Sunday, September 20, 2009

Emergent Civilization: is a new society possible?

[Note, this is a brainstorm! So, if the ideas ramble too much, or could be more coherent, please let me know. It's a matter of conveying them now and I'd appreciate feedback! This is the first time it's all down on paper, or, well computer screen. Perhaps it will eventually become a book...]

There's a lot of talk and urgency these days on creating a sustainable civilization. It's almost like an underlying anxiety many of us feel: we wish to continue our lifestyles, but have this sneaking suspicion that the whole way of life we undertake is completely unsustainable, almost like a grand illusion which will come crashing down under our feet.

There are many of us who are more hopeful, thinking if we work on renewable energy, ecologically friendly energy systems (solar, wind power), and local economies, we should be able to at least avert or lighten the problems we are facing. But then, there is also the whole slew of problems that follow--can government continue the way it is? What about multi-national corporations and world banks? Hegemony and neo-imperialism?

In other words, our way of organizing, thinking, interacting in modern society is all based upon flawed ideologies, systems of thinking that, perhaps on a smaller scale caused less harm and actually helped us survive, but are now an immense danger, perhaps a monstrosity. If we try to analyze this situation as holistically as we can, we see the problem isn't just in physical sustainability, it's also in culture, philosophy, economics, government and primarily psychology. Our whole way of seeing the world is upside-down, and based on a primal fear of insecurity.

Escaping the present, a culture of tomorrow.

That being, we see ourselves as somehow manipulators of the natural environment. That the world is a vast mechanical system we awakened into, and progress is made when we can more efficiently manipulate the world. This may stem from an acute psychological fear of impermanence, of isolation, not able to reconcile our thinking minds with the living environment we are a part of. Even further, being unhappy with what we are now (insecure, in danger) we imagine what could be, and find ourselves always striving for some greater tomorrow--which, we might have learned by now, never comes. This whole psychology extends to a collective psychosis: human beings terrified of the now.

We therefore see cultures or civilizations which can manipulate their world as "advanced," because they have found some level of security, like a puppet master hiding behind his strings. The more you can manipulate, the further along you are progressing! That perception has spilled over into culture, so that we treat human beings in the same way we do objects, relying principally on incentive, behavior and mechanics. We objectify ourselves in the world, and do so at the terrible risk at creating a fragmented worldview, in which we are not a part of the world but somehow alienated from it, a distant "other," that must assume control or perish.

But there is another point of view that sees human beings as any other emergent life form--plants, flowers, mice and bees. We, like them, have been grown by the universe. We are a part of this great web of life, interdependent, so that one action has the potential to affect the whole system. The "advanced," individual, or culture, is significantly different in that it does not assume control over nature. Mastery is a particular degree of understanding the forces of nature and working with them, like a sailor uses the wind and ocean currents in order to move. Life, then, is more like an art, in which we must learn technique (which is where intelligence comes in) in order to move with nature, because all of who and what we are is already a part of the natural world! They would see someone who attempts to fight natural forces as foolish, as if nature could somehow bend to his or her will. True mastery then, is in The Way of things, or Tao, which we learn not to create "what should be," and strive towards it but to see what is, and journey more organically.

Our particular and unique place in nature is that we are capable of reflection, and perhaps some greater degree of consciousness. We are particularly self-aware. But that comes at a great responsibility. Have we ever taken that ability to reflect upon the nature of things, and turn it upon ourselves? It takes maturity to accept the idea of "striving" towards a better future, a safer future, is in fact an instinctive illusion, perhaps driven by our ancestors struggle to survive. But, true survival, is releasing that primal fear--that is, true living is not mere subsistence, but learning the world will always be in flux, there is no true "security" out there waiting for us to unveil. Life is now! Wisdom is thus, knowing that insecurity is a reality of nature. In order to flourish, you're going to have to trust it, to open up. Living is being vulnerable, connected to the whole of life.

While we may be physically doing this, psychologically we hardly realize it. We act like seedlings terrified of breaking their shells and pushing out their first root and stem--yet we must, if we wish to live.

Philosophy of life, new perspective!!

Some of the attitudes that more eastern philosophies and cultures have taken towards the world--interdependence, holistic systems, emergence, synergy and relationship--have been unfortunately neglected in Western society. It's unfortunate in that, although western technology has brought great advancements in the manipulation of the world, it has drastically failed to find any kind of harmony, or equilibrium. What if the more organic philosophies became the guiding factor in scientific endeavors? Then the picture might be very different.

I think that, all of these points can be broken down into three major possibilities.

1) Organic philosophy--that the world is interdependent, relational, synergistic and vastly complex. In order to understand how anything works, you must study the object in relation to the whole.
2) This vast interdependent view of reality has emergent properties. Many things come together and form greater wholes, or layers--in the biosphere, in the social sphere (or noosphere).
3) One great way of seeing this is a holonic view of the universe: things are made parts. Every "whole" system has many parts, and everything is always part of a yet ever-greater whole. This goes from rocks, to planets, to solar systems, to galaxies, to galaxy-clusters, and beyond.

Human beings, then, are organisms in an emergent, interdependent universe. If we wish to flourish, we must learn to expand our sensitivity and overcome primal, illusory boundaries between us and the world. This can't be done by conceptions alone, but by directly working on ourselves and our attitudes. A tall order, perhaps, but there may be things that can help us along the way. Particularly, cultural mythos and alternative ways of organizing that may help foster new attitudes. This will be mentioned later.

A new way of seeing, and thus creating a civilization:

The next part of this blog will be exploring what happens when we see civilization as art, movement and flux--not merely mechanics, but cultivation. What would such a civilization look like? And would it be sustainable?

Please check out part 2.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mindfulness, Nature and Manipulation.

I think it's important to note that intellect, when not complimented by mindfulness, can be easily misguided. What is meant by mindfulness? Critical self-reflection? Partially. It also means a passive awareness of our thinking, a meditative state in which we observe thoughts, and don't become over-identified with them. Not prone to sway in one direction or another. This is equal to "cleaning the lens" of our conscious experience, so as not to further distort insight.

Mindfulness, then, might be seen as a way to help keep our assumptions in check. This is what the Zen koans mean when they speak of emptying one's cup, so that it may be filled. Insight is only possible when we release the idea we must control our minds in order to understand; to grow a mind rather than build it. But by releasing control, we more resemble nature's way: things arising and emerging by simply letting them be. An "organic" phenomenology of the world might assist us in a century where we are faced with impending ecological disasters.

The open minded scientist might then recognize another insight: perhaps manipulation and control are not the true signposts of an advanced civilization. Rather, a civilization that understands "The Way," and is able to see itself as a part of nature, not separate from it. This can only be done if the individuals themselves can attain such a perspective.

A cultural paradigm shift, complimenting the physical science of sustainability, might be the seeds of a new civilization, one which can support billions, explore the cosmos and live as beings within the world, rather than alienated without it. What would happen if even a few million people began to cultivate mindfulness in themselves, and apply that to their professions? This, in a sense, is a calling for an organic-worldview. Rekindling our connection with life, the cosmos, and healing the dissociative rifts, in which, like aliens in a strange land, we feel the need to defend and control in order to gain some sense of security.

But the secret of life, as many have noted, is that there is no security, not ultimately (see Watts, the Wisdom of Insecurity, also, a great video talking about it).

Everything is in flux, and the only way to grow is to take a chance, to be vulnerable, to challenge assumptions and cultivate a sensitivity with the world, not build psychological-fortresses in which we manipulate the environment in fear and terror for our survival. Isolation is the road to extinction. Cut off from life, we whither. As a species, it seems we have some growing up to do. Many of our actions manifest as collective fear, while life is actually more like art: mastery is the release of control. Knowledge is the learning of technique, with which we may then more naturally create. Like a sailor who moves with the wind to get where he is going, rather than trying to bend the wind to his will! Mindfulness, then, is the release of this primal psychological fear, and the expansion of sensitivity to the world around us, like a seedling reaching out to the world with its first roots and branches.

So the question is, can civilization learn to abandon its shell, and embrace true growth? Here's some food for thought from Alan Watts:

What if the same realization--that science can be the work of nature, and that the individual is one body with his environment--could become the informing spirit of Western technology?" - Alan Watts, Does it Matter?

Re: Academia for everyone.

Had some wonderful discussion in the youtube version of this talk.

Some highlights:

"Academia should not merely reproduce its own knowledge, it should teach society to express its own.

The University is the Universe. There is no entrance."
As well as,

"Much like how creating spaces allows for the human BEING to show up. We BEcome when we start moving, sharing, expressing, living, loving. When inside a box or atop a pedestal - all of that is hardly possible. And even though these should never get in the way of you breaking through, a teacher teaches best by being space itself =) marvelous!"
Thanks guys! And last but not least a response video by Professoranton:

To summarize it... Knowledge and language aren't barriers if we, the professors and students don't make them barriers. Or, if we see language as not an "initiation" but a perspective-taking, enriching experience, where words are playful, dynamic, living expressions of ourselves... then academia need not be dry! In fact, it can be illuminating.

Organic education, I think has become the highlight of discussion. How can we reveal the natural ability for creative space? By releasing control, but integrating the traditional university path with more organic, living systems. A step away from bureaucracy might be a good one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Academia for everyone?

The philosophy of "open" source, also implies, I think, a new way of thinking about complex ideas. How can we portray them without the inherent barriers of academic-style writing? If no one can understand us, how do we expect to effectively help society in any way? Or bring about true knowledge? In other words, can we portray the same ideas without complicated jargon? If we can't, we face a huge challenge: having insight without having the words to express it.

There are a number of answers, and what we seem to be doing in the first place is

1) If you don't understand the language. Learn it! (ie. encourage more academics, the path of the college student). This appears to be a conservative application, though not misplaced. We should encourage others to study, to learn, to gain knowledge--yet know the limitations of such an approach. How many of us take time, or have time to dedicate ourselves to the delicate art of learning? After all, it's certainly art. We need to acquire a particular mastery in the skill of acquiring information, processing it, articulating the knowledge gained and critiquing it as well. We are encouraged to delve into other perspectives, as well as cultivating our own. Though not all professors heed this advice, it's a life path and a noble one. It also takes some skill not to become lost in a world of words, disconnected from our bodies and our immediate experiences.

This is a useful skill that should be encouraged, however, the insight into the academic life, if not translated to the populace, might be seen in the near future as, well, more archaic than useful. If information continues to be more decentralized, setting up a school or university in which one has to "enter" in order to learn might be going against the modern trend of "opening up" and flowering of information, open and accessible to more and more people. What once helped humanity may now begin to be seen as a limitation. There is nothing inherently wrong with the set up a university. It's just that times have changed, and relatively it may be seen to be too "closed off," from society to do the same job it had once done.

Like monasteries now stand as objects of "departure" from society instead of centers of knowledge, is the university destined to become the same?

We need to help educate people. But equally so, we must learn to come down from that mountaintop and bring our knowledge back without getting lost in it. Can we do that? And so, often 2) is offered: make it accessible to everyone, without limit.

Wikipedia, the internet in general has made this possible. However, with knowledge (content) there is also the need for structure (the internet, or centralized "universities.") How might we utilize the decentralized power of the internet to provide a more useful tool than a walled-off (sometimes physically) university? After all, a school is often rigorous, standing the test of time, credentials, legitimacy--how can a virtualized style education offer the same?

The third way, or the new way really, is yet to be seen clearly. It may take more time for technology to become more useful for shifting our focus from institution to collaboration. In the future, we may see a university as a network, rather than a focused point on a map. A digital framework of professors, with local "centers," which students are admitted and meet to do their studies, and apply themselves to more activities. This permeable, brain-like network of future universities might also help students collaborate between schools, effectively boosting the awesome power of networking to even greater degrees. The potential for such efficient networks might yield great benefits to the societies they thrive in, offering scientific, academic and technical knowledge to folks who live around them. To be a student might also mean to be engaged in society, rather than needing to disengage.

Here's to a brighter future for academics. Questions, comments, and critiques are welcome. After all, the future starts right here.

Related links:

Alan Watts, the Human Game.

Often enough in sociology, we aren't exposed to enough philosophy. After all, we deal with the fuzzy lines between abstraction and concreteness. We observe the "big picture," politics, ethics, economics, culture--and a great deal of that has to inherently do with philosophical questions, as well as assumptions. In this, Alan Watts presents the "human game," and puts our civilization in new light. Enjoy!

PS: For some good reading, check out his most sociological book: Man, Nature and Woman.

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    open source sociology by Jeremy Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
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