling the one and the many

Traditional forager and agrarian worldviews don’t try to systematize their myths into a comprehensive whole. (123) … The ancient Egyptians, however, attempted to turn their mythic patterns into a comprehensive system and, in so doing, uncovered what Assmann has called the “cognitive dissonance” that results from an attempt to resolve the relationship between unity and diversity. (124)

| In a traditional polytheistic cosmology, there’s no need for a worldview to by systematic. (224)

The patterning instinct compels an attempt to understand the system this creator has bestowed: if the universe, which seems so variegated, is really a unified entity, then isn’t this unity the true wellspring of meaning? Trying to reconcile a universe composed of “the one” and “the many” was a massive conceptual challenge, one that has been described as a “meltdown” in polytheistic mythology. (124)

…in the post-Akhenaten era, known as the Ramesside period, a new pantheistic cosmology arose that explained the various deities as different aspects and forms of a single transcendent creator god, thus making it possible “to conceive of the diversity of deities as the colorful reflection of a hidden unity.” (124)

Mesopotamia: Tidying Up the Cosmic Mess

A cosmos of grinding insecurity

For all their differences, both the Shang and the Egyptians shared a view of a cosmos that was orderly, as long as you worked hard enough to maintain it. How the Mesopotamians would have loved that sense of order! For thousands of years, the inhabitants of the valley formed by the Tigris and Euphrates labored to create the earliest and, in many ways the most innovative civilization of ancient times, but they did so under the never-ending threat of chaos and devastation, both in their daily lives and in their understanding of the cosmos. (125)

…So how did this barren region become the incubator of the world’s first great civilization? In one word: irrigation. (125)

cf. The Descent of IshtarLudlul

Copy of Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, from Nineveh, 7th Century BC. Louvre Museum (deposit from British Museum).

Perhaps it’s because of this grinding insecurity felt by Mesopotamians, this sense that no amount of piety could secure your position in this world, and the next world didn’t even bear thinking about, that their civilization went on to create some of the greatest innovations the world has ever seen. If you can’t rely on the gods to do it for you, they seemed to believe, you may as well accomplish what you can on your own. (128)

Mesopotamian firsts

The Mesopotamians were responsible for the first libraries and maps and for devising new disciplines such as mathematics, medicine, chemistry, botany, and zoology. (128)

| Perhaps their most resounding achievement was the invention of writing, the first in human history. …the earliest cuneiform of the Mesopotamians had a more prosaic purpose: bookkeeping. (128)

…they devised a form of counting known as the sexagesimal system, using the base of sixty, that survives to this day. …degrees of an angle, or look at a clock… …they arranged the stars into constellations and developed a tradition to divine future events based on the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations, which survives today in the form of astrology. (128)

Mesopotamians came up with many of the original formulations we still use to structure human activities. They invited dictionaries, legal documents such as sales and deeds, and codes of law. They were the first culture (128) to create a separation between what we nowadays think of as religious and secular domains and to create concepts, such as equity and freedom, that have resounded through the millennia to become integral parts of the modern conception of society. (129)

Justice to the oppressed

In contrast to Egyptian or Shang civilizations, where the centralized ruler was virtually indistinguishable from the gods, the insecure kings of Mesopotamia made no attempt to assert divinity. The most they could claim was to act as stewards of the gods, and everyone recognized they would be punished by military defeat if they failed to do their job well. This separation of the king from divinity led to a process of secularization during which the political domain was gradually recognized as separate from the cosmological. (129)

…the Babylonian king Hammurabi instituted his famous Code of Laws containing more than 280 laws written on twelve tablets,… (129)

The remarkable feature of Hammurabi’s Code was its sense of fairness and social welfare. (129)

…that the strong might not oppress the weak,
That justice might be health the orphan (and) the widow. …
I wrote my precious words on my stela…
To give justice to the oppressed. …

Hammurabi declared that Shamash, the god of justice and commerce, had bestowed on him something known as kittum, which can be translated as “truth” or “natural law,” a kind of universal law that transcends human idiosyncracies. (130)

| The revolutionary and far-reaching implication of this concept was that a ruler couldn’t just do whatever he wanted with his power. … Instead of trying to maintain a cosmic order with the reward of a blessed afterlife, the Mesopotamians’ goal was to execute kittum in the here and now, in the day-to-day activities of the marketplace and people’s lives. If implemented well, the end result wasn’t eternal paradise but, hopefully, a more equitable and just society for everyone. (130)

Harappa: Explorations of the Mind?

cf. Meluhha; Mohenjo-daro; Harappa

This was an enormously innovative civilization. Rather than spend their time on monuments as in Egypt, they built practical things that benefited the inhabitants. —Michael Jansen

The Harappans expressed their belief without the need for massive, large-scale religious edifices. Religion seems to have been an individualized, private practice, largely undertaken in the household by individuals or family groups. It may not have involved priests, high priests and an institution of religious specialists. —Gregory Possehl

Harappan seal showing a seated yoga posture

…probably related to climate change, Harappan civilization began declining around 1800 BCE. Their decline was likely exacerbated by an invasion from the north of a group of illiterate, horse-(132)riding pastoral warriors. These people, who called themselves Aryans, emerged from a culture known today as Proto-Indo-European. Together with their brethren heading west into Europe, this unlikely crew would have a more profound effect on the shape of world history than would any of the great civilizations we have yet encountered. (133)

Proto-Indo-Europeans: Might Is Right

A language looking for a homeland

[Sir William] Jones went on to make the astounding claim that not only Greek and Latin but also Persian, Celtic, and German belonged to the same family of languages as Sanskrit. (133)

…linguists have concurred that all these branches can be traced back over thousands of years to a common source, which has been called Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

…the Kurgan hypothesis…places the PIE homeland in the steppes north of the Black Sea at around 3500-3000 BCE. (134)

PIE migrations

The Proto-Indo-European homeland according to the steppe hypothesis (dark green) and the present-day distribution of Indo-European languages in Eurasia (light green).

The invasion of India by the Aryans is considered the earliest documented mass migration in history. (134)

cf. Rig Veda

Rigveda (padapatha) manuscript in Devanagari, early 19th century. After a scribal benediction (śrīgaṇéśāyanamaḥ Au3m), the first line has the first pada, RV 1.1.1a (agniṃ iḷe puraḥ-hitaṃ yajñasya devaṃ ṛtvijaṃ). The pitch-accent is marked by underscores and vertical overscores in red.

The Rig Veda is clearly the work of an invading people. (135)

…the Dasa, who are described as “nose-less,” presumably referring to the facial features of the indigenous Dravidian population of India. The Rig Veda is filled with references to the horses and chariots of the Aryans and invokes divine support for the destruction of their enemies and the storming of their citadels, in all likelihood those of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, and whatever else remained of the civilization that had once prospered there. (136)

The social structure of this new culture clearly showed the military and social dominance of the Aryans. This was the source of the rigid caste system that has structured Indian life ever since, with the priesthood or Brahman as the highest caste, followed by the land-owning Kshatriya, while the lowest-caste slaves, the Dasa, were reduced to tilling the land. In the millennia that have followed, these rigid distinctions have remained astonishingly enduring. (136)

| While one group of Aryans established themselves in the Indian subcontinent, other groups settled down farther west, naming their land “Realm of the Aryans,” or Iran. This group went on to develop Zoroastrianism. Meanwhile, still more nomads from the PIE homeland journeyed southwest of the Black Sea. These people, called the Achaeans, would go on to found the culture of ancient Greece. (136)

| A profoundly important, but little recognized, fact of early civilization is the close affinity between the religious and philosophical traditions of Greece and India as a result of their derivation from a common PIE source. These cultures shared many of the same gods, as well as common terms for weapons such as bow and arrow, and both even used the same term for a specific ritual known as the hecatomb, which involved the sacrifice of a hundred cows. (136)

…a central concept in the Rig Veda, ancient Greek thought, and Zoroastrianism is a notion of truth/order/righteousness, called rta in Vedic writings, dike in Greek, and asha in Zoroastrian scriptures. Another shared term, with important implications, refers to a liberating kind of knowledge providing a direct insight to spiritual wisdom, called jnana in Sanskrit and gnosis in Greek. In both cultures, this fundamental idea set up a chain of linked concepts that would help structure both Greek and Indian cosmologies. (136)

[via: dike/ δικη / צדק / righteousness & gnosis / γνωσις / דעת / knowledge]

“Might is right”

The path to understanding the mentality of the PIE nomads begins with the cow. … The primary symbols of prosperity were milk and butter. … The Rig Veda praises the war god, Indra, for heroically breaking into other people’s cow pens and stealing their cattle. (137)

| The other bulwark of the PIE economy was the horse.

The connection between animals, brothers, and power was the foundation on which new forms of male-centered ritual and politics developed among Indo-European-speaking societies. —David Anthony

The male orientation of their culture extended up to the heavens: PIE tribespeople expressed thanks to a god called the Sky Father for their sons, fat cattle, and swift horses. (137)

| Along with this male-centered value system came a high regard for military prowess. In the PIE warrior ethos, every able-bodied male was expected to be a fighter, and the king himself was primarily a warlord. The PIE root word for king was *reg, which led to the Sanskrit word raj as well as the Latin rex and English royal. This root word expanded into a fascinating constellation of meanings that have passed into PIE-based cultures ever since. Across Indo-European languages, the root word *reg– forms the foundation for words such as rightstraightcorrectruler, and regulate—suggesting a conceptual underpinning that links power with right and associates the strong right hand with regulating what is correct, and which may be summarized by the phrase “might is right.” (137)

| Another deep-rooted cultural inheritance passed on by the PIE horsemen of the steppes is a dualistic pattern of thinking about the universe. The original (137) PIE creation myth involves two brothers, Man and Twin, and tells how the universe was created when Man sacrificed Twin. A binary opposition between right and left is extended through the PIE language to form a systematic pattern of opposites, with concepts of healthy, strong, and dexterous on one side and unfavorable, weak, and sinister (the Latin word for left) on the other side. The right side is associated with males and the left with females. (138)

The Kurgan expansion

[Maria] Bimbutas proposes that the first settled inhabitants of Eastern and Central Europe were peaceful farmers living in egalitarian, matriarchal societies, worshipping a mother goddess, who were brutally conquered by the PIE invaders. (138)

Zoroaster’s struggle of Good and Evil

He referred to his own supporters as “followers of Truth” and his enemies as “followers of the Lie,”… (139)

cf. Avesta

Zoroaster turned the original PIE creation myth of Man sacrificing Twin into a primal struggle between good and evil. When these two primordial spirits first encountered each other, he taught, they created “life and not-life.” The name of the good spirit, who became the Zoroastrian god, was Ahura Mazda; his evil opponent was Angra Mainyu. Everything in the universe could be understood by the conflict between these two spirits. The entire cosmos became an arena for the struggle between the True and the False, a battle involving everyone and pervading every aspect of life, no matter how big or small. (139)

The fundamental cleavage of the universe between good and evil created a form of dogmatic thought that permitted no compromise. Good is equated (139) with Truth, and Evil with Falsehood. … In a chilling precursor to the intolerance that later versions of monotheism would bring, the word for free choice came to mean heresy—exactly paralleling the evolution of the Greek word hairesis in Christianity. (140)

…some of the most important sections of the Old Testament were written during the Jewish exile in Babylon and likely inspired by Zoroastrian beliefs. (140)

The Egyptians may have bequeathed to us their cosmological speculations; the Mesopotamians handed down their scientific achievements; but the PIE cattle herders were the ones who set both Indian and European thought patterns on the courses they eventually took, passing on to us their notions of a fixed natural law, a binary conception of right and wrong, and a dualistic universe. (140)

Part 3. The Patterns Diverge

Western Pattern: Split Cosmos, Split Human

Eastern Pattern: Harmonic Web of Life

Chapter 7. The Birth of Dualism in Ancient Greece

At age forty, [Plato] returned to Athens to found an academy… (143)

…Alfred North Whitehead to comment famously that the European philosophical tradition “consists in a series of footnotes to Plato.” (143)

It’s been called the “Greek miracle.” … New ways of thinking sprang up, giving birth to a stunning range of disciplines that nowadays we take for granted. Philosophy, as we now conceive of it, emerged there. Concepts such as democracy and tragedy were developed. Logic was invented. The practice of systematic and empirical thinking that eventually led to modern science began there. (143)

The concept of pure abstraction appeared, bringing with it the previously unimagined notion of an eternal God with infinite presence in time and space. The city-states of ancient Greece bequeathed to us not only the scientific tradition but also the thought structures that made monotheism possible in the form that has taken over much of the world. (144)

Philosopher Karl Jaspers…called this period the Axial Age. (144)

A Miracle of Convergence

The Greeks were descendants of PIE invaders known as Mycenaeans, who had migrated to the region between 2000 and 1650 BCE, bringing with them the linguistic core of PIE-based thought structures that was the underpinning of all subsequent developments. (144)

Arising from this cultural mélange, the “Greek miracle” was really a marvel of convergence and emergence: a convergence of multiple worldviews, leading to the emergence of a synthesis of these views as a new, comprehensive system of thought. (145)

Shamanic Sources

…Greek culture…owed perhaps even more to earlier shamanic traditions. (146)

Because of its ever-changing dynamic nature, Heraclitus declares that a fixed view of the universe is not possible. Like an ever-flowing river, as soon as you fix a perception of what it looks like, it’s already changed. “It’s impossible,” he says, “to step into the same river twice.” The only thing you can rely on is the continual flow, the realization that “all things are momentary and pass away.” Heraclitus doesn’t mean that you should give up trying to understand the universe. Rather, in his work, “wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things.” (146)

[via: This is a consistent view of the definition of “life,” not as a specific kind of material, but the “pattern,” or “arrangement,” or “organizing principle” of which a flow of matter passes through. While the material changes, the pattern and organizing principle remain the same.]

For Empedocles, the universe was composed of the four elements of fire, air, earth, and water. 9146)

However, these early Presocratic views, rooted in the ancient traditions of mythic consciousness, eventually lost out to a particular characteristic of Greek thought that would shape its unique contribution to human civilization: what historian H. D. F. Kitto has called “a passion for generalizing.” (146)

The Discovery of Abstraction

Abstracting a general rule from an assortment of details is the defining characteristic of Greek thought. … Things made more sense to the Greeks the more they were part of a general theory. (147)

This is the advantageous policy and the strong policy, because the party which deliberates wisely against his enemy is more formidable than the one which acts with a violence borne of recklessness. —Diodotus

The Greek passion for generalizing was embedded within the very structure of their language. The Greeks were the first to use the definitive article as a significant part of their grammar. For example, every language might have an adjective such as “good” to describe things. The Greek innovation was to arrive at a concept of “the Good” as an abstract generalization of all good things. …the definite article posits the idea that “the Good” exists independently. This forms the linguistic basis for what one scholar has called “the birth of the very idea of abstraction.” [Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud; B. Snell, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature; Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emmissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.] (147)

But this kind of thought was literally invented by generations of brilliant Greek thinkers, each daring to take his ideas one step further from the realm of the concrete toward a realm of pure idealization. By the end of the Greek era, European culture would have a new toolbox comprising forms of systematic and abstract thought, which would eventually launch the Scientific Revolution. (148)

| Using this toolbox of abstraction, the Greeks created a radically new conception of the cosmos that was a function of humanity’s own unique capacity for systematic reasoning. One by one, leading Presocratic thinkers pushed the envelope of abstraction further and further until it formed its own parallel universe quite apart from the empirical world of the senses. Abstraction itself was deified. (148)

[via: “It’s not the diety that is abstracted. It’s the abstraction that is deified.”]

| Anaximander initiated this process with the suggestion that the world was originally formed from what he called the apeiron, usually translated as “infinite” or “undefined.” (148)

…Xenophanes applied Anaximander’s notion of the abstract to a radical critique of traditional mythologies, claiming that people viewed their gods merely as fanciful representations of themselves. (148)

Mortals consider that the gods are born, and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair. But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that people can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves. —Xenophanes

By separating the mind from the constraints of the body, he permits a conception of the mind as an infinitely powerful vehicle, thus initiating the Greek process of deifying the power of pure thought. (149)

Of knowledge there are two forms, one legitimate, one bastard. To the bastard belong all this group: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other is legitimate, and separate from that. — Democritus

The Birth of Scientific Methodology

Once you believe the entire cosmos is the creation of a rational Mind, it’s natural to conclude that the world must work according to a set of rational laws created by that Mind. This was the underlying logic that led the Greeks to search for systematic laws of the universe. (150)

For the Greeks, the paradigmatic example of the orderliness of nature was to be found in mathematics,… (2150)

…the Pythagoreans…pioneered another breakthrough in the development of scientific methodology: using empirical research to prove or disprove a theory. (151)

But in reality we know nothing; for truth is in the depths. … It will be clear that to really know what each thing is like beyond our power. — Democritus

Thinking about Thinking

Parmenides concluded that everything is fixed and “change is impossible.” (152)

Parmenides renounces the world of sense in favor of the principles of logic; Heraclitus renounces the principle of logic in favor of the world of sense. — McEvilley

In this battle for the soul of Western thought, Parmenides won handily. Systematic logic henceforth became the defining characteristic of scientific truth. (152)

One of Aristotle’s most important contributions to Western thought was his invention of the formal syllogism,… (152)

But perhaps the greatest gift Aristotle gave Western civilization was his synthesis of the empirical mode of investigation with the systematic process of logic. … It was Aristotle’s embrace of both empiricism and logic that laid the foundation for what would ultimately become scientific methodology. (152)

…a competing tradition of Greek thought…following Democritus and Parmenides, separated the soul from the body and distilled the abstract ideals from worldly forms, assigning truth only to one and not the other. It was this approach to truth that Plato championed in his Academy. While Aristotle’s crowning achievement was to synthesize different modes of 9152) thinking into the foundations of science, Plato’s great accomplishment involved synthesizing ideas about the separation of body and soul into a dualistic framework that would become the foundation of monotheistic thought. (153)

The Journey of the Soul

The earliest recorded writings of the ancient Greeks shared the ubiquitous agrarian belief that humans are made up of multiple spirits with some kind of tangible properties. Homer’s epics describe two types of soul: psyche, which escapes from a person’s mouth at the moment of death, and thymos, the source of energy and courage, which is found in the blood. In the sixth century BCE, the philosopher Anaximenes described how “our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us,” just like the “wind and air enclose the whole world.” (153)

| However, in the same century, a movement was afoot in Greece that, from its unlikely beginnings, would set the Western world down an entirely new path. Priests from a popular cult called Orphism would appear at the doors of the wealthy and claim to possess sacred powers to cleanse any injustice they might have done. …the Orphics captivated followers by claiming to have a simple, if somewhat bizarre solution, to the problem of death. (153)

| Each human soul, they explained, was undergoing punishment for a crime it had once committed. … The body was described as the tomb of the soul, as if the soul were buried alive in it. The death of the body was thus a temporary release for the soul until its incarceration in the next body. (153)

A crucial difference between Pythagoras and the Orphics was stylistic: the emotional intensity of Orphism was replaced by cool contemplation. Instead of spectacle and passion, Pythagoras taught serene contemplation of a permanent, rational truth, leading to a way of life that he called philosophia [φιλωσοφια]: the pursuit (153) of wisdom. (154)

Pythagoras taught his followers that every human possessed an immortal soul that ascended to heaven for divine judgment after the body’s death. Depending on the judgment, the soul would be reincarnated into another being, either human or animal. The clear implication, for Pythagoras, was that all living beings were kindred spirits. … This led to a firm prohibition within the Pythagorean sect against the slaughter of animals, and consequently, to a strictly vegetarian diet. (154)

Plato’s astounding achievement was to take the body-soul dualism of Pythagoras, combine it with the new concept of pure abstraction, and infuse all this with the mathematical sense of divine order in nature. By weaving together these different strands of thought, he would create a radically new, comprehensive cosmology that would serve as the underpinning for more than two thousand years of theological, philosophical, and mathematical speculation in the Western world. (154)

The Conflict of Body and Soul

Plato’s metaphors reveal a strong, visceral distaste for the body. In one work, he describes how the part of the soul that attends to the body’s appetite is “tethered…like a beast untamed” to the area of the navel, which serves as the “manger for the body’s nourishment.” (155)

What Plato calls reason can be mapped onto what modern neuroscientists call cognitive control, which has been shown to be a crucial function of the PFC. (155)

| In a well-ordered person, Plato explains, desire obeys reason, just as, in a well-organized state, the lower orders obey the rulers. Virtuous people are those whose reason controls their desires, whereas those who don’t have self-control inevitably perform bad actions. Here, setting a course that Western thought would follow for millennia, Plato suggests a theory of human consciousness in terms of a conflict between the benevolent force of the reasoning faculty and the unruly force of physical desires. (155)

The philosopher’s primary occupation, Socrates goes on, is therefore to separate the soul from the body in order to arrive at pure knowledge. In the twenty-first-century language of cognitive neuroscience, it is as though truth is only available through separating the PFC-mediated conceptualizing faculty from all other parts of human cognition. (156)

…when the soul is freed to look by itself, it perceives true reality composed of “the pure, the eternal, the immortal, the unchanging.” The soul can then “cease its wanderings,” and, through its contact with eternal truth, it too becomes eternal. This, he avers, is the soul’s true nature, a condition called wisdom. (156)

| In describing this eternal truth perceived by the soul, Plato expands his dualistic philosophy beyond the soul-body to conceive a cosmos split into two different domains: an ideal world known only by the soul, and the changeable, material world experienced by the body. This form of thought is known in philosophy as substance dualism, positing a universe composed of two entirely different substances. (156)

[via: There’s a lot to unpack here. First is the question I have of the cognitive development necessary or foundational to humanity’s description of “forever,” or “eternity.” In Biblical terms, לעולם and αιων. Are our beliefs or theologies of “eternity” merely extensions of our cognitive framework of the soul transcending the body? Second, and related, it is the body/soul dichotomy that is the framework for the physical/metaphysical dichotomy as well, yes? Third, the term “cosmos” (κοσμος) splits into two, for if our personhood is made up of two, why not the entire universe?]

A Cascade of Dualism

The core of Plato’s worldview, known as the theory of Forms [ειδος] is that for everything existing in the material world, there exists an ideal form of that thing in another dimension, the immutable world of Ideas. (156)

Plato’s theory of Forms relies ultimately on generaliation. Identifying true reality requires ignoring the particular differences between things and focusing on what they have in common as a category. It is remarkable how precisely his theory of Forms maps onto an essential element of the human patterning instinct: the rule-making function of the PFC. (156)

In formulating his dualistic cosmos, Plato took this uniquely human capability and turned it into the basis for both understanding reality and imposing a value system on it. (157)

Thus,t he goal of philosophy, in purifying the soul from the body’s pollution, is not to learn new truths but to rediscover the Truth that was already known to the soul prior to its incarnation. (157)

Here, in Plato’s cosmology, is the beginning of the cascade of dualism that would structure the European tradition of thought about the nature of humanity and the universe all the way to the present. In this constellation of ideas that would become endemic throughout Western civilization, the human capacity for abstract thought is linked with the soul, which, in turn is linked with truth, and truth with immortality.

[via: So, ψυχη → αληθια → αιων.]

He goes on to link the world of Ideas with another theme he inherited from the Pythagoreans: the conception that mathematics provides the key to eternal truth. (157) … Geometry was so central to Plato’s cosmology that the entrance doors to his Academy were inscribed with the statement “Let no one unacquainted with geometry enter here.” (158)

The Deification of Reason

Plato imagined his creator god as a benevolent mathematician… (158)

It’s not just that the universe is constructed according to eternal principles of mathematical order; the harmonious and symmetrical construction of the cosmos is also the ultimate good. (158)

…it’s not surprising that knowledge of the Good—the abstract Idea of goodness—is described by Plato as “the greatest thing we have to learn.” It is man’s reason that connects him to the Good. … This is the beginning of the deification of reason that would become a central theme in European thought. (158)

[via: “Good” = “God”.]

The domination of reason is what makes a man divine, is what permits him to achieve immortality. (159)

If, then, Reason is divine in comparison with man, the life of Reason is divine in comparison with human life. —Aristotle

For the stoics, explains scholar E. R. Dodds, the exercise of reason was necessary for moral perfection, and any “passions” felt by a man were merely “errors of judgment.” For the founder of the Stoic movement, Zeno, “man’s intellect was not merely akin to God, it was God, a portion of the divine substance in its pure or active state.” (159)

| In just a few generations, the philosophers of ancient Greece revolutionized human thought. The senses and emotions were no longer to be trusted. Reason and abstraction would henceforth be the source of what was good in the human experience. Only through the power of the intellect could a person connect to the divine. In the words of classicist F. M. Cornford, “the intellect had become a deity.” (159)

[via: This all made me wonder, if even the concept of “God” as θεος is a Hellenistic way of thinking of connoting what is “good” distinct from the Hebraic/Canaanite descriptor of אל or אלהים as “power/s” or “force/s.” The following image is a version of what I annotated after reading this section:]

Chapter 8. Dualism and Divinity in Ancient India

Alexander was so intrigued by these “gymnosophists”—Greek for “naked philosophers”—that he tried to persuade one of them, Dandamos, to join his company. … (161)

I have just as much of the earth as you and every other person; even if you gain all rivers, you cannot drink more than I. Therefore, I have no fears, acquire no wounds and destroy no cities. I have just as much earth and water as you; altogether I possess everything. Learn this wisdom from me: wish for nothing and everything is yours.

This story, and countless others like it, became fodder for what has since emerged as one of the great cultural clichés of history; the mysterious and exotic Orient as a source of spiritual wisdom. (161)

The Harappan Synthesis

A common theme to both cosmologies was the sense of an impersonal, transcendent force that ruled the universe. While the Greeks called it ananke, it is referred to as ṛta in the Rig Veda. … Plato, like the ancient Egyptians, had struggled with the cosmic riddle of how the One and the Many can coexist, arriving at a very different resolution than the Egyptians’ transcendent pantheism. (162)

…another theme central to Vedic thought may plausibly be ascribed to Harappan sources: the shift of religious focus from external rituals to a person’s internal experience. (164)

Gradually, a notion arose of what became known as the Five Great Sacrifices: offerings to the gods, to the ancestors, to animals, and to other people, and the offering of one’s own study of sacred truths. (164)

What people call ‘the sacrifice’ is really the disciplined life of a seeker of sacred knowledge. —early Upanishad

It could be pure coincidence that this shift in Vedic religious orientation just happened to occur in the remains of a civilization unique for its lack of monumental architecture, but a simpler explanation might be that the interior focus of Harappan culture was influential in this change. (165)

Atman Equals Brahman

At some point, these sages made the extraordinary breakthrough of conceiving that what they felt inside wasn’t merely like the eternal nature of Brahman—it really was brahman. In one of the most radical and powerful ideas in the history of human thought, they established an identity between their core inner experience of consciousness and the universal nature of reality. The word fo self in their language, Sanskrit, was atman, so they came up with a simple and profound equation: atman equals Brahman. (165)

tat tvam asi, … “That art thou.” (165)

…the Upanishads,…literally means “sitting down near.” (166)

There are a couple of hundred Upanishads in total, spanning several centuries, and virtually all of them draw from the same basic synthesis of the ideas of reincarnation, Yoga, and the atman/Brahman identity. A basic summary of this comprehensive view of the cosmos might go as follows: There is an eternal, unchanging reality beyond the world of change. Our souls are continually born and reborn into the world of change as creatures and humans as part of an endless cycle of reincarnation. We humans, by following the discipline of Yoga, are able to realize the unchanging, eternal reality within ourselves. Through this realization, we can become one with the infinite and, by doing so, experience liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. (166)

The Gateway to the Infinite

While Anaxagoras explored the notion of a god composed of pure mind, “infinite and self-ruled,” that controlled the universe, Brahman was conceived in India as “the all-seeing, the all-powerful, the Lord, the maker and creator.” (167)

| Perhaps the most striking similarity between Greek and Indian thought is that they both saw an eternal essence within the individual as the gateway to the infinite reality of the universe. (167)

The body is mortal, but he who dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. …

You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies.

As a man abandons worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.

—The Bhagavad Gita

The Chariot and the Horse

maya, a [UPanishadic concept] word frequently used…to describe the illusory world of changing form as a veil preventing a person from seeing the true, eternal world of Brahman. (168)

jnana, …shares the same root as the Greek word gnosis, with a virtually identical meaning. Here we see powerful evidence of the shared linguistic and conceptual sources of the Greek and Indian systems of thought. After more than a millennium of separation, both traditions still shared a vision of the liberating insight arising from renunciation of the senses. (169)

…Yoga Sutra … Matching Plato’s desire to avoid associating with the body, Patanjali writes that “from physical purity [arises] disgust for one’s own body and disinclination to come into physical contact with others.” (169)

Both Plato and the Katha Upanishad use the relationship between a horse and chariot to illuminate the mind-body duality. … [It is noteworthy that Zoroaster also used a horse and rider metaphor in describing the relationship between the reasoning soul and the body. The fact that all three PIE traditions used the same metaphor offers a fascinating insight, since the PIE culture is widely recognized as having been the first society to domesticate the horse and utilize horse-driven wagons for transport. In the early days of PIE culture, the pioneers of horse domestication must have wondered at their awesome achievement in harnessing the wild power of the horse. Is it possible that this seminal mastery achieved by the human mind over a wild force of nature was the seed for the dualistic mind-body split that became central to the later PIE-based thought traditions?] (169)

[via: And Zoroaster!]

Who have discrimination, with a still mind
And a pure heart, reach journey’s end,
Never again to fall into the jaws of death.
With a disceriminating intellect
As charioteer and a trained mind as rins,
They attain the supreme goal of life
To be united with the Lord of Love.


Both metaphors see an essential split in the human entity: one faculty driving and one being driven. Plato, however, sees another split between the two horses pulling in diametrically opposing directions, with the troubling job of managing this split left in the hands of the reasoning faculty. (170)

[via: Push/Pull vs. Opposing Forces.]

Peeling the Onion

What is left in consciousness when even the intellect is stilled? The Indian tradition offers a systematic approach to resolving this mystery: Yoga. (171)

When the Greeks tried to understand the mysteries of the universe, they relied entirely on their reasoning faculty. … The yogic system was founded on the core identity of atman and Brahman: within the self lies the entire universe. (171)

The first clue to its meaning lurks in the word itself, which comes from the root yuj, “to yoke.” … Yoga, then, can be understood as the process by which the (171) charioteer (the intellect) learns to use the reins (the trained mind) to control and direct the wild horses of the senses, thus bringing the whole enterprise successfully to journey’s end. (172)

The realization of oneness in breath, mind, and the senses seems a long way from the Platonic notion of the separation of mind and body. In fact, an influential school of classical Indian thought is known as advaita, which literally means “not two” and is frequently translated as “nondualism.” (172)

Its core teaching is based on the foundational idea that atman (172) equals Brahman, that the world of maya is illusory, and that although things seem separate from each other, if you keep peeling the onion and look to the inner reality, you will see that everything is ultimately part of Brahman. Rather than resolving the mind-body split, advaita teaches that relinquishing the body and all other conditions of existence is necessary to realize the true identity of atman and Brahman. (173)

| This peeling of the onion can be seen in the meditative technique known as neti-neti, which means literally “not this, not this,” and is applied to thoughts, feelings, and ideas as they arise. (173)

The teaching of advaita is clear: the ultimate realization that atman is Brahman, that the inner self is identical with the absolute nature of the universe, can only be achieved by rejecting the world of the senses inhabited by the body. (173)

Gods Everywhere

When the Greek philosophers used their new tools of reason and logic to understand the world, one of the first casualties was the original pantheon of gods. Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and their cohorts became worthy subjects of literature but increasingly separated from any authentic search for meaning. In India, the opposite was true. The archaic gods of the indigenous common people became inextricably linked with the cosmological nexus of atman and Brahman. (175)

When the Greek philosophers identified reason, a uniquely human faculty, as the link to divinity, this meant that other living creatures, lacking reason, missed out on divinity. This dichotomy between humans and the rest of the natural world went on to become a central theme of Western thought. (175)

| In the Vedic tradition, by contrast, reason was merely a tool in the service of true divinity. This permitted the rest of the natural world also to partake in divinity, whether or not they possessed the faculty of reason, as summed up in the following Upanishadic verse:

He [Brahaman] has thousands of heads, thousands of eyes,
Thousands of feet; he surrounds the cosmos
On every side. This infinite being
Is ever present in the hearts of all.
He has become the cosmos.

It suggests, perhaps, that transcendent pantheism is one natural outcome of the human search for meaning, combining the shamanic sense that everything is connected with the patterning instinct’s drive to find a unifying cosmological system. (176)

In Greek dualism, only human possess the faculty of reason that enables them to achieve the lofty heights of divinity. For the Greeks, the ultimate Truth attained by reason is to be found above the world, separate from the world, in a dimension of eternal abstraction. In the Indian cosmos, dualism took a different form: the source of meaning is both above material things and hidden deep within them, and is glimpsed by piercing through both the reasoning faculty and the senses. (177)

Chapter 9. The Search for Harmony in Ancient China

The Tao didn’t exist in an abstract Idea of wood, as Plato was suggesting. It wasn’t concealed within the wood, as the Indians conceived atman. Instead, it quite simply was the wood. “You must not expect to find the Tao in any particular place,” Master Zhuang explained to his companion. “There is no thing that escapes its presence!” (180)

| Unlike the Greek and Vedic cosmologies, the Chinese model of the universe never posited a transcendent dimension of eternal meaning. Whereas the Greek and Vedic worldviews both sprang from a common PIE source, the Chinese approach grew organically from its shamanic roots. In the Chinese cosmos, there was no eternal soul; no pure, abstract mind creating and directing the universe. Instead, the Chinese found the most profound source of meaning within everyday, material dimension of life. (180)

The Interplay of Yin and Yang

…the Chinese conceived an alternative ground of existence, an all-pervasive energy force they called qi (pronounced “chee.”) Like other agrarian cultures, the Chinese used this one word to refer to breath, a creature’s life force, and the underlying energy animating the entire world. (180)

[via: cf. רוח]

Qi was both material and spiritual in nature. It could be perceived, and yet it was also the imperceptible living essence of a person. …qi presented a cosmological framework in which there was only one kind of stuff—qi stuff—which was both spiritual and physical at the same time. (181)

| In the traditional Chinese creation myth, the universe was originally an unformed mass of qi that became differentiated. (181)

Living the gathering of qi. Death is the separation of qi. —Zhuangzi

Qi is never still, forming a universe of perpetual motion similar to the one Heraclitus postulated in ancient Greece. The ideas of Heraclitus, the “philosopher of flux,” never gained traction against the hard logic of Parmenides and Plato’s dualistic vision. In China, on the other hand, the notion of a universe in continual flux became the basis for each of the major thought traditions that would ensue. (181)

…qi, in all its forms, exhibits a never-ending interplay of polarities known as yin and yang. (181)

Yin and yang, however, are not antagonistic to each other, and one is not considered better than the other. The yin-yang relationship is based, rather, on mutual harmony. (182)

Blending the Broth

In his seminal multivolume work Science and Civilisation in China, Needhman broke new ground by recognizing traditional Chinese thought as “organismic”: a cosmology based on the root metaphor of the world as one gigantic organism. (185)

Conceiving of the entire universe as a single organism has implications for how people choose to live their lives. In ancient Greece, where reason was deified, the primary objective of a philosopher was the cultivation of the intellect. In ancient India, the goal of Yoga was to shed the illusory layers of consciousness until a person could arrive at his own inner truth. In ancient China, where cosmic harmony was seen as the way of the universe, the ultimate intention of the sage was to learn from nature’s ways and live according to those same harmonious principles. (185)

It begins with the principle of sympathetic resonance connecting what the Chinese understood as the three central nodes of the universe: heavenearth, and humanity. If you are constantly being buffeted by waves of yin and yang from across the universe, it seems sensible to try to harmonize with those waves in a compatible way: to avoid being so brittle that a dissonant wave could cause you to shatter, and to resonate with concordant waves in ways that could lead to health and happiness. (185)

There was no sense in trying to conquer nature; rather, humans should harmonize with it. (185)

| The pursuit of harmony applied equally to social relations. (185)

“Not by Decree, but by Spontaneity”

The Tao Te Ching begins with a warning. “The Tao that can be spoken of,” it declares, “is not the Everlasting Tao. The name that can be named is not the everlasting name.” … The word tao literally means “way” or “path,”…(186)

…each living entity is seen by the Taoists like a cell within the body, following its own te to create the vast, interconnected web of life that constitutes the Tao. (188)

The Chinese were just as aware of death as the Greeks and Indians and longed for immortality as much as they did. However, their search for immortality was characteristically rooted in their embodied lives. …they looked for more practical ways to extend life indefinitely. As far gack as 1000 BCE, bronze inscriptions show that the most popular blessing people entreated their ancestors to bestow upon them was longevity. (18)

[via: Long noodles = long life.]

| By the time the Tao Te Ching was written, this focus on longevity had become, in some circles, an inordinate preoccupation, and one branch of Taoism developed all kinds of bizarre approaches to this end. (188)

Wu-Wei: Effortless Action

yu-wei or purposive action. One classical text explains that if you tried using a fire to dry up a well, or forced water uphill to irrigate a mountainside, that would be acting contrary to nature and thus would be yu-wei: acting with a definite purpose in mind. When we act in harmony with the way things naturally are, when we “go with the flow,” we attain wu-wei. (189)

The ancient Taoists, of course, had no idea about the PFC and its function in the human brain. If they had, they might have seen it as the ultimate source of disharmony. The Tao Te Ching views civilization as a decline from the original state of nature when humans lived in harmony with the Tao. And it identifies (189) the analytical part of the mind—the same part that’s responsible for building civilization—as the culprit for the loss of the Tao. “Eliminate learning,” it declares, “so as to have no worries.” It points out how the mind’s discriminating faculty creates distinctions of good and bad, of beauty and ugliness—dualities arising from conceptualizations that only the human brain, with its patterning instinct, is capable of making:

When all under heaven know beauty as beauty,
There is then ugliness;
WHen all know the good [as] good
There is then the not good

…the Tao Te Ching recognizes language as a fundamental step in the loss of human connection with the Tao:

At the beginning of institution names come to be.
Once there are names,
One must know when to stop.
One who knows when to stop does not become exhausted.

This, according to the Tao Te Ching, is why the purposive action catalyzed by our patterning instinct—yu-wei—is the ultimate source of disharmony and failure:

Once who desires to take the world and act [wei] upon it,
I see that it cannot be done.
The world is a spirit vessel,
Which cannot be acted upon.
One who acts on it fails,
One who holds on to it loses…

For the Greeks, reason itself was divine, and the human ability to create abstractions was the pathway to divinity. For the Indians, the “discriminating intellect” was the charioteer driving atman to enlightenment, har-(190)nessing the wild horses of the senses. For the Taoists, the discriminating, reasoning faculty was the source of yu-wei, the rise of civilization, and the loss of the harmony available to humans through effortless action. (191)

Power and Repsonsibility

The Confucian framework of culture and society is embedded within the ancient belief in the emperor’s crucial role of mediating the relationship between heaven and earth. Because of the dynamic resonance between heaven and earth, if something were out of harmony in one domain, this was believed to cause disharmony in the other. The emperor was viewed as the fulcrum within this setup, and, as such, his role was essential in maintaining balance between the two domains. (191)

Thus began the so-called Mandate of Heaven, a doctrine declaring that as long as the emperor ruled his people responsibly, the ancestral spirits in heaven would endorse him and maintain his position. (192)

…the Chinese words for “to care for” and “to govern” are the same. In the traditional Chinese cosmos, the rights and responsibilities of power are inextricably linked that they are in fact one and the same thing. (192)

| Nowhere is this fusion of rights and responsibilities more apparent than in the traditional Chinese family. … Most families, for example, give specific names to each generation, so that every brother, sister, and cousin has one name in common, with the result that, simply by hearing someone’s name, people know where they fit in the generational hierarchy. (193)

| This sense of knowing exactly where you stand within a complex network of relationships, rights, and obligations pervades the Confucian cultural framework. A person’s identity arises from his or her particular cluster of connections within the network: being a son or daughter, a parent, a student or teacher, an official or an employee. An individual’s moral responsibility is to reconcile and balance these relationships for the well-being of the entire nexus. (193)

Enlarging the Tao

While the Taoist practice of wu-wei encouraged a person to shed the accoutrements of civilization and become like the uncarved piece of wood, for Confucius, there were elements of civilization that enabled humanity to “enlarge the Tao,” essentially improving on nature. The specific tools for enlarging the Tao were available in the form of ritual observances, known as li, which were seen as a kind of cosmic resonance, a sacred acting out by humans of the overarching principle of the universe. (194)

The notion of truly authentic behavior, known as cheng, was the Confucian alternative to wu-wei as the best practice for those who aspired to harmonize with the Tao. (194)

Ren is associated with a range of virtues such as filial piety, courage, and loyalty, but its scope expands to cover what we might call love. (195)

The Path or the Road?

The Chinese search for meaning, in all its variations, was based on an entirely different foundation than the Vedic and Greek traditions, which was the source of meaning as transcendent, separate from the physical realities of human experience. Far from being mere theoretical distinctions, these differences have influenced the structures of thought of every generation since ancient times and continue to elicit profound differences in how Westerners and East Asians think to this day. (196)

Chapter 10. The Cultural Shaping of Our Minds

Does Language Shape Our Minds?

In the far north of Queensland, Australia, live a few hundred Aboriginals who speak a language called Guugu Yimithirr. Theirs is the language that gave us the word “kangaroo,” but they have another claim to fame. Instead of using words such as “right,” “left,” “in front,” or “behind,” they use the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west. … Just as people with perfect pitch can tell you exactly what note they hear without knowing why, the Guugu Yimithirr automatically know their cardinal directions every moment of their lives. (197)

Researchers point to the Guugu Yimithirr as prima facie evidence supporting the argument that the language you speak affects how your cognition develops. (197)

The reason it’s important to investigate the root metaphors of ancient cultures such as Greece, India, and China is that they have framed the patterns of thought each of us inherits as we grow up, thus affecting how we construct meaning in our lives. If we each determined our own ways of thinking independently of our language and culture, we wouldn’t need to delve into the past to understand our patterns of cognition. (198)

Benjamin Whorft…a student of anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir whose detailed study of Native American languages had caused him to propose that a language’s grammatical structure corresponds to patterns of thought in its culture. “We see and hear otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” (198)

…the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,… The grammar of our language, he clai med, affects how we pattern meaning into the natural world. “We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do,” [Whorf] wrote, “largely because, through our mother tongue, we are parties to an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented in exactly that way for all to see.” (198)

In time, attacking Sapir-Whorf became a favorite path to academic tenure, until the entire theory became discredited. (199)

| In place of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis arose what is known as the nativist view, which argues that the grammar of language is innate to humankind. (199)

Frustration … or Stenahoria?

Psychologist Peter Gordon saw an opportunity to test the most extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with the Pirahã. If language predetermined patterns of thought, then the Pirahã should be unable to count, in spite of the fact that they show rich intelligence in other forms of their daily life. …as soon as the Pirahã had to deal with a set of objects beyond three, their counting performance disintegrated. His study, he concludes, “represents a rare and perhaps unique cast for strong linguistic determinism.” (200)

One set of researchers illustrated how language affects perception. They used the fact that the Greek language has two color terms—ghalazio and ble—that distinguish light and dark blue. They tested the speed with which Greek speakers and English speakers could distinguish between these two different colors, even when they weren’t being asked to name them, and discovered the Greeks were significantly faster. (200)

| Another study demonstrates how language helps structure memory. (200)

One intriguing study shows English and Spanish speakers remembering accidental events differently. (200)

Language can also have a significant effect in channeling emotions. (201)

Building Blocks and Barriers

The stream of evidence demonstrating how language affects thought has been described by one linguist as a “neo-Whorfian renaissance.” (201)

Many researchers nowadays make a distinction between a “strong” and “weak” form of Whorfianism. The strong form claims that your language determines how your brain is wired and what it’s able to conceptualize. … The weak form is less dramatic but perhaps more interesting. It states that the language we speak from birth establishes patterns of cognition that encourage us to think about the world in different ways from someone speaking another language. Put simply: language has a patterning effect on cognition. (201)

As discussed earlier, neuroscientists have discovered that learning takes place through synaptic pruning, whereby frequently used (201) neural connections in the brain continually get strengthened, while those that are not used eventually die away. (202)

Langauge, in effect, leverages the work of our patterning instinct, freeing it up to be used for other requirements. When a new concept such as bachelor needs to be learned, the PFC must merge different concepts together in working memory to create a new, higher-level concept. Once a word has become (202) attached to this new concept, it becomes embedded and is henceforth stored in the brain for effortless access, freeing up the PFC’s working memory for new activities. This is likely the way in which language influences a person’s pattern of thoughts. (203)

Through this process, languages can act as both building blocks and barriers of the mind at the same time. Once we’ve assigned a word to a particular set of ideas, it’s easier for us to use that word than construct a new assemblage of thoughts unconnected to any word. The more complex and abstract the set of ideas attached to the word, the more difficult it is to come up with a competing set of ideas not associated with any word. The reason why the broadest, most intangible words of a language—qi or Tao, atman or soul—are often the most difficult to translate is that they are the result of so many different levels of conceptual building blocks, each of which has been assembled from a unique set of more basic concepts combined over generations by the speakers of that particular language. [Bloom, LInguistic Shaping of Thought, 59-60, 86. See also Alistair C. Crombie, “Designed in the Mind: Western Visions of Science, Nature and Humankind,” History of Science 26 (1988): 1-12. Crombie notes how science itself may be viewed as a certain type of language, working through the same process of merging concepts into a more abstract concept and then giving it a name, thus creating a new building block for further conceptualizations.] (203)

Creating Our Reality

Does our language, then, shape the core concepts of our culture? Or could it work the other way, that our culture identifies what is important and then requires a word to label it? As linguists of the neo-Whorfian renaissance explore this question, they are finding a dynamic interdependency between language and culture. Just as the PFC and language coevolved (discussed in chapter 2), so a similar process can be traced between culture and language. (203)

| Before language, early humans shared with other animals a universal set of tangible experiences: touch, sensation, up and down, warm and cold, near and far. They also shared with each other specifically human capacities: perceiving the intentions of others, imitating them, using categorization and analogy to find meaning in things. If we view language as a construction of symbolic building blocks, then these universally shared experiences are its foundation. As language became more sophisticated and crossed the metaphoric threshold, different cultures began to develop their own unique concepts from that shared foundation, thus creating new levels of culture-specific meaning. (203)

| The further cultures diverged from each other, the more their languages began to differ, creating unique constructions from what was originally a shared foundation of human experience. These culture-specific constructions may be (203) understood as cultural frames, generating words that have meaning only within the context of that frame and encouraging speakers to think in patterns that fit into the frame. (204)

[David Luna] reports that bicultural, more than monoculturals, would feel “like a different person” when they spoke different languages, and they accessed different mental frames depending on the cultural context, resulting in shifts in their sense of self. (204)

Metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us. … Metaphorical concepts…structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. —George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By

“Thinking, Therefore Being”

Classical Greek is notable for its clarity and controlled structure. …it contains various linguistic signposts whose sole function is to clarify the structure of a sentence. This permits long, complex sentences, with a prearranged, hierarchical organization. Like other Indo-European languages, it has the classic subject-verb-object structure. (205)

Chinese lacks these classical Greek elements. Without a subject-object-verb structure, a Chinese sentence can include or omit whatever the speaker chooses. … Philosopher Denis Noble has pointed out that Descartes’s foundational statement of Western philosophy—”I think, therefore I am”—would naturally have been expressed as “thinking, therefore being” in Chinese, leading potentially to a different conception of the self as a process, a verb, rather than a fixed object. (205)

| Chinese also lacks the definite article, which was invented by the Greeks and gave the linguistic framework for Plato to derive his theory of Forms. Instead of seeking an abstract idea such as “the Truth,” the Chinese language encouraged a more tangible search for “things that are true.” (205)

The split between word and tone reinforces the Western split between mind and body, reason and emotion. To a Chinese speaker, on the other hand, the very meaning of a word is embodied: there is no split between what is said and how a person says it. (206)

Where Western minds asked ‘what essentially it is?’, Chinese minds asked ‘how is it related in its beginnings, functions, and endings with everything else, and how ought we to react to it? —Joseph Needham

The Truth versus the Way

Greek society, with its relative lack of hierarchy, didn’t offer much in the way of political patronage, so intellectuals with ideas to communicate had to be entrepreneurial and find pupils ready to pay them for instruction. This led to a competitive intellectual climate, with each luminary trying to persuade others that he was the one worth following. In these debates, nothing was immune to scrutiny. … It wasn’t enough to offer something that was true; far better to show that you were in touch with the Truth. (208)

| The Chinese philosophers of the time, by contrast, were mostly advisers or ministers in the courts of feudal princes. Rather than appeal to logical argumentation, they could make a greater impression through citing historical examples. (208)

The Greeks were particularly concerned with finding underlying truths, or axioms, that could be used to derive universal laws, such as the famous Pythagorean theorem, which holds true anywhere in the known universe. The Chinese, on the other hand, looked for guiding principles that unified the different aspects of mathematics. (208)

With their focus on associations between things, the Chinese had an aversion to the formal use of logic, which works by stripping away the meaning of a statement until only its formal structure remains. (208)

Why I dislike holding to one point is that it injures the Tao. It takes up one point and disregards  hundred others. — Mencius

In place of logic, the Chinese used dialectical thought (208) to understand the universe, gaining insights through studying how everything related to everything else. This led them to develop certain core principles about the universe: reality is never fixed but constantly shifting, opposites complete each other to coexist in harmony, and nothing exists in isolation but rather is integrated within a complex web of interrelationships. (209)

| As a result of these principles, Chinese science achieved different insights than the Greeks, who focused more on objects isolated from their context. When Aristotle tried to explain why a stone would fall, he speculated that it had a property of “gravity.” The Chinese, by contrast, viewed everything as existing in a field of forces and achieved a deeper understanding of topics such as magnetism, acoustics, and gravity—recognizing, for example, that tides were caused by the influence of the moon, something that even Galileo could not explain. (209)

The Head and the Heart

The Chinese word xin, which literally means “heart,” is also translated as “mind.” (209)

[via: Same with the Hebrew לב (lev).]

Far from deifying reason, the Chinese identified it as a cause of human difficulties. … The Chinese thus viewed a healthy approach to the human condition as one that integrated reason with emotions and intuition, seeing the unlimited pursuit of knowledge as positively dangerous. (210)

In eating, it is best not to fill up;
In thinking, it is best not to overdo.
Limit these to the appropriate degree
And you will naturally reach it [vitality].

Inward Training, an early Taoist text

With their embodied conception of xin, the Chinese made no distinction between physical health and mental or spiritual health. (210)

With their belief that life’s meaning arose from its context, the defining characteristic of humanity for the Chinese was their existence within a social nexus. … As Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher, expounds: “Fire and water have energy but lack life. Grass and trees have life but o intelligence. Birds and beasts have intelligence but no morality. Man has energy, life, intelligence, and in addition morality. Therefore he is regarded as the most noble under heaven.” The noblest human activity was, therefore, finding the ethical way to live in harmony with others. As sinologist Donald Munro observes, while the early Greeks were ultimately “more concerned with knowing in order to understand,” their counterparts in China were “more concerned with knowing in order to behave properly toward other men.” (211)

How Weird Are We?

The Geography of Thought – Richard Nisbett (2003) | American children, focusing on categorizing rules, pointed to the chicken and cow, explaining that “both are animals.” Chinese children, emphasizing relationships, put the cow and the grass together, pointing out that “the cow eats the grass.” (212)

…Japanese people, for example, tend to be more comfortable in a context of self-criticism and need for improvement than one of high self-esteem. Researchers see the Japanese comfort with self-criticism arising from a sense of self defined by relation to the community: the self-critical tendencies reflect a commitment to fitting in as much as possible to the social unit. (212)

…we need to ask ourselves if there are certain patterns of thought that undergird the trajectory of today’s global society and whether alternative ways of thinking could lead to more sustainable pathways. (213)

Chapter 11. Pathways to Monotheism in Israel and Alexandria

In the second millennium BCE, communities from Egypt to Mesopotamia were frequently bothered by bands of habiru, or “outsiders,” described variously as mercenaries, thieves, or migrant laborers. (215)

[via: “עבר”?]

Yahweh, the Jealous God

There is general consensus that the early Hebrews, living humbly in their hillside settlements, worshipped local deities as other tribes around them did. One of these was named El Shadday, or simply El, and from this came another name for the people: Isral-El or Israel. Another deity, a warrior-god, was called Yahweh. (216)

| Early in the history of the Hebrews, the two gods El and Yahweh merged into one. We see traces of this in Exodus when Yahweh introduces himself to Moses, saying, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.” [Exodus 6:2-3] The new combined El/Yahweh demanded that other gods should be utterly ignored by the Israelites, who should worship only their own “God of gods.” (216)

cf. Isaiah 45:7

The Troubled History of the Hebrews

By the Rivers of Babylon

cf. Psalm 137

How could this desperately defeated group make sense of what had happened? Either they had to acknowledge their god had simply failed—that Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, was mightier than Yahweh; or they could conclude that their defeat had been the result of Yahweh’s will—that Yahweh had been angry with the Israelites and used the Babylonians as the instrument of his displeasure. (219)

Weeping by the rivers of Babylon, the exiled Israelites could take refuge in one thing: the omnipotence of their own god, Yahweh. (220)

cf. Isaiah 45:1f. & Cyrus (539 BCE)

In 458 BCE, the prophet Ezra called a public assembly at the gate of Jerusalem. (220)

An Unbridgeable Gulf

The traditional interpretation holds that the Old Testament achieved a dramatic breach with the past, one of the great conceptual breakthroughs of history. In the view of celebrated scholar Yehezkel Kauffman, it was “an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.” (221)

| In fact, when we examine elements in the Old Testament usually referred to as conceptual breakthroughs, we often find equivalent ideas expressed earlier in other Near East traditions. …direct precedents in Hammurabi’s Code of Laws from a thousand years earlier, and the supposedly new concepts of equity and freedom are expressed in Deuteronomy using loan words derived from Hammurabi’s proclamations. [The loan words are misharum (equity) and andurarum (freedom) in Isaiah 11:4-5.] (221)

Scholars have in fact identified sections of Second Isaiah praising the omnipotence of Yahweh that reveal direct borrowing from the Gathas, the sacred Zoroastrian text. (221)

Egyptian theology held a pantheistic worldview whereby the supreme god was not separate from his creation but was his creation. (222)

This is where the Hebrew conception of God departs from other religious traditions. For the first time, the source of all that is sacred is up in the heavens, unreachable for humanity except through the mercy and goodwill of God. The rest of the universe loses its divinity, becoming dead matter. This is the great dualistic divide accomplished by the Old Testament, detaching the source of meaning and value from material existence and placing it in a separate dimension. This dualistic conception applies equally to morality. The determination of whether something is good or bad comes not from one’s own experience but from whatever God has decided. (222)

[via: Lent’s analysis is not exactly correct. Just by merely reading the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) texts, one will get a sense that this world, creation, our behavior, how we relate to the natural world matters greatly and is the expression of our being made in the image and likeness of the divine. This description, immediately above, sounds more like a Hellenistic conception (later adopted by Christian thinkers), rather than a Hebraic one. Indeed, in just a few pages, Lent will more or less say exactly that.]

For centuries after Ezra read the Torah at the gate of Jerusalem, the Jewish nation remained a backwater in the oceans of history, swept up in the harsh vicissitudes of geopolitical power struggles and falling victim to the conquest of the Greeks, the Egyptian and Seleucid empires, and, finally, the Romans. Ironically, it was those very conquests that allowed the ideas of the Old Testament to infiltrate human thought in a way that would have been unimaginable to its authors back in the days of Josiah. (222)

Moses Speaking Greek

Ptolemy, intent on founding a new dynasty in Egypt, imported a hundred thousand Jewish prisoners from Israel as administrators to help manage his realm. (223)

cf. Philo, born in 20BCE

A pious Jew and committed Platonist, Philo saw the two traditions as transmitting the same truth.

Who is Plato, if not Moses speaking Greek? — Numenius

But if God existed only in an abstract dimension, how could he have created the world of tangible stuff? Philo, as the first thinker to attempt a serious synthesis of Platonic and Hebraic cosmologies, gave much attention to this question and ultimately came up with an answer that would resound through the millennia. … He called the instrument of God’s power Logos, the “Word” of God, conceiving it as a kind of architect organizing the tangible world according to God’s blueprint. (224)

Plotinus saw the material world as having no positive qualities whatsoever, the antithesis of all that is worthwhile. (225)

An Age of Anxiety

…during the middle of the third century, when Plotinus was teaching, the population of the entire classical world badly needed to alleviate their fears. The Roman Empire was in gradual and inexorable decline. In the last years of Plotinus’s life, signs of impending disaster were only too clear. The Goths and Alammani were assaulting the empire from the north, while the Sassanid Empire caused humiliating defeats in the east. (225)

| This period has been characterized by a leading historian as “an age of anxiety.” In a world of increasing insecurity, it’s easy to understand how the Neoplatonic philosophy offering salvation in transcendence might have been appealing, but the pathway to reach salvation would have seemed too inaccessible. The traditional gods such as Jupiter, Pluto, and Apollo were still worshipped, but fewer and fewer people actually believed the myths surrounding them. A spiritual vacuum had arisen between these two classical cosmologies that badly needed filling. (225)

…a new religion that combined the emotional drama of the Old Testament with a Platonic-inspired vision of heavenly bliss available to anyone, with or without a classical education. This religion, Christianity, provided humanity with the world’s first truly systematic dualistic cosmology, complete with a path to salvation for all. (226)

Chapter 12. Sinful Nature: The Dualistic Cosmos of Christianity

εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος προς τον θεον

John was most likely a member of an early, marginal Christian community that had broken from the Jewish faith and was now antagonistic to it. (227)

[via: “Antagnoism” may be overstating the case, especially given that John, just like all early “Christians” were themselves Jews, who continued to participate in Jewish cultic practices.]

This idea of God manifested in the flesh, the Incarnation, would become a central tenet of Christian faith but is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. (227)

[via: Matthew uses “אמנואל” from Isaiah. See also Colossians 1.]

For much of the discussion of Christianity, Lent cites Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind regularly, which may be what is leading Lent astray. See Mary Beard’s Independent article: “The real problem is in Freeman’s stark opposition between the classical and Christian worlds. The truth is that we are only able to read most of the scientific triumphs of pagan antiquity because the hard-working monks of Christian monasteries chose to copy and study them. Thomas Aquinas may have ‘re-discovered’ his Aristotle through Arab translations. But, by and large, we have Freeman’s ‘irrational’ Christians to thank for preserving classical ‘rationality’ – and, for that matter, irrationality.” See David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science: “Finally, to demonstrate that such views are alive and well, I quote Charles Freeman in his Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (2003): By the fifth century of the Christian era, he argues, ‘not only has rational thought been suppressed, but there has been a substitution for it of “mystery, magic, and authority”. It is little wonder, given this kind of scholarly backing, that the ignorance and degradation of the Middle Ages has become an article of faith among the general public, achieving the status of invulnerability merely by virtue of endless repetition.” See Ronald L. Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion: “The misleading accounts of Hypatia’s death and Freeman’s Closing of the Western Mind, quoted above, are attempts to keep alive an old myth: the portrayal of early Christianity as a haven of anti-intellectualism, a fountainhead of antiscientific sentiment, and one of the primary agents responsible for Europe’s descent into what are popularly referred to as the ‘dark ages.’ Supporting evidence is available, if not plentiful.” See Glen Bowersock, “The Classics, Christianity and the Closing Mind”: “To assert, as he does in his Introduction, that Christian orthodoxy stifled independent reasoning would imply that Socrates had not been tried for impiety in the golden age of Athens or that books had not been burned in the reign of Augustus. It is certainly unfair to late Neoplatonism.”]

The arcane world of Platonic Ideas, previously only available to the elite, was now open to anyone willing to believe in the power of Christ to redeem them. (228)

The “Living Death” of the Body

…Clement of Alexandria, claimed that God had given philosophy to the Greeks as a “preparation which paved the way towards perfection in Christ.” He suggested classical Greek philosophy was the “handmaiden” of Christian theology, making it acceptable for Christians to take what was useful in classical thought and discard the rest. (228)

The Anguish of Paul

Paul’s series of clashes with others seems to have been a reflection of even more severe struggles within himself, conflicts that have since become intrinsic to the very structure of Christian theology. Already steeped in the dualistic creeds of his time, Paul seems to have taken the divisions inherent in their thinking as the basis for his new Christian cosmology. (229)

O how often, when I was living in the desert, in the lonely waste, scorched by the burning sun … how often did I fancy myself surrounded by the pleasures of Rome … by bands of dancing girls. My face was pale with fasting; but though my limbs were cold as ice, my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me while my flesh was as good as dead. — Saint Jerome

Paul’s agonizing battle within himself would echo throughout the millennia, reprised over generations through the inner torment of countless devout Christians. His personality, riddled with self-hatred, infused the theology that he would bequeath to posterity. (231)

Christianizing Platonism

Clement helped to construct the idea of a Christian god in the Platonic mold: a formless entity without attributes, beyond space and time. Following Plato, Clement revered the intellect, proposing that humans were made in the image of God through their capacity for rational thought. This separation of humanity from the rest of the world due to the reasoning faculty would become a central part of the Western dualistic tradition. On one side of the dualistic chasm, human conceptual consciousness produces reason; on the other side remains animate consciousness, the instinctual drives that keep the soul bound up in the physical world. (231)

The human soul, Origen affirmed, originally created as pure intelligence, was constrained in the body, waiting to be restored to its original purity. … To know God completely, it was necessary to have as little as possible to do with the ways of the flesh. Origen took this view so seriously that he is said to have castrated himself in adolescence in order to more perfectly separate his soul from bodily desires. (231)

[via: cf. Matthew 19]

The Manicheans saw the material world as uncompromising evil in an endless struggle against the forces of Good. The human body had been designed, they believed, by the forces of evil to imprison the soul. (232)

After his conversion, Augustine embraced the Platonic conception of Christianity developed by Clement and Origen, adding a new element in the form of original sin: it was because of Adam’s disobedience in eating from the tree of knowledge, he explained, that God had condemned the entire human race to damnation. (232)

Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves. — Augustine

Augustine did pay attention to himself, and, in so doing, he developed a conception of the human being that perseveres to this day. “Since it is almost (232) universally agreed that we are made up of soul and body,” he writes, “what we must ask now is what man really is: is he both these constituents, or is he body only or soul only?” (233)

Augustine could never escape the dualistic paradigm in which his ideas had evolved. … With echoes of his Manichean past, Augustine came to see the entire natural world as anathema to the purity of God. (233)

“A Strange Hybrid Monster”

The universal enforcement of Christian values on society caused this inner conflict to impinge, often with drastic effect, on the lives of virtually everyone. (233) Paul’s tormented hatred of sexuality energized a particularly vicious view of women, elevating the value of virginity. (234)

[via: Again, the rhetorical interpretation as “tormented hatred of sexuality” is not quite right. In addition, while Lent is taking a historical view, there is little theological considerations being explained as part of framework by which we can understand these various perspectives.]

The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. … You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. — Tertullian

The Christian aspiration for the soul’s eternal life led inevitably to a war against physical nature. Living your life in harmony with the intrinsic needs of the human organism meant condemning your soul to eternal damnation. (234)

“Cogito Ergo Sum”

Descartes in his twenties experienced a life-altering vision in which the Angel of Truth appeared and told him that mathematics was the key to unlocking the secrets of nature. (235)

| Descartes henceforward resolved to trust only his own intellect in pursuit of a true understanding of reality. This was a courageous path, and Descartes experienced severe existential suffering as a result. His doubts were so serious, he wrote, that “it feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top.” (235)

I am then in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind or intelligence or intellect or reason—words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now. — Descartes

The great irony of this seminal moment is that, while Descartes was attempting to question everything and base his philosophy on an unshakable foundation, he ended up building his ideas on the same dualistic underpinning set in place by Plato two thousand years earlier. The very assumption that he could believe only his reason and not his senses was derived ultimately from Plato’s Presocratic predecessors, such as Democritus, who had called the senses “bastards” and claimed that only reason was “legitimate.” … It never occurred to Descartes that the constructions of his mind and his sensory experience might both offer valid perspectives on reality. The sovereignty of reason was so deeply engraved in the Western tradition that even Descartes was unable to realize it as such. (236)

Descartes took two crucial steps in his work that would shape Western thought thereafter. The first of these was to identify himself exclusively with the soul rather than the body. … “This ‘me,’ that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from my body … and even if my body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.” Descartes identified himself not as a composite soul-body entity but only as the soul. (236)

| Descartes’s second crucial step was to unobtrusively substitute the traditional Christian notion of the soul with the more modern concept of the mind. …the dichotomy of soul and body was reborn into the modern age as a dichotomy of mind and body. “The substance,” he wrote, “in which thought immediately resides is called mind. I use the term ‘mind’ rather than soul since the word ‘soul’ is ambiguous and is often applied to something corporeal.” (236)

Our Cartesian Legacy

It is almost impossible to overstate the profound impact Descartes has had on modern cognition. Along with Plato and Augustine, Descartes was a prime architect of the structures of thought so pervasive in the modern world that they are frequently viewed as self-evident truths: that our thoughts constitute our essence and that the mind is separate from the body and is what makes us human. (237)

With nothing sacred about nature, it became available for the human intellect to use remorselessly for its own purposes. The scientific project, Just getting off the ground in the seventeenth century, would henceforth view every aspect of the material world as free game for inquiry, investigation, and exploitation. As the Scientific Revolution gained steam in Europe, a split emerged between religious and rationalist thinkers, but in neither case did the dualistic presumption ever get questioned. The one fundamental truth everyone could agree on was the sanctity of the mind/soul in contrast to the rest of nature. (237)

Chapter 13. The Scourage of Monotheistic Intolerance

cf. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV

In 1361 BCE,… He sent the high priest of Amun into the wilderness on a stone-quarrying expedition and named Aten as the head of the pantheon, building temples to the new supreme god at the sacred rite of Karnak. He changed his own name to Akhenaten: “the splendor of Aten.” (239)

…he insisted that Aten was quite literally the only god that existed. (239)

The monotheistic revolution of Akhenaten was not only the first but also the most radical and violent eruption of a counter-religion in the history of humankind. — Jan Assmann

But Akhenaten had initiated something that would survive long after him and continues to thrive in the present day: the religious intolerance that arises from monotheism. (239)

We will discover in this chapter that not only is religious intolerance tightly intertwined with monotheism, but, before the emergence of monotheism, it simply didn’t exist. (239)

A Cosmic United Nations

Prior to the emergence of monotheism, the idea of forcefully imposing your religious beliefs on another group was unheard-of. It was generally agreed that divinity existed in every aspect of nature, whether in a river, tree, animal, or territory. People worshipped their own deities, but they never contested the legitimacy of foreign gods. Rather, they felt it more prudent to cover their bases by respecting the gods of others. (240)

[via: Is this really true?]

The Holy War of the Old Testament

In the new monotheistic paradigm, a war of conquest for power shifts to a war of ideology—a holy war. (242)

It is a grim irony of history that the first exemplar of genocide carried out in the name of ideology came from the holy book of the Jewish faith, the very people that the Nazis tried to wipe out with their racist ideology. (243)

…the widespread reverence given to the Old Testament as a result of the spread of Christianity means that these invocations for merciless slaughter in the name of God remain available to be read and endorsed anywhere there is a Bible to be opened. (243)

“Whoever Does Not Believe Will Be Condemned”

Christianity ushered in a new form of monotheistic intolerance. The scope of the Old Testament’s dogmatism had been limited to the Jewish people. There was no concern about what other people believed or didn’t believe, except insofar as it might compromise the Israelite’s devotion to Yahweh. Now, after Paul universalized the Christian faith for all people, we see for the first time a systematic elimination of heterodox forms of belief and practice in any region where Christianity held sway. [Mark 16:15 NIV] (244)

[via: There are several problems here. First, Christianity’s diversity disproves the “systematic elimination of heterodox forms of belief and practice.” Even after the councils of the 4th century, various expressions of Christianity continued to flourish, including various dogmas. Second, there is a tinge of anti-Semitism in this idea as well regarding the “Old Testament’s dogmatism” being “limited to the Jewish people.” Third, throughout Christian history, there has been an assimilative impulse to meld various ideas with one another, including religious and pagan ideas. Indeed, the merging of Hellenistic thought with Christian expression would be, by any stretch of “Old Testament” ethics, “heterodox,” and yet, Lent’s entire thesis is predicated upon that very phenomenon.]

“The Wondrous Workings of Divine Vengeance”

The battle waged by the early Christians was not just against competing faiths but against the very notion of independent thought, which might undermine faith in the word of God. (245)

After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research. — Tertullian

Augustine referred to intellectual inquiry as “the disease of curiosity … to try and discovery the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” (245)

| Driven by this aversion to intellectual curiosity, the Christian establishment set about systematically destroying any writing that might call their new faith into question. In 529, the Christian emperor Justinian banned pagans from teaching higher education, nad, later that century, Pope Gregory the Great burned libraries holding classical writings. (245)

In the first few centuries of Christian hegemony, internecine wars between power blocs supporting different interpretations of the scriptures inflicted far more casualties than the Roman persecution of Christians. This set the stage for the monotheistic intolerance that has since become the norm for global history. In a typical example from the thirteenth century, a papal legate described with glee the slaughter of the Cathars, a heterodox Christian sect: “Nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to the sword regardless of age and sex. The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous.” (245)

[via: Lent cites two sources in support of this/these claims. Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against The Gods, and Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind already referenced above. To the left is Kirsch’s page 114, with no mention of this quote or the Cathars. Freeman cites a review of another book as his source, The Perfect Heresy: Life and Death of the Cathars by Stephen O’Shea, but gives no page number, and there doesn’t seem to be an original source for this quote. Overall, the general argument Lent is making is misleading, and an extremely narrow account of history. This is perhaps the weakest and most disappointing section of the book.]

The Religious Tolerance of India

Before the influx of monotheism and later forms of absolutism from the West, the cultural traditions of Asia had no experience of the kind of murderous religious intolerance documented here. While there was competition for patronage between faiths, the notion of heresy as something to be eliminated didn’t exist. (247)

cf. King Ashoka (Mauryan empire); Muhammad of Ghor (Muslim invader of Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindu faith); Akbar the Great (Mughal emperor); William Wilberforce

Harmonization of Religion in China

cf. Zongmi (ninth-century scholar trained in the Confucian classics); Tang dynasty (618-907);  Mateo Ricci (founder of the first Christian ministry in China in the late sixteenth century)

Chapter 14. Discovering the Principles of Nature in Song China

cf. King Canute; Shen Kuo; Sima Guang

Dharma and Tao

It was [Siddhartha] Gautama’s genius to discover a “middle way” between the asceticism of mainstream Vedic beliefs and the tangible world of the senses. (252)

…many Chinese felt a deep affinity with the Buddhist doctrine of dharma; a recognition of the indivisible integrity and harmony of the universe, in which all parts are interdependent. (253)

Neo-Confucian philosophers … In their attempts to promote Confucianism and refuge Buddhism and Taoism, they ended up creating a triumphant synthesis of all three traditions, weaving crucial elements of each into a philosophical fabric that was far more comprehensive than any alone could have been. (254)

Searching for the Principles of Reality

Major Neo-Confucian Philosophers

Philosopher Dates Key Contribution(s)
Zhou Dun-yi 1017-1073 Equated tai-ji (“Supreme Ultimate”) with wu-ji (“unlimited”). Wrote Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate.
Zhang Zai 1020-1077 Saw qi as the fundamental substance of the universe. First identified li in terms of “the one and the many.” Wrote the Western Inscription.
Cheng Hao 1032-1085 Believed in studying the heart/mind to understand li.
Cheng Yi 1033-1107 Recognized that li applied to everything in the universe. First described the fractal nature of the li.
Zhu Xi 1130-1200 Described the universe as comprised of both qi and li interacting with each.

Systematized the Neo-Confucian approach to the cosmos.

Wang Yang-Ming 1472-1529 Emphasized liang zhi (“intuitive knowledge”).

Believed in the “democratization of sagehood.”

The Organizing Principles of the Universe: Qi and Li

Zhu Xi described the universe as being fundamentally composed of both qi and liQi was the term for all the energy and matter in the entire universe, and li was the term for how that energy and matter was organized. (256)

Plato’s division of the cosmos into a tangible dimension and an abstract dimension of Ideas was used to neatly map the Neo-Confucian terminology accordingly; qi represented Matter, and li represented the Idea or Form. (257)

Consider an ocean wave breaking on the shore: we can think of the water itself as the qi, while the various forces organizing the water into its dynamic wave pattern are the li. (257)

The Modern Relevance of Li

When Needham recognized what the Neo-Confucians meant by the relationship between li and qi, he immediately saw its congruity with the modern scientific worldview. Several decades earlier, Einstein had transformed physics with his famous equation, E = mc2, which states that the energy of a body is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. Energy and matter were recognized as transmutable. The traditional Chinese notion of qi as an all-pervasive force of energy and matter could now be related to the findings of modern science. (258)

The findings of modern complexity science and systems biology have unearthed further correspondences with the Neo-Confucian concept of li and qi. Researchers from specialties as diverse as mathematics, climatology, and neuroscience have come to understand the natural world as a complex of different systems continually interacting with each other. … A Common feature of these systems is that they self-organize to create a cohesive whole that cannot be completely understood by reducing the system to its elemental parts. (258)

[via: “Emergent?”]

A characteristic feature of a self-organized system is that it remains stable even while the physical matter making up the system changes. (258) …consider a candle flame. As the flame burns, every molecule that originally comprises the flame vanishes into the atmosphere. Each moment, the molecules making up the flame are different, yet the flame remains an ongoing entity. … In Neo-Confucian terminology, we would say that the li of the flame remains stable even while the qi—the physical components—continually changes. (259)

A dynamic core [of consciousness] is … a process, not a thing or a place, and it is defined in terms of neural interactions, rather than in terms of specific neural location, connectivity, or activity. — Gerald M. Edelman, and Giulio Tononi, A Unvierse of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, 18-19, 144.

Prominent biologist Carl Woese touches on this implication when he describes organisms as “resilient patterns in a turbulent flow—patterns in an energy flow.” He adds, “It is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organization.” (259)

“The Pattern Which Connects”

What is the pattern which connects all the living creatures? … The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.

[Neo-Confucians] had a name for this process: ge wu, which is usually translated as “Investigation of Things.” (262)

The Investigation of Things

There is li in everything and one must investigate li to the utmost. — Cheng Yi

While this urge to investigate the world sounds similar to the intellectual curiosity that motivated the Scientific Revolution in Europe, it was crucially different in one respect. Whereas the Europeans were propelled by the desire to understand natural laws and thus take control of nature, the Neo-Confucian Investigation of Things was intended to discover the ethical principles naturally arising from an understanding of li. Theirs was an investigation into values rather than mechanics. (262)

| The question of the source of value in human experience is a central element of humanity’s search for meaning, and the Neo-Confucian contribution is of the utmost importance. In our modern global culture, the debate over the source of value tends to be channeled into two opinion sets: monotheistic and rationalistic. The monotheistic viewpoint proposes that, ultimately, values derive from a transcendent realm and are imposed on us by God. The rationalistic perspective generally looks to our evolved sense of morality as a source of values. The Neo-Confucian perspective, while consistent with the rationalistic view, goes further in attributing the ultimate source of value to humanity’s intrinsic connection with the natural world. (262)

[via: Part of the “monotheistic” theological framework, however, is exactly that “Neo-Confucian” idea, that as described in Genesis, the entirety of this universe was brought by divine fiat, by divine love, and humanity’s (ADAM’s) responsibility to guard and protect it is central to humanity’s identity. Yes, iterations of monotheism evolved through Hellenistic synthesis to idealize transcendence, however, the original story grounds us in a much more earthy foundation.]

Fractal geometry, pioneered by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, shows how nature forms intricate patterns that replicate themselves at different scales, each pattern nested inside another. (263)

Since Mandelbrot’s discovery, biologists have come to recognize that the design of life itself is fractal, with cells self0organizing to form organisms, which then self-organize into communities of organisms and ecosystems. In the human body, fractal designs have been discovered in systems as diverse as blood vessels, lungs, heart rate, the digestive system, and brain networks, so much so that fractal behavior in a system is coming to be seen as a sign of good health. (263)

The Tao in One’s Own Nature

The Neo-Confucians recognized a faculty in the heart-mind that they referred to as the regulator. (265)

…the Neo-Confucians saw their embodied feelings as integral to a healthy existence and recognized that regulating these feelings was the result of an intrinsic process within the heart-mind rather than a battle of the will. (265)

The heart-mind’s regulating faculty is analogous to the executive function of the PFC. …when the PFC regulates emotions in a healthy (265) way, it does so not by repressing or overriding emotional states but by integrating them into appropriate decisions and actions. Additionally, cognitive scientists increasingly recognize that cognition takes place not just in the brain but in the felt sensation of the entire body. (266)

Key Neo-Confucian Terms

Term Meaning
Cheng Integrity, authenticity, sincerity: the integrated cohesion of any natural living system.
Dao/Tao The tangible manifestation of the universe in the ever-changing interactions between li and qi that comprise the cosmos.
Ge wu “Investigation of things”: the embodied practice of understanding lie in the universe and within one’s own nature.
Li The principles of the universe that organize the qi in dynamic patterns of cohesion.
Liang zhi Innate or intuitive knowledge: the embodied capacity for moral discernment which does not depend on reflective thinking.
Qi The entire substance of the universe, comprising energy and matter in all its forms.
Ren The sense of love arising out of an embodied realization of one’s intrinsic connectedness with all other beings in the universe.
Xin The heart-mind: locus of feeling, intellect, intuition, and reason.

Based on this framework, the Neo-Confucians recognized that the spiritual goal of a human being was not to transcend their natural emotions but to harmonize their emotions with the Tao in their own nature and the world around them. When a person felt no stirrings of emotion, her psyche was said to be in equilibrium. When an emotion such as pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy arose, this shifted the equilibrium to a state of harmony, which was “the universal path which all should pursue.” Harmony, in this case, was understood to emerge when the emotions were expressed coherently, without contradiction. (266)

The Effortless Sage

Wang [Yang-ming] taught his students to become aware of their own embodied intelligence, which he called liang zhi, innate knowledge. (267)

I could follow what my heart-mind desired without transgressing what was right.

The Neo-Confucians referred to this approvingly as the essence of sagehood: to arrive at a state where you were naturally inclined to do what was right without even having to make an effort. (268)

[via: cf. Psalm 37:4, “Delight in the LORD…desires of your heart.”]

Intimately Placed between Heaven and Earth

ren. In classical Confucianism, the concept of ren was primarily social, referring to a humane benevolence incorporating virtues such as filial piety and loyalty. The Neo-Confucians took this traditional idea of benevolence toward one’s community and expanded it to incorporate the entire cosmos. (269)

The Neo-Confucian sense of ren can best be understood as an intentional experience of living in harmony with one’s own inner feelings and with one’s embedded existence in human society and the entire cosmos. Ren is not only about optimizing one’s own life for the greatest spiritual fulfillment but also about humans in society existing in the most harmonious terms with each other and within the natural world. (271)

Philosophical Implications

We live in a world dominated by two incompatible worldviews, both of which are the result of dualistic thinking. The monotheism of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism posits an intangible dimension of God from which derives the ultimate source of meaning. The worldview of scientific materialism sees reductionist science as the only valid way of understanding the universe and rejects an alternative spiritual dimension. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.” Many people, however, find themselves caught in the middle, rejecting dualism but sensing something greater than reductionist science allows, and they seek alternative explanations for meaning in their lives, which are frequently dismissed by science as incoherent. (271)

A Cosmology on the Losing Side

Part 4. Conquest of Nature

Chapter 15. “To Command the World”: Metaphors of Nature

cf. 1612 Pendle Hill trial.

In the year following Pendle Hill, King James appointed his trusted advisor Francis Bacon to attorney general. (277)

Let the human race recover that right over Nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.

The scientific method, Bacon declared, “may in very truth dissect nature” to discover “the secrets still locked in [her]bosom” so that she can then be “forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded.” (277)

| The images Bacon used to galvanize the spirit of scientific discovery helped (277) to create a new metaphor of humanity’s relationship with the natural world unlike any that had come before: CONQUERING NATURE. (278)

Metaphors matter. As we’ve seen, the root metaphors cultures use to make sense of the cosmos encourage patterns of thought that permeate daily life. They hide in plain sight within our cognition, becoming so entrenched in our thinking that we forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact, along with the logical entailments that arise from them. (278)

As we make our way through the twenty-first century, we are increasingly bombarded with news of climate change, deforestation, resource depletion, pollution, and other global crises arising from an imbalance in humanity’s relationship with the earth. If we are to correct this imbalance before it’s too late, we need to reevaluate and possibly replace the core metaphors we use in understanding the natural world. But we can only do so once we know what they are. (278)

Dominion over Nature

The metaphor of a DIVINE LAWGIVER, commanding the major features of the natural world as his subjects, can be traced back to early Mesopotamia. In a creation poem dating to about 2000 BCE, the sun god Marduk “prescribes the laws” for the star gods, maintaining them in their celestial path through “commands” and “decrees.” (279)

[via: cf. Isaiah 45:12]

| The biblical view of God as DIVINE LAWGIVER was most likely inspired by this Mesopotamian idea. In Second Isaiah—a key source of the Old Testament vision of monotheism—God portrays himself as nature’s commander in chief: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.” This powerful metaphor is frequently used elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as in Jeremiah, where God proclaims that he has “placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it.”

[via: cf. Jeremiah 5:22]

God sets up mathematical laws in nature as a king sets up laws in his kingdom. — Georgius Agricola

[via: cited, Genesis 1:26-28]

As man is made for the sake of God, namely, that he may serve him, so is the world made for the sake of man, that it may serve him. — Peter Lombard

…much of evolution looks as if it had been planned to result in man, and in other animals and plants to make the world a suitable place for him to dwell in. — Robert Broom

Recovering Dominion

Along with the DOMINION OVER NATURE God had granted humankind, a parallel metaphor viewed man as the STEWARD OF NATURE, with an implied duty of care. (281)

So the Creator made man all things, as a sort of driver and pilot, to drive and steer the things on earth, and charged him with the care of animals and plants, like a governor subordinate to the chief and great King. — Philo of Alexandria

…the end of man’s creation was that he should be the viceroy of the great God of heaven and earth in this inferior world. — Matthew Hale

The Christian conception of nature, therefore, was based on a belief that man’s authority over the natural world had once been absolute, but this condition was lost after the Fall. (281)

| Faced with this catastrophic loss of dominion, the idea arose that it was virtuous to reestablish man’s authority in any way possible. … “Let the human race recover that right over Nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” Bacon’s approach, of course, was to regain dominion through not saintliness but conquest of nature, which would be accomplished through reliance on another metaphor that has shaped our modern conception of the universe: NATURE AS MACHINE. (281)

Nature as Machine

Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? — Isaiah 40:12

Similarly, in Job, God describes how he “laid the foundations of the earth,” “determined the measures thereof,” and “stretched the line upon it.” [Job 38:4-6] (282)

| The view of nature as a property to be measured by a divine architect is consistent with the monotheistic presumption that the ultimate source of value in the universe lies not in the natural world but in God’s eternal sphere. This conception leads inexorably to the desacralization of nature: it is no longer sacred in its own right, as in earlier hunter-gatherer and agrarian cultures, but merely the constructed artifice of an external creator. (282)

After the invention and widespread use of the mechanical clock, the metaphor took hold of the public imagination. Nicholas Oresme in the fourteenth century was the first to conceive of the world as a vast clock;… (282)

My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork. — Johannes Kepler

It was Descartes who transformed the NATURE AS MACHINE metaphor into a pseudoscientific theory that nature actually is a machine, boldly declaring, “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Hobbes introduced his famous work Leviathan with a full-blown description of the body as a machine constructed by God: (282)

For seeing life is but a motion of limbs…why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life: For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the artificer?

Figure 15.1: Thirteenth-century illustration showing God as architect of the universe | “Science, and particularly geometry and astronomy/astrology, was linked directly to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th century manuscript is a symbol of God’s act of Creation. God has created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles, to seek these principles was therefore to seek and worship God.” (

An attractive feature of the NATURE AS MACHINE metaphor was that it placed the entire scientific project within a cosmos that maintained the glory of God. Machines don’t just spontaneously arise of their own accord; they have to be constructed by someone. And of course, it was God—or, in Hobbes’s words, “the artificer”—who had originally constructed the machinery of nature> God’s construction was so flawless that once he had set it going, there was nothing he needed to do other than let it run its course. (284)

| This was the perfect cosmological metaphor for the scientific investigation of the world within the Christian paradigm. On the one hand, each discovery only exalted the brilliance of the creator’s work. On the other hand, there was no place for supernatural phenomena such as angels or miracles to complicate the scientific investigation—there was only the intricate mechanism of the material world, whose secrets would yield to detailed investigation. (284)

The world is like a rare clock … where all things are so skillfully contrived that the engine once being set going … do not require the peculiar interposing of the artificer, or any intelligent agent employed by him. — Robert Boyle

This metaphor, however, was double-edged. It also contained the possibility of a purely mechanical universe without any particular purpose, with humans nothing more than mechanisms. (284)

“Truly to Command the World”

The core metaphors that framed the European relationship with nature had one thing in common: they all justified and celebrated the ever-increasing power humans were learning to wield over the natural world. (285)

…every plant is a weed and every mineral is just another rock. … Human possession and use is what activates the true nobility of any natural object. — Peter Drucker, Innovationa nd Entrepreneurship (1985), 30, cited in Deep Ecology, ed. Sessions, 12-13.

Nature is our ward, not our master. It is to be respected and even cultivated. But it is man’s world. And when man has to choose between his well-being and that of nature, nature will have to accommodate. … In whatever situation the principle is the same; protect the environment because it is man’s environment. — Charles Karuthammer

Nature as Giving Parent

The conviction that humans share the natural world equally with all other creatures is echoed around the globe, with its source in the original hunter-(287)gatherer metaphor of nature as GIVING PARENT. (288)

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair? —Smohalla, a Native American leader

Reverent Guests of Nature

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them. — Zhang Zai

With this familial view of the cosmos, the Chinese never experienced a drive to conquer nature. Instead, as they further elaborated their worldview, they formed a sophisticated vision of NATURE AS ORGANISM, with a particular focus on the dynamic and holistic relationship between each separate part of the organism and the whole. (289)

In contrast to the Western belief in fixed laws of nature handed down by a DIVINE LAWGIVER, the Chinese saw nature as a self-organized system in which all the parts fit harmoniously together. (289)

We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they do not swerve from their course. —Wangbi

In place of conquering nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” (290)

…in a famous painting by Li Cheng named “Buddhist Temple in the Hills after Rain” (figure 15.2), the temple in the center fits delicately into its environment, dwarfed by the towering mountains, seeming to belong there as naturally as the trees surrounding it. This contrasts strikingly with the predominant European artistic tradition, which tends to show humans as central to the composition while using the natural landscape as a backdrop, as in Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic masterpiece “Mona Lisa” (figure 15.3). (290)

Figure 15.2: “Buddhist Temple in the Hills After Rain” by Li Cheng

In the European tradition, on the other hand, the predominant metaphors of nature justified and even glorified ever-increasing technological power over the natural world. This led to a feedback loop in European civilization, in which the glorification of conquering nature focused attention on technologies to exploit it further, which, in turn, rewarded those who approached nature as something to be conquered. (292)

Chapter 16. Great Rats: The Story of Power and Exploitation

Why did Zheng, with his glorious armada, merely set up embassies, while Columbus’s three meager boats would change the destiny of the world in unimaginable ways? (293)

The Power Ratchet

Anything in the universe can be described in terms of energy. (294)

With the rise of agriculture, there arose a new form of energy to exploit: the energy of other human beings, now locked into static communities. (294)

For those now living in fixed agrarian communities,… The harder-working or luckier few accumulated livestock, goods, and land, while others found themselves dispossessed. Hierarchies arose along with concepts of property and wealth, permitting—for the select few—that older instinct for dominance to trump the more recent instinct for fairness. Inequali-(294)ties within a community gradually spread to become inequalities between communities, as one community would use force to conquer another and exploit its workers. Like so many other aspects of cultural evolution, this created ratchet effect, in which the success of one type of behavior further encouraged that behavior, leading to its intensification until it became the dominant form. Through this process, the more efficient energy use of agriculture led to population growth and technological superiority, until the agriculturalists finally took over all the useful land from their hunter-gatherer neighbors. With the help of hierarchies and property, the ancient instinct for dominance resurfaced as the main driver of human history. (295)

“The Earth Turned White”

The spread of agriculture affected the human experience so pervasively that it’s considered the most profound revolution in human history. (295)

…just twenty species of plant provide 90 percent of the vegetable food people eat. (295)

For the generations of farmers effecting these changes, this could all be seen as a sign of success: the ever-increasing efficiency by which humans were squeezing more energy out of the environment. Disturbingly, however, a mismatch began to emerge between the power of the human patterning instinct to exploit the environment and the ability of that environment to sustain itself. (295)

In no place, though, is the result of agricultural overexploitation seen more starkly than in what is ironically known as the Fertile Crescent—the land around the Tigris and Euphrates in present-day Iraq. This desolate landscape, now largely treeless, was the cradle of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, but the impressive achievements that led to the growth of civilization there also led to its downfall. The extensive irrigation that gave rise to Mesopotamia’s strong, centralized institutions caused continual waterlogging of the soil, which, after evaporation in the hot sun, left a residue of salt that gradually accumulated to make the land increasingly infertile. Over the centuries, crop yields fell (296) by two-thirds. Inscriptions from as early as 2000 BCE describe how “the earth turned white,” a clear reference to the impact of salinization. The grim history is told tolefully by the Mesopotamians themselves in a lamentation called The Curse of Akkad: (296)

For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine…
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.

—Michael Marshall, “Climate Change: The Great Civilisation Destroyer?”

“Great Rats, Keep Away from Our Wheat!”

The exploitation of natural resources through agriculture, pervasive as it was, pales in comparison to the increased exploitation of other humans. The hierarchical structuring of society that began with agriculture fundamentally changed the human experience like no other event in history. Wherever agriculture spread, the small communities of kin that characterized hunter-gatherer society coalesced into larger social structures known as chiefdoms. Usually, a chiefdom would consist of thousands of people living in multiple villages headed by local chiefs who gave their allegiance to the “big chief.” (297)

| These chiefdoms inevitably followed the power ratchet effect: a society’s increase in size and complexity led to greater military strength, which enabled it to conquer neighboring communities, further expanding its size and hierarchy. (297)

The hierarchical structuring of society extended to gender inequality. (297)

[via: On page 298, Lent mentions a document dating to around 2350 BCE recording the reforms of Urukagina, ruler of Lagash in which we find the first mention of the word “freedom” in human history. A discussion is found on page 79f., in The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, and a bit in this Wikipedia article. I could not find a more simply compiled transcript of the actual document, however.]

…pyramids were the construction of choice, conveying a symbolic connection between the society’s rulers and divine power. (299)

In China, slavery had little impact on the bulk of the population, with laws generally preventing free Chinese from being enslaved. However, in the Mediterranean and, most markedly, the Roman Empire, slavery took on a far bigger profile. When the Romans conquered other nations, they had no compunction about enslaving virtually the entire population. … The magnitude of the slave trade during the Roman Empire was staggering, with ten thousand slaves a day arriving through the single port of Delos. By the first century CE, there are estimated to have been two to three million slaves in Italy, making up about a third of the country’s population. (299)

The rise of Christianity did nothing to challenge the Roman approach to slavery. Wealthy Christians owned slaves themselves and were supported in this by their theologians. The New Testament book Ephesians exhorts, “Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in the world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty as you are obedient to Christ.” Augustine went further, suggesting that slavery is God’s punishment for evil, writing “The primary cause of slavery, then, is sin…and this can only be by a judgment of God.”(300)

[via: Lent here again quotes Charles Freeman, and ignores the letter of Philemon. I’m starting to get a sense that Lent just simply doesn’t like Christianity at all. His historical recounting of Christianity has been mostly, if not all pejorative.]

The QUestion of Zheng and Columbus

Beginning in the sixteenth century, a torrent of European conquest and domination was set loose, causing a degree of suffering around the globe of a magnitude that could never before have been imagined. … What was it about the European’s approach to power that caused them to unleash such a wave of devastation and transformation in virtually every place they discovered? (300)

cf. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

One answer is that the Europeans approached the world with fundamentally different values than the Chinese, one of which was their approach to power. As a result of the dualistic split in European cognition, the collective European mind-set was more predisposed to use knowledge as a means to gain power over the environment, including both the natural world and other human societies. In contrast, the collective Chinese mind-set was predisposed to use knowledge as a means of maintaining stability. (301)

The European Approach to Power

The European predilection for utilizing a technological innovation to gain power over adversaries is vividly demonstrated here, as cavalrymen began using stirrups to effectively weld themselves with their horse, applying the force of the animal to deliver a blow to the enemy with sword or lance. It was the stirrup that made the mounted knight, encased in his protective armor, the supreme warrior of medieval Europe, leading to the tradition of chivalry and feudalism that characterized Europe for a nearly a millennium. (302)

In Europe,…as soon as gunpowder was incorporated into the military, the effects were profound and immediate. The fortified castle, which had become the center of power of Europes’ feudal aristocracy, was suddenly vulnerable to the bombardment of cannons. (203)

The pattern that emerges from these two stories is the propensity of Europeans to use innovative technologies to change the rules of the game and thus gain a power advantage. This proclivity seems to arise from a deep structure in European cognition that identifies power as a value in itself, even if gaining such power causes massive disequilibrium. (302)

In China, by contrast, the predominant approach to power was to maintain society’s equilibrium in the context of heaven and earth, something the emperor was obligated to do through his “mandate of heaven.” (203)

Alexander and Ashoka

Alexander seems increasingly to have seen his progress in terms of a Grail-like quest for the supposedly unattainable. He sought the ‘ocean’, the ultimate limit of terrestrial empire. Through knowledge of this great ‘beyond’, he aspired to a kind of enlightenment which…would become a cliché of Western exploration. —John Keay, India: A History

cf. the Gordian knot.

When Europeans were exposed to new information, their sense of wonderment was…soon replaced by the thought of how to exploit the new knowledge. When they ‘discovered’ the world after 1450, their chief purpose was to acquire wealth. … The test was always: is it useful? Can it enrich me (or my king)? — Joel Mokyr

“With Fifty Men We Could Subjugate Them All”

Untrammeled Exploitation

In the New World, the Europeans found an opportunity for exploitation, the magnitude of which had never occurred in history nor ever would again. … The population of central Mexico was twenty million in 1500, four times greater than Britain. Within a century, there were fewer than one million people alive there. Similarly, the population of the Inca Empire collapsed from eleven million in 1500 to fewer than a million in 1600. It’s been estimated that, in the sixteenth century alone, close to one hundred million indigenous people died in the Americas through slaughter, starvation, or disease. (309)

The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world. — David Stannard

God and Power

The European conquerors used Christian theology as the basis of their rule book for the exploitation of the New World. (311)

cf. requerimiento; Father Domingo de Betanzos

It was beneficially ordered by Providence that the land should be delivered over to another race, who would rescue it from the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider. — W. H. Prescott

Sir Thomas More argued that it was justifiable to take land from “any people [who] holdeth a piece of ground void and vacant to no good or profitable use.” Before long, this idea was given the status of a legal doctrine, known as vacuum domicilium, which was used to legitimize European settlement of the New World. (312)

The growth of the Protestant ethic led to an even tighter linkage of morality and exploitation. … “if God shows you a way in which you may, in accord with His laws, acquire more profit than in another way, without wrong to your soul or to any other and if you refuse this, choosing the less profitable course, you then cross one of the purposes of your calling. You are refusing to be God’s steward, and to accept his gifts.” [Richard Baxter] (312)

Exploitation as Racial Destiny

One of Bacon’s most famous dicta is the phrase ipsa scientia potestas est—”knowledge itself is power.” (313)

By the end of the nineteenth century, Great Britain alone, with a population of forty-five million people, ruled over nearly five hundred million subjects in colonies around the globe. More than half the continent of Asia was governed by Europe, along with more than 90 percent of Africa and 99 percent of Polynesia. (313)

With science replacing Christianity as a framework for making sense of the world, leading European thinkers showed great dexterity in appropriating the new way of thinking as further justification for world domination. (314)

…the Caucasian race has given rise to the most civilized nations, to those which have generally held the rest in subjection. —George Leopold Cuvier

[Herbert Spencer’s] approach, known as social Darwinism, soon became the new philosophical foundation for theories of European superiority, giving imperialists what seemed like a moral duty based in biology to dominate the rest of the world. (314)

The following, for example, passed as acceptable scientific material in late-nineteenth-century Australia:

To the Aryan … apparently belong the destinies of the future. The races … who rest content in … placid sensuality and unprogressive decrepitude, can hardly hope to contend permanently in the great struggle for existence. … The survival of the fittest means that might—widely used—is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian. (315)

Has human power over nature really resulted in greater happiness? … While the Europeans took advantage of their power to conquer the rest of the world, their scientific achievements, inspired by the Baconian creed of CONQUERING NATURE, initiated a transformation of the human experience that has been accelerating ever since. (315)

Chapter 17. The Enigma of the Scientific Revolution

Experts have long recognized the magnitude of the Scientific Revolution that transformed Europe. Historian Alexander Koyré called it “the most profound revolution achieved or suffered by the human mind” since Greek antiquity. According to another, it “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity…[It is] the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality.” But the experts continue to debate the crucial question: why did this unique transformation of society happen in Europe rather than elsewhere in Eurasia? (318)

Perched on the Edge of a Revolution

cf. Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, established in Baghdad in 813; Abu al-Kindi; al-Khwarizmi

It is from the name of his work, Hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala, that we get the word algebra and from the latinized version of his name (Algorithmi), the word algorithm. (319)

The Arab achievement is so impressive that we must ask why the Arabs did not go ‘the last mile’ to the modern scientific revolution.” The Arabs, in [Toby] Huff’s view, “were perched on the foreward edge of one of the greatest intellectual revolutions ever made, but they declined to make the grand transition” to the modern scientific conception of the universe. What astopped them? (320)

The Blasphemy of Reason

Greek science and natural philosophy were known throughout Islam as the “foreign sciences,” in contrast to the “Islamic sciences,” such as the study of the Quran, which were considered to hold the highest place in Muslim life. (320)

Those who actively pursued the Greek classical tradition of knowledge were known as the faylasuf or “philosophers.” Another group, taking a more mystical approach to Islam, were (320) the Sufis. However, the two principal groups that emerged were the Ash’arites traditionalists who believed in the primacy of Islamic faith, and the Mu’tazilites, who believed in a rational explication of the Quran. (321)

When the passages in the Quran referred to “the face of God” or described God sitting on his throne, the Mu’tazilites argued that these descriptions should be interpreted metaphorically. … The Ash’arites, on the other hand, based their viewpoint on the fundamental presumption that the Quran was the direct word of God transmitted through Muhammad. …it literally was God. … The Ash’arite position was to take these statements literally, and if reason were unable to reconcile an inconsistency, it only showed the limitations of reason relative to faith. In the words of al-Ash’ari, the movement’s founder: “We confess that God is firmly seated on His throne. … We confess that God has two hands, without asking how. … We confess that God has two eyes, without asking how.” (321)

…in an assault that came primarily through a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Al-Ghazali argued that man had been created to seek only the kind of knowledge that brings him closer to God. Religious knowledge is thus highest in value, with all other forms of knowledge holding a subordinate position. (322)

May God protect us from useless knowledge. —al-Ghazali

Finally, there was another category within natural sciences that was worse than useless: whatever might lead to a contradiction of the tenets of the Islamic faith. (322)

How many have I seen who err from the truth because of this high opinion of the philosophers and without any other basis? —al-Ghazali

…he who studies or teaches philosophy will be abandoned by God’s favor, and Satan will overpower him. What field of learning could be more despicable than one that blinds those who cultivate it and darkens their hearts against the prophetic teaching of Muhammad? … It is the duty of the civil authorities to protect Muslims against the evil that such people can cause. Persons of this sort must be removed from the schools and punished for their cultivation of these fields.  —Ibn as-Salah

The word for innovation, bidaa, acquired the same kind of pejorative association as “heresy” in the West, especially the kind of bidaa that involved imitating the infidel. This aversion to innovation had profound social consequences. Within three decades of the publication of the first printed books in Europe in 1455, the most powerful Muslim ruler, the Turkish sultan, banned the publication and possession of any printed material. …it was only in the nineteenth century that the band was finally lifted in Muslim countries. (323)

The trust of Islamic cognition was aimed toward following the divine words of the Quran and submitting unquestioningly to faith whenever it might conflict with the findings of reason. It was focused in an opposite direction from the relentless querying of natural phenomena that was required for a revolution in scientific thought to occur. (323)

China at the Threshold

In 1620, Francis Bacon observed that three technologies had transformed the face of European civilization: printing, gunpowder, and the nautical compass. All three were, in fact, inventions of the Chinese and were already fully utilized by the time of the Song dynasty. (324)

cf. Qin Jiushao; Justin Yifu Lin

I have encountered no question more often than why modern science did not develop independently in China, and none on which more firmly based opinions have been formed on the basis of less critical attention to available evidence. … It is obvious to anyone who has studied a little history that to explain what did not happen is about as rigorous as fiction. What did happen was the emergence of early modern science in Europe. … Above all we usually assume that the Scientific Revolution is what everybody ought to have had. But it is not at all clear that scientific theory and practice of a characteristically modern kind were what other societies yearned for before they became, in recent times, an urgent matter of survival amidst violent change. —Nathan Sivin

Sivin’s insight illuminates how, ever since the West’s Scientific Revolution and consequent domination of the rest of the world, modern scientific thinking has become unreflectively accepted as the norm to which all other cultures (323) should have aspired. (326)

Indeed, it is like asking why a man setting out for New York fails to arrive in Chicago. He simply wasn’t headed there.

…the formation of an empire, covering a fifth of mankind and still, after several thousand years, surviving even the extreme pressures of the 20th century, is an event which like the Scientific Revolution has happened only once in history. —A. C. Graham

How, he asks, did China achieve such an unrivaled record of cultural stability? (326)

Once we relinquish the value-tinged perspective of asking about China’s “failure” to achieve a scientific revolution, this frees us to inquire more meaningfully about the implicit goals of the Chinese cultural paradigm. (326)

Machine Worries, Machine Hearts

The Mountains of China are still more valuable on account of the Mines of different Metals. The Chinese say they are full of Gold and Silver; but that the working of them hitherto has been hindered from some political views, perhaps, that the publick Tranquility might not be disturbed by the too great abundance of these Metals, which would make the People haughty and negligent of Agriculture. —Jean-Baptiste Du Halde

While the Europeans focused on maximizing what they could mine from the earth, the Chinese seem to have targeted a different objective: avoiding an imbalance that could disturb the “publick Tranquillity.” (327)

[China] had been self-regulating, like a living organism in slowly changing equilibrium — Joseph Needham

Needham calls for “the replacement of the false and meaningless concept of ‘stagnation‘ by the precise and applicable idea of slowly changing ‘homeostasis.’” (327)

The Taoist Zhuangzi classic offers a fascinating story on this topic. A scholar named Zigong, while traveling, notices an old man working in a garden digging trenches, repeatedly going over to a well and returning with a jug full of water. “There’s a machine,” Zigong tells the farmer, “which could irrigate a hundred plots like yours in a day. Would you, good sir, like to try one?” The farmer shows some initial interest, and Zigong explains to him how it works. Suddenly, the farmer’s face flushes, and he retorts: “I’ve heard that where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. With a machine heart in your breast, you’ve lost what was pure and simple; and the loss of the pure and simple leads to restlessness of the spirit. Where there is restlessness of the spirit, the Tao no longer dwells. It’s not that I don’t know about your machine—I would be ashamed to use it!” This colorful story highlights a deep-rooted mistrust o technology, driven not necessarily by a reactionary fear of change but by a worldview that values, above all else, harmonization with the Tao in all one’s activities. (328)

What, then, was the structure of Chinese cognition that maintained stability for millennia, causing them to develop in a different direction from a scientific revolution? For the Chinese, there was no distinct separation between humankind and nature. Humanity existed in a constantly changing universe comprising waves of qi forever alternating between yin and yang. Arising from this cosmological viewpoint, the ultimate objective was harmonization: the healthy integration of the individual with society and of humanity with the natural world.The intellect was used not to arrive at some abstract conception (329) of Truth but to learn the wisdom of harmonizing with the Tao. Seeking fixed laws of nature made no sense, since everything in the cosmos was in a state of dynamic flow. The very idea of using pure logic to arrive at a universal theory of something was an absurdity, since nothing existed in an isolated theoretical form without context. Finally, the use of technology was quite acceptable was a way of enhancing civilized life, but, with no conception of humanity’s separation from nature, the idea of “conquering nature” was unthinkable. (330)

Whereas the cognitive structure of Islamic civilization was organized around submission to God and gave primacy to faith, Chinese civilization was organized around social cohesion and gave primacy to harmonizing with the Tao. By virtue of their cognitive structures, neither civilization was headed in the direction of a scientific revolution, and it seems unlikely that such a cognitive upheaval would ever have occurred in either of them. However, neither of these great civilizations would be a match for the cataclysmic confrontation with the forces that were unleashed in Europe as it went through its scientific and industrial transformation. (330)

A Series of Accidents?

Some have emphasized geography, … Other historians focus on the fragmented nature of European society and the split between religious and secular authority:… … Others have noted that, even with Europes’ fragmentation, unifying elements such as the lingua franca of Latin helped advance intellectual understanding. (331)

| Various miscellaneous factors are invoked as well. Europe’s science, it’s been noted, was really a direct continuation of Greek science. Some claim that Europe’s system of self-governing institutions, with its guilds, towns, and universities, made the difference. A number of observers have emphasized the rise of capitalism as the driving force of European dominance; however, both Chinese and Islamic civilizations boasted equally sophisticated economic and financial systems. (331)

| Adding to this bewildering  array of theories are those who claim there were no underlying structural reasons whatsoever for the rise of Europe—that, in effect, Europe just got lucky. (331)

There was no inherent historical necessity that shifted the system to favor the West rather than East, nor was there any inherent historical necessity that would have prevented cultures in the eastern region from becoming the progenitors of a modern world system. —Janet Abu-Lughod

Scientific Cognition

Science, in the words of author Brian Appleyard, is “buried within us, it is concealed. In order to expose its workings we need to look beneath the fabric of contemporary life.It requires an effort of the imagination to see how we have been formed by the struggles of the last 400 years.” (332)

Historian Stephen Gaukroger notes that the rise of science was responsible for a “transformation of cognitive and intellectual values” that “has a strong claim to being the single most fundamental feature of the modern era. The West’s sense of itself, its relation to its past, and its sense of its future were all profoundly altered as cognitive values generally came to be shaped around scientific ones.” (332)

| A crucial aspect of this transformation was that it required people to think in an unprecedented way. Other systems of thought accepted personal intuition as a valid source of knowledge. A unique characteristic of scientific thought is its rejection of this belief, replacing it with the principle of objectivity: the idea that there are fixed truths about the universe that can be objectively validated. (332)

Over the past several centuries, there have been those who have trumpeted aspects of European culture as causative factors in Europe’s “success” versus the “failure” of other cultures in the world. That is not the intention here. Rather, the goal is to identify the nature of a peculiarly European mind-set that engendered the unprecedented phenomenon the world has experienced in the last few hundred years: one that produced devastating genocides and exploitation as well as the spectacular technological achievements that have transformed the lives of virtually everyone on the planet. According to this hypothesis, that mind-set is to be found in the dualistic structure of thought that originated in ancient Greece and later became synthesized into the systematic monotheism of Christianity. It is this underlying dualism that led eventually to the unique emergence in Europe of what we may call “scientific cognition.” (333)

Chapter 18. The Language of God: The Emergence of Scientific Cognition

A careful reading of history shows that, rather than the two being implacable foes, science, in fact, belongs to the same cognitive family as Christianity: conceived by the same ancestors, incubated in Christianity’s embrace for a millennium, and coming of age as a staunch proponent of its Christian heritage. (335)

| In contrast to the chasm that exists today between fundamentalists Christians and scientific atheists, this chapter reveals how the structures of thought that led to Christianity also laid the foundations for what would emerge as scientific cognition. (335)

Seeking the Perfection of the Universe

The Greeks, like the Hebrews, inherited from Babylon a belief that the cosmos followed a set of natural laws. Heraclitus, echoing the Old Testament, observed that the sun “will not transgress his measure,” otherwise the bailiffs of the goddess of justice, Diké, “will find him out.” The idea of natural laws permeated Greek thought to thoroughly that it infused their language: the Greek word astronomos, for example, comes from the root nomos, which means “law.” (336)

| The Greeks took seriously the entailments of the natural law metaphor. (336)

For Pythagoras and his followers, mathematics was the basis of all knowledge. (336)

And all the things that are known have a number—
For without this nothing could be thought of or known.

In the Greek vision, mathematics could take a person beyond mere scientific investigation and into the spiritual realm. There was, the Greeks believed, a geometric perfection to the universe that could be perceived by humans because of their ability to reason. The seat of reason, the human soul, was the vehicle that connected a human to this eternal harmony. (337)

As Christianity enveloped the ancient world, the eternal truths of the Platonic worldview fit nicely into a conception of a world created and overseen by an omnipotent God. (337)

cf. Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite

[via: “Dionysius, or Pseudo-Dionysius, as he has come to be known in the contemporary world, was a Christian Neoplatonist who wrote in the late fifth or early sixth century CE and who transposed in a thoroughly original way the whole of Pagan Neoplatonism from Plotinus to Proclus, but especially that of Proclus and the Platonic Academy in Athens, into a distinctively new Christian context.” —]

The scientific way of thinking showed glimmers of life but had not yet reached a level of maturity where it could progress independently. Like an egg—laid but not yet hatched—it needed an incubator where it could be protected while it grew to maturity. That incubator would turn out to be the Christian worldview that emerged under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. (337)

Spicing the Dish for the Multitudes

[via: I have a margin note in the book, after reading “‘The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.’ As Paul’s writings became more authoritative, they established battle lines between science and religion that remain in place to this day.” that says, “CHARLES FREEMAN AGAIN!!!” Admittedly, he also cites Richard Tarnas as well.]

cf. Tertullian; John Chrysostom; Philastrius of Brescia; Celsu; Origen

An important focus of the debate was the difference between reasoned conviction and blind faith or pistis. (338)

[via: While this was a debate for later, Christians, there is very little debate on the New Testament’s use of the word “pistis” to mean “trust” or “faithfulness” or “trustworthiness,” not “blind faith.”]

There were, then, two competing schools of thought in early Christianity regarding classical Greek philosophy. Paul’s approach was outright rejection of rational thought as anathema to Christian faith; Origen’s was to assimilate what was useful into Christian theology. (339)

[via: Again, Lent’s interpretation of early Christianity is dubious. “Outright rejection of rational thought” cannot be substantiated. A simply inquiry into Paul’s discussion with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers would yield that his engagement with rational thought was the basis of much of his argumentation and evangelistic work. Other citations of Paul’s appeal to “pistis,” does not evidence “outright rejection.”]

The Rising Tide of Reason

cf. Boethius

…Timaeus: the only work of Plato to have survived the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was translated into Latin in the third century. Of all Plato’s works, the Timaeus was the one most focused on descrbing a Pythagorean cosmos, with a creator designing the world on the basis of geometric harmony. It was especially valuable as a bridge between classical and Christian thought because, while expounding the mathematical vision of Pythagoras, it also described the creator in terms that seemed consistent with the Christian idea of God. (340)

Authority proceeds from true reason, but reason certainly does not proceed from authority. … True reason  … does not require to be confirmed by the assent of any authority. —John Scotus

Gradually, reliance on reason permeated mainstream Catholic theology. …”natural philosophy”… (341)

Anselm’s fellow monks, impressed by his rigorous use of logic, asked him to prove the existence of God logically without recourse to anything in the scriptures. Anselm obliged them with the first treatise offering what is known as the “ontological proof” of God’s existence, and, in doing so, he established a new role for reason in the Christian tradition: as a vehicle to buttress and even instill faith, rather than a mere “handmaiden” employed to analyze theological arguments. (341)

| By the twelfth century, the adoption of reason had reached such critical mass that the shift in European thought during this period has been called a conceptual revolution. (341)

cf. Nicole Oresme

After the Christians captured Toledo from the Muslims in 1085, a new breed of (341) European scholars made a pilgrimage to this center of Islamic learning, voraciously translating what they found. Within two centuries, virtually the entire corpus of Greek and Islamic science was made available to Europe in Latin. (342)

The Implicit Narrative of Christian Rationalism

What did this foundation of scientific cognition look like? It was a seamless fusion of the classical deification of reason with the belief in the omniscience of a Christian God. …what might be called “Christian rationalism.” These themes wove together Platonic notions of natural law, reason, logic, and truth into a Christian narrative that, although never stated explicitly as such, went something like this:

God created the Universe according to a fixed set of Natural Laws.

God gave Man Reason in his image; therefore, it is incumbent on Man to use it well.

God’s Natural Laws are based on Logic; therefore, Reason can be used to understand them.

By using Reason to understand God’s Natural Laws, Man can perceive the Truth.

By perceiving the Truth through Reason, Man can arrive at a glimpse of God’s Mind. (342)

The implicit narrative of Christian rationalism enabled them to build, brick by brick, idea by idea, the edifice that forms scientific cognition and was responsible for constructing our modern world. (343)

The “Eternal Law” of Reason

Peter Abelard,…Sic et Non (Yes and No) claiming that humanity’s duty to use the faculty of reason found its source from the New Testament. (343)

cf. Robert Grosseteste; Roger Bacon; Thomas Aquinas

There is a certain Eternal Law, to wit, Reason, existing in the mind of God, and governing the whole universe. —Aquinas

Through empirical knowledge of God’s eternal law as manifested in the natural world, he claimed, we humans may acquire our best glimpse of God himself. And that knowledge could only be gained through the use of Reason. (344)

Deciphering the Langauge of God

The Renaissance, which is conventionally viewed as a drastic break from the past, was, rather, a flowering of the growth in learning that had been accumulating over centuries. (344)

Figure 18.1: Kepler’s illustration of the geometric “Secret of the Universe.”

Here, in Kepler’s genius, was the beginning of a transformation in the common perception of the cosmos. What had previously been God’s laws of nature were now characterized as scientific laws. “Geometry,” he wrote, “existed before the Creation, is co-eternal with the mind of God, is God himself (what exists in God that is not God himself?); geometry provided God with a model for the Cration.” (346)

Galileo versus the Inquisition

Europe was in turmoil, and it had nothing to do with whether the earth revolved around the sun. After a millennium of undisputed religious authority, the Catholic Church had been rocked to its foundations by the forces of the Reformation, unleashed by Martin Luther in 1517. … By the early seventeenth century, Europe was in the middle of two hundred years of holy war, pitting Protestant against Catholic. (347)

The issue was rather one of due process and, above all, maintenance of the church’s authority in interpreting (347) scriptures. If the church had to change its official position about something as fundamental as the position of the earth in the heavens, the authorities needed to make sure it was well founded before taking such a drastic move. (348)

If there were a real proof that … the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me. —Cardinal Bellarmie

The problem was that Galileo had no proof to show Bellarmine. At that time, the Copernican system was no more than a hypothesis and contained many loose ends. Galileo tried to cover this up in a letter to Bellarmine, claiming he could offer “a host of proofs,” but it would be a waste of time because of the ignorance of those who opposed him. This bluff was characteristic of Galileo, who had an abrasive personality, delighting in publicly ridiculing those who disagreed with him. He was not above using this intellectual acumen as a smoke screen even when he was wrong. (348)

…what emerges from this story is that, instead of acting as the enemy of science, the church authorities were primarily concerned about receiving scientific proof of the new theory before shifting their official worldview. It was perhaps Galileo, rather than Bellarmine, who was guilty of subverting a rigorous and methodical pursuit of truth. (349)

From God’s Laws to Netwon’s Laws

With his [Isaac Newton’s] three mathematically derived “laws of motion,” he established the concept of “laws” as a foundation of scientific cognition. As mathematicians enthusiastically embraced Newton’s findings, it seemed self-evident that the theoretical foundation of Christian rationalism—that God had created the universe according to a fixed set of natural laws—was indisputably true. (350)

Knowing the Mind of God

One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its propositions are absolutely certain and indisputable. —Einstein

I imagine that whenever a mind perceives a mathematical idea, it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts. … When mathematicians communicate … each is directly in contact with the same externally existing Platonic world! All the information was there all the time. It was just a matter of putting things together and ‘seeing’ the answer. … In their greatest works, mathematicians are revealing eternal truths that have some kind of prior ethereal existence. —Roger Penrose

Prominent cosmologist Max Tegmark, asserts that “our universe is not just described by mathematics—it is mathematics. … We don’t invent mathematical structures—we discover them, and invent only the notation for describing them.”

Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God. —Stephen Hawking

Universal Truth or Universally True?

This sense of the universal truth of mathematics is partly driven by the fact (352) that math works so well… (353)

Let us imagine that intelligence had resided, not in mankind, but in some vast solitary and isolated jelly-fish, buried deep in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. It would have no experience of individual objects, only with the surrounding water. Motion, temperature and pressure would provide its basic sensory data. In such a pure continuum the discrete would not arise and there would be nothing to count. —Sir Michael Atiyah

At its heart, the crucial question is whether there is ultimately such a thing as the Truth, as opposed to cognitive constructions creating relationships between coordinates that are always true. (353)

Even within mathematics, laws once viewed as universally true are sometimes later found to describe a more constrained set of circumstances. For example, Euclid’s laws of geometry were considered universally true until the nineteenth century, when a series of breakthroughs led to the conceptualization of geometry in curved space following different laws, which became known as non-Euclidean geometry. Similarly, Newton’s laws were viewed as universally applicable until Einstein demonstrated they were not valid in certain circumstances. In neither case was Euclid or Newton proved wrong; rather, the scope of their laws, once thought to be universal, was constrained by new findings. (353)

[via: But, an objective reality still exists, yes? And we can come to this, (and other) conceptualizations and realizations based upon an objective evaluation of the world, yes?]

If, instead of being the gateway to “the mind of God,” mathematics is a specific language constructed by the human mind, there may be other constructions of meaning offering alternative truths that are no less valid. This raises the intriguing possibility that we have the ability to consciously select and integrate different structures of cognition as sources of meaning in our own lives. (354)

I see no reason to believe that anyone in the world in 1200 or 1500, given detailed specifications, would have wanted our kind of science. Some, no doubt, would have been fascinated by its exactitude and analytical power, but they were likely at the same time to be repelled by its insistence on quantity over quality and its lack of connection with human values. —Nathan Sivin

[via: Is this also at the heart of the “religion”/”science” debate, that this kind of science “lacks values?”]

Scientific cognition emerged within the dualistic paradigm of Western thought, and its pursuit of an abstract, disembodied version of the truth continues to reinforce the fissures within Western cognition. Sciences continue to be taught in terms of abstract principles divorced from the real world. (354)

The ideas that form the foundation of our worldview are … very simple indeed: The world is lawful, and the same basic laws hold everywhere. Everything is simple, neat, and expressible in terms of everyday mathematics…—except, of course, the world. —Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo Kadanoff, “Simple Lessons from Complexity,” Science 284, no. 2 (April 1999): 87-89.

Chapter 19. “Something Far More Deeply Interfused”: The Systems Worldview

cf. Edward Lorez; Pierre-Simon Laplace

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” Lorenz had discovered what became known as “deterministic chaos”: the principle that, in a nonlinear world, tiny changes in initial conditions would lead to vastly different outcomes, making long-term prediction impossible. (358)

The Moonlight Tradition: Ancient Beginnings

For Aristotle, the purpose of something wasn’t to be as close as possible to its ideal blueprint. … Everything, in his view, like the embryo, had an intrinsic purpose for its physical existence. As such, it made no sense to separate the form and matter of something. In order to gain a full understanding, the natural scientist had to study both. (359)

[via: “Telos/τελος?”]

Aristotle developed a competing theory, in which the soul was indistinguishable from the body. “We do not have to enquire whether the soul and the body are one,” he asserted, “any more than whether the wax and its shape are one.” Instead, something’s soul arose from its defining purpose. “If the eye were an animal,” he explained, “sight would be its soul, since this is the defining essence of an eye. The eye is (359) matter for sight, and if this departs it is no longer an eye except in name, like the eye of a statue or in a painting.” (360)

[Aristotle] conceived of a hierarchy of souls according to the type of organism. … Unlike Plato’s eternal soul, these souls could not be expected to survive the body’s death. Soul and body were, rather, two different aspects of an organisms’ physical existence. (360)

The dominant philosophical schools of the late ancient world were Stoicism and Epicureanism, both of which believed, like Aristotle, in a single, material universe. They understood the soul as the organizing principle of the body, neither of which could exist without the other. The Stoics expanded this notion to view all matter as fundamentally linked in a dynamic web, interconnected through the underlying principle pneuma, which permeated the cosmos as a kind of soul of the universe. (360)

[via: So, is נפש πνευμα?]

The Modern Moonlight Tradition

We may therefore say that the Earth has a vital force of growth, and that its flesh is the soil, its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains; its cartilage is the porous rock, its blood the veins of the waters. —Leonardo da Vinci

The pioneers of the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, transfixed by their pursuit of God’s eternal Truth, remained unaware of Leonardo’s insights, and his vision of a living universe in constant transformation was neglected with their adoption of Descartes’s model of a fixed, mechanistic world. (361)

[Baruch] Spinoza, considered by some to be the spiritual grandfather of ecology, saw God as identical with nature and believed everything in the universe to be an expression of the thought of God. Like Aristotle and the Neo-Confucians, Spinoza saw mind and body as not separate but instead two distinct attributes of existence. … Leibniz…maintaining that the world was fully alive, down to the smallest particle of matter. Leibniz was fascinated by the Chinese concepts he heard about through Jesuit missionaries, and his philosophical vision of a preestablished harmony in the universe contains strong echoes of the Neo-Confucian conception of the Supreme Ultimate manifested through the world in the form of li. (361)

| By the late eighteenth century, a widespread revulsion to the predominant mechanistic view of the universe erupted throughout Europe in the form of the Romantic movement. For a brief period, it was as though the sun were eclipsed, and the moonlight tradition illuminated the intellectual landscape. (361)

May God us keep from Single vision and Newton’s sleep — William Blake

Our meddling intellect Misshapes the beauteous forms of things: We murder to dissect. —William Wordsworth

This Romantic backlash to the Age of Reason, however, reinforced the conceptual split between reason and emotion that has since become a hallmark of modern thought. (362)

…[Johann Wolfgang von ] Goethe believed a scientist should approach nature as a participant and that scientific insight arises through not detached observation but an intuitive sense o connection with nature’s dynamic flux. (362)

There is no holding nature still and looking at it. The real point is that the essential connectedness of things can never be safely omitted. —Alfred North Whitehead

[Phenomenology’s] underlying basis was the rejection of the notion of scientific objectivity, replacing it with the recognition that humans are embodied in the physical world and that our understanding of the universe arises from how we are situated within it. (363)

The Mathematics of the Real World

The most complex system that we know of is the human mind, and that was the focus of study for one group of thinkers, who developed what became known as Gestalt psychology. Their fundamental insight was that the mind works by creating a holistic, integrated pattern of meaning from its surroundings, which cannot be reduced into an aggregation of its discrete elements. Its central finding, “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” has become a hallmark of much systems thinking since then. (363)

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. —Werner Heisenberg

We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. —Capra and Luisi, Systems View of Life, 68-79

In pursuing their disciplines, scientists would often use the Latin phrase ceteribus paribus—”other things being equal”—to dismiss the random noise that didn’t fit into the theory. Now, in systems thinking, a new set of methods was emerging to investigate the unequal world of those other things. (364)

cf. Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature

One profound insight was that the same design tends to repeat itself at larger or smaller scales. Coastlines, cloudscapes, sand dunes, and rivers all demonstrate what is known as scale independency, creating similar patterns both close up and from a distance. (365)

Life at the Edge of Chaos

[Erwin] Schrödinger observed that while the universe as a whole undergoes entropy, life somehow manages to reverse this process. Living organisms, he noted, survive through sucking order out of the entropy around them and organizing it in a way beneficial to them. They did this through the process known in biology as metabolism. Schrödinger called this process negative entropy (or negentropy) and saw it as the defining characteristic of life. (366)

| The end point of a system undergoing entropy is known in physics as equilibrium: the state where there is no order left to lose. … [Ilya] Prigogine explained how these systems undergo a process of self-organization. In certain circumstances, when a large number of independent elements are continually interacting with each other, they achieve a coherent state. (366)

This can be seen clearly in the case of water. When water is frozen, the molecules connect to each other in a fixed state that doesn’t allow for any fluidity. At the other extreme, when water is boiling, the relationship between the water molecules is random, with no coherent patterns emerging. There is a certain area somewhere between the states of fixity and randomness that self-organization can occur. (366)

| This balance between the opposite states of rigidity and chaos has led some theorists to speculate that life itself exists at the “edge of chaos,” a state with enough dynamism to continue growing and adapting and enough stability to maintain order and integration. (367)

But how do other systems move into a state of self-organized coherence? There are two indispensable factors. There must be a large number of individual elements interacting with and influencing each other, and the system must be continually interacting with the environment, usually containing smaller systems within it. As the system’s complexity reaches a certain critical mass, it achieves a newly coherent state, sometimes dramatically, in a process known as emergence. (367)

…ant colony. (367) …culture …language …the internet …consciousness (368)

…life on earth. … A living system doesn’t just self-organize—it actively generates itself, taking energy from the environment to modify itself and perpetuate its existence. [Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela] called this process autopoiesis, from the Greek words meaning “self-generation.” (368)

…other researchers have developed sophisticated models to explain this apparent miracle of self-generating life. The core principle of these models is a process of reciprocal causality between all the different parts of the system and the whole. The whole emerges as a gestalt from the complex interactions of its parts, and it simultaneously specifies what each of the parts needs to do from moment to moment. Each causes the other. What came first—the parts or the whole? Leading researchers propose that the answer is both: in a process of circular, dynamic co-emergence, the parts generate the whole while the whole organizes the parts. (368)

Nature: Machine or Organism?

In self-organized systems, the complex interaction of many connected elements causes emergent behavior that could never be predicted by a study of each part alone, no matter how detailed. The reductionist view of “nothing but” is analogous to (369) someone observing that Shakespeare’s entire opus is nothing but an assemblage of twenty-six letters repeated in different configurations. Whether we are evaluating tornadoes, Shakespeare, or life itself, the patterns that connect the parts frequently contain far more valuable information than the parts themselves. (370)

| This is especially true of living organisms. Because of the way a living system continually regenerates itself, the parts that constitute it are, in fact, perpetually being changed. It is the organism’s dynamic patterns that maintain its coherence. Every five days, a person gets a new stomach lining, and, every two months, a new liver. It is estimated that 98 percent of the atoms in a person’s body are replaced each year. And yet, we are all recognizably the same people that we were a couple of years ago. It is our self-organized patterns that give us our continued identity. (370)

cf. James Lovelock; Gaia

A New Paradigm

The systems view doesn’t replace the reductionist approach to science but offers a new way of apprehending aspects of nature that reductionism is unable to explain. (370)

The common theme linking all these domains is the recognition of the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems and the realization that humans are an integral part of the natural world. (371)

[Thomas] Kuhn points out [in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions] that the transfer of allegiance from one paradigm to the other is “a conversion experience that cannot be forced.” Scientists who have invested productive careers in the old paradigm are understandably loath to give up their preconceptions. The paradigm shift is therefore likely to occur only, he suggests, “when the first tradition is felt to have gone badly astray.” (372)

A Web of Meaning

The recognition that we are not separate from nature and cannot, ultimately, control it encourages a more participatory approach of trying to influence the complex systems around us for greater harmony. In place of the metaphors of nature that have led humanity to this precipice, the systems worldview offers up a new metaphor of nature as a WEB OF MEANING, in which the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior. (373)

Chapter 20. Consuming the Earth in the Modern Era

Has the technological magic unleashed by scientific knowledge placed on us a trajectory accelerating ever faster out of control? Or do we have it within ourselves to find the sorcerer’s spell that can restore harmony in our world? (375)

“That Forever Empty”

There exists, in the words of cultural historian Thomas Berry, “a deep hidden rage against the human condition, an unwillingness to accept life under the conditions that life is granted us, a feeling of oppression by the normal human condition, a feeling that the pains of life and ultimately death are something that should not be, something that must be defeated.” [Thomas Berry, “Ethics and Ecology,” paper presented at Harvard Seminar on Environmental Ethics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996)] (377)

The Emergence of Consumer Culture

We can trace the beginnings of modern consumer culture back to England’s Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. (378)

By the late nineteenth century, a series of movements known as mind-cure religions took hold of the popular imagination, responding to the uncertainties of the time by emphasizing only positive aspects of the human experience. They taught that people could cure their own problems through positive thinking, and their focus was finding salvation in this life rather than an afterlife. (378)

One enormously popular expression of mind-cure values was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, which implicitly affirmed that, through an effort of will, people could change their lives to experience joy, abundance, and happiness. (378)

Another pervasive effect of nineteenth-century industrialization was the systematic measurement and processing of human activity. (378) …Frederick Taylor,…introduced “time studies” in factories… …Henry Ford,…introduced automated assembly-line production… (379)

Philosopher Samuel Strauss gave it a name: consumptionism.

It is obvious that Americans have come to consider their standard of living as a somewhat sacred acquisition, which they will defend at any price. This means that they would be ready to make many an intellectual or even moral concession in order to maintain that standard. —Samuel Strauss

These were the beginnings of what historian Ernest Gellner has called the “society of perpetual growth,” focusing the human search for meaning in an entirely new direction. (379) …Thorstein Veblen identified a process he called “conspicuous consumption,” by which people compete to achieve higher status through being seen to consume more expensive goods and services than their peers,… (380)

Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations.” Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and used his uncles’ insights into the subconscious to develop his new methods. “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” declared Bernays’s business partner, Paul Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” (380)

A Self-Accelerating Treadmill

Once based on tangible objects, money has become an increasingly abstract entity, now residing solely as a symbol in our shared consciousness. And yet, the more abstract it has become, the more powerful its hold over the human trajectory. (381)

…the US government moved away from what was known as the “gold standard,” culminating in 1971,… …with the gold standard eliminated, money became a purely symbolic abstraction, existing solely in the shared network of the global conceptual consciousness. (381)

The money supply, now wholly controlled by central banks, could be increased without regard to any underlying commodity. There was, however, one important catch to this newfound freedom of money. It was now created as a form of debt, requiring a promise to be paid back. (381)

…most of the financial wealth in our society really represents a claim on the future wealth still to be created. All these expectations for a return on capital are ultimately based on a presumption of continued economic growth in society at large. (382)

…the requisite growth of money has put our society on a relentless search for ever more natural resources to monetize. (382)

This self-accelerating treadmill of perpetual growth has become the underlying force driving our global civilization, affecting virtually every aspect of our lives. It has been the engine behind the previously unimaginable advances in technology, medicine, and communication that have transformed the lives of most people on the planet. It has also pervaded the global consciousness, becoming an integral part of the system of values on which our society is based. The primary vehicle by which this has occurred is, like money, another powerful abstraction created by modern society that has also developed a self-sustaining life of its own: the corporation. (382)

The Rise of the Corporation

…a corporation is utterly different from the people who are part of it. In contrast to people, who are capable of empathy and generally care for others beyond themselves, corporations are abstract entities usually created with the single mandate of maximizing financial returns for their shareholders. They are theoretically immortal and cannot be put in prison, and the larger multinationals are not constrained by the laws of any individual country. (384)

Capitalism is based on the premise that the most desirable state of affairs is economic growth, which can be attained most effectively through free markets in which assets are privately owned. Based on this credo, the primary responsibility of government is to provide the infrastructure necessary for the free market to conduct its business with minimal constraints. Some important assumptions about human nature underlie these beliefs. Individuals are understood to be motivated primarily by financial self-interest. They are assumed to be rational in pursuit of this goal, and their “rationality” is believed to lead them to act competitively rather than cooperatively in the marketplace. Another crucial assumption holds that the aggregation of all these individuals competitively seeking their own financial gain leads to the most beneficial outcome for society. These assumptions about human nature are not self-evident truths; however, the money-base system constructed by capitalism encourages and rewards these traits over other traditional, community-oriented values, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about the nature of human behavior. (385)

Cornucopia for Capitalism

…it is compelling to realize that while it took the entire length of human history to build world production to the 1950 level, the world is now increasing its production by that amount, on average, every couple of years. (386)

Ever since the rise of agriculture, differences in wealth and power between people have been an inescapable part of the human experience. However, the emergence of the global capitalist economy has caused the disparity between rich and poor to become a gaping chasm. (386)

In a leaked 1992 internal memo on pollution, [the chief economist at the] World Bank] expressed the view that “a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable.” This chief economist was Larry Summers, who went on to serve as secretary of the treasury in the Democratic Clinton administration.

[via: cf. Summers memo, Wikipedia; “Furor on Memo At World Bank”,; “Why it’s cheaper to poison the poor”, NewScientist.]

Exploiting Ancient Sunlight

At our current rate of energy usage, it has been calculated that our world is going through about fourteen thousand years’ worth of that fossilized sunshine from the Carboniferous age every day. (389)

A single barrel of oil holds as much energy as one man could produce in heavy manual labor over roughly ten years. (389)

The Great Acceleration

The discovery of fossil fuels, the Western view of nature as something to be exploited, and a global economic system based on capitalist principles combined to generate ever more powerful ratchet effects, perhaps the most significant of which has been the growth in the number of humans on the planet. … More people were added to the world during the twentieth century than in all of previous human history. (389)

To sustain our current rate of expansion, it’s been estimated that human appropriation of net primary productivity would need to double or triple by mid-century. Scientists are understandably asking if this is in fact possible. (390)

The Arrival of the Anthropocene

Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita. … The phenomenon of global change represents a profound shift in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. —Will Steffen, Paul J Crutzen and John R McNeil | The Anthropocene_Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?


Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. … The phenomenon of global change represents a profound shift in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. – “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?

Heating the Planet

The story of our civilization’s inadequate response to the threat of climate change is illustrative of how society’s predominant values are at odds with humanity’s own intrinsic well-being. (392)

“A Global Suicide Pact”

Of particular concern is the concept of a tipping point: the risk that at some point—impossible to predict or perhaps even to recognize when we are crossing it—a planetary system passes a threshold from which there is no going back, no matter what we might do from there one. (395)

cf. “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” 28 January 2011

Twentieth-Century Model ‘A Global Suicide Pact’, Secretary-General Tells World Economic Forum Session on Redefining Sustainable Development

Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the World Economic Forum session on redefining sustainable development, in Davos, Switzerland, today, 28 January:

For most of the last century, economic growth was fuelled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences.

Those days are gone. In the twenty-first century, supplies are running short and the global thermostat is running high.  Climate change is also showing us that the old model is more than obsolete. It has rendered it extremely dangerous. Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.

So what do we do in this current challenging situation?  How do we create growth in a resource-constrained environment? How do we lift people out of poverty while protecting the planet and ecosystems that support economic growth? How do we regain the balance? All of this requires rethinking.

Here at Davos—this meeting of the mighty and the powerful, represented by some key countries—it may sound strange to speak of revolution. But that is what we need at this time. We need a revolution. Revolutionary thinking. Revolutionary action. A free market revolution for global sustainability.

It is easy to mouth the words “sustainable development”, but to make it happen, we have to be prepared to make major changes—in our lifestyles, our economic models, our social organization and our political life. We have to connect the dots between climate change and what I might call here WEF—water, energy and food.

I have asked President [Tarja] Halonen of Finland and President [Jacob] Zuma of South Africa to connect those dots as they lead our High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. I have asked them to take on the tough questions: How we organize ourselves economically? How we manage increasingly scarce resources?

Those same questions guide our discussion here. I have asked them to bring us visionary recommendations by the end of December so they can be fed into intergovernmental processes until Rio 2012.

But as we begin, let me highlight the one resource that is scarcest of all: time. We are running out of time. Time to tackle climate change. Time to ensure sustainable, climate-resilient green growth. Time to generate a clean energy revolution.

The sustainable development agenda is the growth agenda for the twenty-first century. To get there, we need your participation, your initiative. We need you to step up. Spark innovation. Lead by action. Invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy for those who need them most—your future customers. Expand clean energy access in developing countries — your markets of tomorrow.

Join our United Nations Global Compact, the largest corporate sustainability initiative in the world. Embed those sustainability principles into your strategies, your operations, your supply chains.

To Government leaders sitting here and elsewhere around the world, send the right signals to build the green economy. Together, let us tear down the walls. The walls between the development agenda and the climate agenda. Between business, Government and civil society. Between global security and global sustainability. It is good business, good politics and good for society.

In an odd way, what we are really talking about is going back to the future. The ancients saw no division between themselves and the natural world. They understood how to live in harmony with the world around them. It is time to recover that sense of living harmoniously for our economies and our societies.

Not to go back to some imagined past, but to leap confidently into the future with cutting-edge technologies—the best science and entrepreneurship has to offer—to build a safer, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all.

There is no time to waste.

– Ban Ki-moon (@BanKiMoonUNSG), Secretary General, UN.

Ideological Lock-In

The easily identifiable forces propelling humanity on its current course are the special interests that gain financially and politically… (396)

One of these is known as technological lock-in: the fact that, once a technology is widely adopted, an infrastructure is built up around it, making change prohibitively expensive. A frequently cited example is the QwERTY keyboard, which was originally designed for its inefficiency in an attempt to slow down the rate of typing and therefore prevent early typewriter keys from hitting each other. (396)

A far greater obstacle to meaningful change is financial lock-in: the financial infrastructure underlying the fossil fuel-based economy. (397)

…the entire capitalist economy is founded on perpetual growth. (397)

This self-defeating collective dynamic, known in economics as the “tragedy of the commons,” highlights a crucial flaw in capitalist ideology: the notion that it is inevitably beneficial for society when each person seeks to maximize his own gain. Underlying this notion is an even more fundamental defect of classical economic theory: the assumption that nature is inexhaustible. (397)

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. —Kenneth Boulding

…another form of lock-in: ideological. (398)

Big ideas all became orthodoxies, enmeshed in social and political systems, and difficult to dislodge even if they become costly. —J. R. McNeill

The “Hedonic Treadmill”

The basic fault with GDP as a measure of a country’s performance is that it fails to distinguish between activities that promote welfare and those that reduce it. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because o the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP. In the description of one team of analysts: “By the curious standard of the GDP, the nation’s economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce. The happiest event is an earthquake or a hurricane. The most desirable habitat is a multibillion-dollar Superfund site.” (398)

[via: I couldn’t find the exact quote, but these lines were essentially mentioned by Mr. Jonathan Rowe, Co-Director, West Marin Commons in a testimony given to Congress, March 12, 2008. An extensive quote is worth citing here:

This is not an argument against growth by the way. To be reflexively against growth is as numb-minded as to be reflexively for it. Those are theological positions. I am arguing for an empirical one. Let’s find out what is growing, and the effects. Tell us what this growth is, in concrete terms. Then we can begin to say whether it has been good or not.

The failure to do this is insane, literally. It is an insanity that is embedded in the political debate, and in media reportage; and it leads to fallacy in many directions. We hear for example that efforts to address climate change will hurt “the economy.” Do they mean that if we clean up the air we will spend less money treating asthma in young kids? That Americans will spend fewer billions of dollars on gasoline to sit in traffic jams? That they will spend less on coastal insurance if the sea level stops rising?

There is a basic fallacy here. The atmosphere is part of the economy too—the real economy that is, though not the artificial construct portrayed in the GDP. It does real work, as we would discover quickly if it were to collapse. Yet the GDP does not include this work. If we burn more gas, the expenditure gets added to the GDP. But there is no corresponding subtraction for the toll this burning takes on the thermostatic and buffering functions that the atmosphere provides. (Nor is there a subtraction for the oil we take out of the ground.)

Yet if we burn less gas, and thus maintain the crucial functions of the atmosphere, we say “the economy” has suffered, even though the real economy has been enhanced. With families it’s the same thing. By the standard of the GDP, the worst families in America are those that actually function as families–that cook their own meals, take walks after dinner and talk together instead of just farming the kids out to the commercial culture.

Cooking at home, talking with kids, talking instead of driving, involve less expenditure of money than do their commercial counterparts. Solid marriages involve less expenditure for counseling and divorce. Thus they are threats to the economy as portrayed in the GDP. By that standard, the best kids are the ones that eat the most junk food and exercise the least, because they will run up the biggest medical bills for obesity and diabetes.

This kind of thinking has been guiding the economic policy minds of this country for the last sixty years at least. Is it surprising that the family structure is shaky, real community is in decline, and kids have become Petri dishes of market-related dysfunction and disease? The nation has been driving by a instrument panel that portrays such things as growth and therefore good. It is not accidental that the two major protest movements of recent decades—environmental and pro-family—both deal with parts of the real economy that the GDP leaves out and that the commercial culture that embodies it tends to erode or destroy.

How did we get to this strange pass, in which up is down and down is up? How did it happen that the Nation’s economic hero is a terminal cancer patient going through a costly divorce? How is it that Congress talks about stimulating “the economy” when much that actually will be stimulated is the destruction of things it says it cares about on other days? How did the notion of economy become so totally uneconomic?]

| GDP measures the rate at which our society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. (398) …activities taht put more burden on the environment tend to contribute more to GDP. Driving to work in a car is GDP-enhancing, whereas cycling to work has no effect; turning on the air conditioning increases GDP, whereas opening a window does nothing for it. In this bizarre system of accounting, toxic pollution can be triply beneficial for GDP growth: once when a chemical company produces hazardous by-products, twice when the pollutants need to be cleaned up, and a third time if they cause harm to people that requires medical treatment. (399)

The Himalayan state of Bhutan has broken new ground by creating a “Gross National Happiness” index, incorporating values such as spiritual well-being, health, and biodiversity. (399)

…Genuine Progress Indicator… (399)

…the “Easterlin paradox” [GDP rises while life satisfaction remains flat.] (399)

Easternlin’s explanation for this paradox was that while economic growth raised people’s standard of living, it also raised their aspirations, leading to a negative effect on their happiness. This effect has become known as the “hedonic treadmill”: no matter how affluent people become, they continually compare themselves with others in their peer group and always desire more. (400)

[via: Also related is “shifting baseline syndrome”.]

Humanity’s Search for Meaning

…beginning with the “mind-cure” movement of the late nineteenth century, a consumption-based ideology served to redress a lack of meaning in people’s lives, replacing an inner void resulting from the uniquely Western mode of dualistic cognition with the consumerist frenzy of capitalism. (401)

Part 5. The Web of Meaning?

Chapter 21. Trajectories to Our Future

The one thing we can rely on about humanity’s future trajectory is its nonlinearity. That fact presents us with both humanity’s greatest peril and or greatest reason for hope. (405)

Limits to Growth

Their answer was that unless drastic changes were made, our economic boom would be followed by the global collapse of our civilization sometime in the twenty-first century. (406)

Scenarios for Our Future

The team that published Limits to Growth emphasized they weren’t making a specific prediction about the future. Rather, they were offering scenarios to show the world where it might be headed unless collective decisions were made to change direction. Another team that has worked on something similar—the Global Scenario Group of the Stockholm Environment Institute—points out three good reasons why we can never actually predict the future. First, there’s the problem of ignorance: we can never know every salient fact about the world. Second, even if we knew all the important facts, we still couldn’t predict the nonlinear way they might interact. Finally, there’s the all-important reality that the future is subject to human choices: no matter how predetermined things might seem, our individual and collective wills have the power to steer the future into a direction of our choosing. The unpredictability of the future doesn’t mean there’s no point in understanding what it might hold. Rather, the opposite is true: the fact that we can affect our future makes it even more important to understand the major drivers of the possible trajectories. (407)

There’s widespread agreement on another crucial driver of our future: the breathtaking rate of change in many powerful and converging technologies. (408)

All this leads to a general consensus that, no matter what shape the future takes, it will be fundamentally different from anything we’ve known in the past. …we’re entering a third great transition. (408)

…it’s worthwhile to get more acquainted with the general character of phase transitions so we can be better prepared to evaluate them. (408)

Dinosaurs, Forest Fires, and Resilience

Critical transitions can occur for two kinds of reasons: sledgehammer effects and threshold effects. A sledgehammer effect, as its name implies, arises when an outside force causes dramatic change in a system, leaving it in a new state very different from its previous state. A good example of a sledgehammer effect is the asteroid that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs about sixty-five million years ago. … A more recent example is the deforestation… Threshold effects…refer to the critical transition that happens when a system changes from within. One example of a threshold effect discussed in this book is how language emerged from a feedback loop between the cultural and biological evolution of humans, creating a symbolic network that’s been the foundation of human culture ever since. (409)

Resilience can be understood as the capacity of a system to recover from a disturbance. But recovery doesn’t necessarily mean remaining the same; the most resilient systems are often those that are constantly adapting to changes in their environment. … Environmental scientist Marten Scheffer defines a resilient system as one that can accommodate changes and reorganize itself while maintaining the crucial attributes that give the system its unique character. (409)

Prominent systems thinkers have formed a general theory of change in complex systems called the adaptive cycle model,… The cycle begins with a rapid growth phase, during which innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities. … Gradually, the system moves to a more stable <em>conservation phase, when rules and established connections become more important. …as time goes on, the system becomes increasingly brittle and resistant to change. It becomes less resilient. At a certain point, a small disturbance can cause the entire system to collapse, which is the release phase. … Following the system’s collapse, a period of chaos ensues, and uncertainty rules. New opportunities emerge for creativity, which is why the final stage in the cycle is called the renewal phase. (410)

The crucial question is how much resilience is built into our global system. Unfortunately, much of it has been designed with short-term efficiencies in mind,… In a resilient system, individual nodes—families or communities—need to be self-sufficient enough to survive in an emergency. In our modern civilization, most of us lack self-sufficiency, relying on the global network of commerce and information for food and other necessities. (411)

How Societies Collapse

If our society were to succumb to the onslaught of climate change, it wouldn’t be the first to do so. Studies have shown a correlation between the declines of ancient civilizations and periods of significant climate change. (411)

[via: The important distinctions that Lent doesn’t mention, is that our current ecological crisis is both anthropogenic and extremely rapid.]

cf. The Curse of Akkad

…some who have studied the collapse of earlier civilizations point out that environmental pressures alone, no matter how severe, are not enough to cause a society to collapse. Rather, they say, it depends on how the society responds to these problems. (412)

If a society cannot deal with resource depletion, then the truly interesting questions revolve around the society, not the resource. What structural, political, ideological, or economic factors in a society prevented an appropriate response? —Joseph Tainter

In effect, as the society gets more complex, it finds itself having to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place. (412)

The Roman Empire presents the best documented—and dramatic—example of Tainter’s model. (413)

Will Our Society Collapse Like Rome?

In ancient societies,…if you needed a new source of energy, you could turn to territorial expansion. In our global society, we’re all in it together, so there’s nowhere to turn. “Collapse,” [Tainter] avers, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.” The only thing that can save us, he believes, is a new source of energy to fuel our continued rise in complexity. (415)

the “Jevons paradox,” which shows that whenever technology makes the use of a resource more efficient, this only increases its use, as consumption goes up to exploit the new efficiencies. (415)

Prominent biologist Paul Ehrlich sees this as the “human predicament,” suggesting that “determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.” (415)

With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.” (416)

Technology as Savior?

Perhaps Moore’s law, combined with the explosive potential of converging technologies, has given our civilization, in effect, a new energy source, one that is potentially limitless and therefore doesn’t conform to Tainter’s theory. (416)

cf. Thomas Malthus

Malthus’s “earlier dire predictions,” in the words of one, “have all been overcome by the exercise of human ingenuity.” …”once again the gloom is overdone. … There may be curbs on tra-(416)ditional forms of growth, but there is no limit to human ingenuity. That is why Malthus remains as wrong today as he was two centuries ago.” (417)

Engineering Our Planet

…geo-(418)engineering is, in many ways, the ultimate realization of the root metaphors of NATURE AS MACHINE and CONQUERING NATURE that have become an integral part of modern cognition. (419)

Transcending Our Humanity

We are ourselves creating our own successors. Man will become to the machine what the horse and dog are to man. … The time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants. —Samuel Butler

[via: I sometimes balk at statements like this. But then I watcha Boston Dynamics video:]

…the idea that human cultural evolution has bypassed biological evolution has become widely accepted. “Homo sapiens,” writes biologist E. O. Wilson, “is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us. … Evolution, including genetic progress in human nature and human capacity, will be from now on increasingly the domain of science and technology tempered by ethics and political choice. … Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.” (420)

Many critics of human genetic engineering recognize that, in individual cases, it’s hard to argue against the promise of improved health, better cognitive capacity, and longer life, but they argue that the intuitive repugnance we feel about altering the very essence of human nature should be honored. This repugnance “is the emotional expression of deep wisdom,” argues prominent scholar Leon Kass, “beyond reason’s power completely to articulate it.” (421)

Toward the Singularity?

The Singularity refers to a belief that, at the current rate of technological progress, we’re rapidly approaching a threshold event in history when artificial intelligence will transcend human intelligence, and the resulting transformation will lead to a new form of existence utterly different from anything that has come before. (422)

Pure Intelligence?

Kurzweil envisions the entire universe filled with an intelligence originally created by the human mind. … What we see in Kurzweil’s discourse is an ultramodern version of the deification of reason initiated by Plato, which became the foundation for our modern worldview. In Plato’s cosmology, our conceptual consciousness, expressed through reason, linked us to the divine. The early Christians transformed this into the conception of an immortal soul existing, after the body’s death, with God in heaven. Descartes reformulated this dualistic framework into the modern, scientifically acceptable mind-body split, identifying the human capacity for thought as the essence of our existence. Kurzweil’s vision of pure intelligence carries this dualistic tradition into the future, fueled by the power of technology. (424)

…Plato’s “soul,” which became Descartes’s “mind,” is transformed into Kurzweil’s “software.” Once again, we’re back to that root metaphor of Western cognition: NATURE AS MACHINE. (425)

The metaphor of NATURE AS MACHINE, whether applied to the natural world or the human organism, is no more than a metaphor, one that has been powerful enough to propel the trajectory of the modern world and, through its success, to mislead many people into mistaking it for reality. “It is important,” writes a team of leading neuroscientists, “to emphasize the stark differences between brains and computers. … Software and hardware, which can be easily separated in a computer, are completely interwoven in brains—a neuron’s bio-physical makeup is intrinsically linked to the computations it carries out.” (426)

Human superorganism?

Toward a Bifurcation of Humanity?

When a complex system reaches the edge of a previously stable state, this is known in systems theory as a bifurcation point, from which the system transitions to one new state or another. (428)

Meanwhile, in affluent echelons of the developed world, advances in genetic engineering offer the possibility that, within a few decades, the gulf between rich and poor might extend beyond economics to biology. (429)

What It Means to Be Human

As we progress further into this century, with its combination of glorious possibilities and existential threats, it is becoming clear that our generation, along with the next, is engaged in nothing less than a struggle over the future of what it means to be human. (431)

But there’s another view of humanity that permeates the modern world, one based on the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” These words, from the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, represent a different kind of progress: the progress of humanity’s moral scope, which has expanded beyond tribal groupings to encompass the entire human race. In this view, spelled out by the Declaration, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” According to this view, “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” (432)

[via: My margin note: “Whoop, there it is.” This declaration is influenced heavily by the philosophy of Jewish and Christian theology.]

The Great Transformation

Many have come to recognize the need for this fundamental change in values. It’s been variously called the Great Transformation, the Great Transition, the Great Turning, and humanity’s Great Work. Like the two earlier great transitions of human history, it would encompass a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: our values, our goals, and our collective behavior. (434)

| There is a major difference, however, between this Great Transformation and the earlier ones. Both agriculture and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions were the result of generations of people merely acting in ways that made sense to them at the time, without necessarily holding a vision of where their collective actions were leading humanity. It was only long afterward that people could look back and recognize the transformation. This third great transition, by contrast, will only take place if enough people are conscious of its need and prepared to change their own values and behavior to affect humanity’s direction. It would be a unique achievement in humanity’s history. (434)

| A Great Transformation would need to be founded on a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth into the future. In place of root metaphors such as NATURE AS MACHINE and CONQUERING NATURE, the new worldview would be based on the emerging systems view of life—recognizing the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth and seeing humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world. (434)

| What values would arise from this worldview? Three core values emerge. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. … Secondly, we would base political, social, and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we would build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, with the flourishing of the natural world as a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions. (434)

What do we get if we apply the adaptive cycle model to our present reality? Our global system is actually a network of different systems in different phases of their own cycles. Developments in one system can affect the other systems and push or pull them to different places in their own life cycle. For example, developments in the technology system, such as providing cheap renewable energy, could conceivably affect the earth’s climate system and prevent it moving from a conservation phase to a release phase. (435)

| We can think of our civilization’s values as part of a global cognitive system, which has been molded largely on the success of the economic system that’s dominated the world in the past century. (435)

When a cognitive system enters a release phase, this means that beliefs and values held implicitly through people’s lives begin to be questioned. Structures of meaning begin to unravel. People’s patterning instinct drives them to seek a new pattern o meaning to replace the old one, leading rapidly to the renewal phase, when the future is up for grabs. (435)

Which construction of meaning will ultimately triumph and replace our current structure? This is perhaps the most crucial question facing humanity because whichever one triumphs may ultimately control the future direction of the human race. And it’s a question that we, the current generation, will all participate in answering through the choices we make. (436)

The Movement for a Shared Humanity

…Metcalfe’s law, which states that the usefulness of a network grows exponentially when its connections grow arithmetically. (438)

Never deny the power of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. Indeed that is the only thing that ever has. —Margaret Mead

[via: This was an interesting article on “that Margaret Mead quotation.” I haven’t done the work to find original sourcing.]

Choosing Our Future

In diametric opposition to the dualistic framework of meaning that has structured two and a half millennia of Western thought, the new systems way of thinking about the universe leads to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world. This way of thinking, seeing the cosmos as a WEB OF MEANING, has the potential to offer a robust framework for the Great Transformation values that emphasize the quality of life, our shared humanity, and the flourishing of nature. (441)

| Cultures shape values, and those values shape history. By the same token, our values will shape our future. By understanding how different cultures (441) through history have formed their own patterns of meaning and how the values of our civilization are themselves the result of historical constructions, it becomes possible for us to shape our own set of values—one that could create a sustainable future of shared human dignity and flourishing of the natural world. Whether that actually happens in this century is ultimately up to all of us—and the meaning we choose to forge from the lives we lead. (442)

Further Reading

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By.

Suddendorf, Thomas. The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals.

Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.

Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition.

Tomasello, Michael. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.

Deacon, Terrence W. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain.

Kuhl, Patricia K. “A New View of Language Acquisition.”

Jackendoff, Ray. “Possible Stages in the Evolution of the Language Capacity.”

Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust

Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Lee, Richard Borshay. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.”

Bird-David, Nurit. “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gather-Hunters.”

Peterson, Nicolas. “Demand Sharing: Reciprocity and the Pressure for Generosity among Foragers.”

Barker, Graeme. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers?

Cauvin, Jacques. The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture.

Trigger, Bruce G. Understanding Early Civilizations

Hornug, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many.

Assman, Jan. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character.

Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.

Zaehner, R. C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism.

Kitto, H. D. F. The Greeks.

McEvilley, Thomas. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies.

Cornford, F. M. From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation.

Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India.

Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice.

The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary.

Lloyd, Geoffrey, and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China.

Zhang, Yu Huan, and Ken Rose. Who Can Ride the Dragon?: An Exploration of the Cultural Roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Deutscher, Guy. through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.

Nakamura, Hajime. Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India-China-Tibet-Japan.

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible?

Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred TExts.

Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God.

Pollard, Justin, and Howard Reid. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria.

Freeman, Charles. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View.

Grant, Robert M. Gods and the One God.

Kirsch, Jonathan. God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought

Angle, Stephen C. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy.

Ziporyn, Brook. “Form, Principle, Pattern or Coherence? Li in Chinese Philosophy.”

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution.

Capra, Fritojf. The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture.

White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.”

Ponting, Clive. A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations.

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250—1350.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.

Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West.

Sivin, Nathan. “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—or Did It?”

Cromer, Alan. Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science.

Gaukroger, Stephen. The Emergence of a Scientific Culture.

Burtt, E.A. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science.

Koestler, Arthur. The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe.

Livio, Mario. Is God a Mathematician?

Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science.

Capra, Fritojf, and Pier Luigi Luisi. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.

Kauffman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.

Goodwin, Brian. HOw the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity.

NcNeill, J. R. Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World.

Korten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World.

Hartmann, Thom. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.

Speth, James Gustave. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.

Rockström, Johan, et al. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.”

Raskin, Paul, Tariqu Banuri, Gilberto Gallopin, Pablo Gutman, and Al Hammond. Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.

Gore, Al. The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Randers, Jorgen. 2052: A Global Forecast for the NExt Forty Years.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future.

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  1. Pingback: The Web of Meaning | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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