Our Lost Center, in Defense of Reductionism, the Dangers of Metaphysics.

Our history is a nightmare, despite the efforts of great figures like Abraham, Buddha, Plato, Jesus, Mohammad, Marx and many others. We have lurched from one disaster to another, from wars to persecution, genocide, oppression, massive exploitation and more. One popular idea after another has been the reason for our descent into hell. Obviously we have not figured out why we keep on repeating the same mistakes, much less what to do about it.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, full of despair and hopelessness – no hope for change here – an ominous zeitgeist already stalks the land. Indeed, William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) died just 8 months before the next tragic installment of our bloody history. The center did not hold then and it will not hold in the future, unless…

The center could not hold because there never really was such a thing. There could not have been since it was built on the sandy shoals of illusion and delusion. Enlightened minds envisioned rational human beings that aspire and transcend. By our genius we could remake society in our own image, rather than that of a battered and abused God. These new ideas worked for a while, sort of, with a flowering of art, music, science, philosophy and literature giving inspiration to some. Of course, many disagreed, and therein lies the rub. Some have disagreed violently and the results are now for all to see and think upon.

During World War II humanity revisited hell again: extermination camps, genocide, incendiary bombing and nuclear annihilation. Not unreasonably people blamed the status quo ante. The crumbling edifice of modernism and humanism left an opening for yet another narrative, a postmodern one: there is no narrative, no author, no subject, no concept of the human. Radical, atomized difference is the reality and decentering of society shall be the program. Western civilization was responsible for the evil and had to be taken down. We must ask, however, what will fill this vacuum? Radical action? Marxism? A new revelation and second coming? Perhaps a New Critical Theory? The brilliant professors of Ecole Normale Superieure would surely come up with something.

Yes, they do have a point. Ideologies, generally based on philosophy, religion and/or science, had brought us the status quo, but post-modernism promises to be no different. Why? Surely, it would be silly to trash our past and start over again without knowing the etiology and pathogenesis of our disease. What would we do different this time to avoid the pitfalls? It would be just as silly to pick through the rubble of history yet again, hoping to stumble upon the hidden key that we have repeatedly missed over the past 3 millennia. False keys will surely be found, giving great hope to the needy crowd.

No, we should ask at least two questions, probably many more: Where did we go wrong? How do we integrate knew knowledge into our basic assumptions about ourselves and others?

Now, maybe we should try something different! Start our search where we have not looked, in the quiet corners and back alleys where there are no paparazzi or adoring crowds. We should study the idiots! (From the Greek idiṓtēs, “a private citizen, one who has no professional knowledge, layman”, also one who declined to take part in public life). After all, there are vastly more ordinary people than emperors, messiahs, generals, prophets or pundits.

There seems, based on what we are learning now, to have been a misunderstanding of what it is to be a human being; sometimes a god-like creature that struts across the globe and pretends to reach for the stars, but beset mostly with profound challenges. Yet, what a piece of work is man! We are much, much more complex and interesting than we ever did imagine:

1. Each one of us represents an intricate and utterly unique memory bank of psychological events. These experiences start at birth or even before and mold the developing brain, both functionally and physically. The final anatomical shape of our brain may actually be determined by childhood experiences! We begin life in complete ignorance and have to learn everything: how to form mental pictures, how to interpret sounds, how to recognize tastes. Much of this is ‘innate’, but in many situations learning is a combination of direct experience and guidance by others. We must also learn the structures and rules of nature, our culture, social relationships, ‘philosophy’, etc. Unfortunately, much of what is learned is imprecise, inaccurate, or, sometimes, just plain wrong. Everything we are exposed to has to be captured, recognized, sorted and classified; thus a vast amount of information is reduced, compressed and formatted to manageable proportions. Almost all of this is done subconsciously.

2. There are also remarkable, unappreciated variations amongst members of the species that further enhance our individual uniqueness. Each one of us is genetically, physically and functionally different. Genetic polymorphisms induce variations from our sense organs to our brains and everything in between – in fact, we seem to be programmed for diversity. The experience of taste or the pain of injury, all may be unpredictably different from person to person. We come preloaded with strengths and weaknesses, with high functioning and low functioning faculties, and there is no way to tell what is happening on the inside by just looking and listening. What unfolds after birth has an additional and profound effect on the brain and body of the developing human. An absolutely unique genotype is thus further modified in a mostly unpredictable way.

3. Everything in our ultra-super-complex culture in some way is dependent on 1 and 2. The quality and content of culture is therefore different for each one of us, despite the effects of socialization and enculturation. Each one of us, therefore, transfers a unique view of culture to the next generation – quite a personal responsibility!

Each wonderfully original individual person represents a unique universe or idioverse, a term, introduced about 60 years ago by Saul Rosenzweig, indicating that each individual is considered to be a unique universe of psychological events. Everything that one feels, thinks or does becomes part of that idioverse. Not much has been said about it since Rosenzweig. It refers to the totality of our being; there is nothing else in our consciousness but our psychological events. Enjoying the genius of Bach, Beethoven or the Beatles is a series of psychological events completely enclosed in our personal idioverse, composed of and mediated by electrical and chemical signals. We may listen to the same recording but each of us, almost certainly, is transported on a different experience.

Our personal idioverse interacts with a vast ambient cultural universe that consists of family, friends, acquaintances, public figures and about 7.5 billion other human idioverses, our artifacts, as well as mother nature, the cosmos and perhaps things unknown. A single idioverse is certainly a supercomplex system but it can only receive and process an extremely small fraction of all the available and potentially relevant information. Each person integrates into patterns, concepts and abstractions all the information they have been able to capture, sometimes extremely detailed and impressive, but still just shadows of reality. Our reductionist processes (thinking, speaking, body language, etc) can not reproduce the complexities and subtleties of consciousness, understanding, feeling and motivation as they exist in ourself and each other. We cannot fully share awarenesses with each other.

This is the essence of our challenge: The irreducible complexity of a single person and their idioverse must face the irreducible complexity of the total universe, the latter being vastly more complex than the former. The most immediate challenge, by far, is what is one to make of the billions of other people, each with their own unique idioverse, all enigmatic and mysterious? This is beyond supercomplex and seems to be an adequate reason for why ideologies, philosophies and religions have failed to keep the peace and/or caused so many wars, despite our best efforts. These narratives, for example, have tried to stuff everyone into various boxes and categories – an example of a misguided, reductionist effort that has been at the core of our nagging problems.

It is not possible for any one person to acquire all the relevant information on any complex issue, whether personal, social, political or philosophical. While we are intimately aware of what enters our conscious awareness, we are unaware of the underlying ‘unconscious’ processes. These affect our thoughts and behavior and they are under the direction of our genotype. So, we are unaware, and therefore not in conscious control, of our complete self. An academic committee, the US Congress or the United Nations Human Rights Council would seem to be even more ill-equipped to come to an accurate understanding of an issue. This is just a fact about what it means to be human. We have limits, all of us, but also amazing faculties. We do not have to become skeptical or cynical or heretical or religious or mystical or angry or sad, or whatever. This simple fact has always been with us in one form or other, but perhaps it has been too daunting or unpalatable to deal with. It certainly has caused a lot of confusion. However, we can not avoid the issue any more. Life is now too dangerous on multiple levels. The good news is that we have done surprisingly well, so far, despite our ignorance, our wrong ideas and grievous misadventures. There must be forces for the good, the crucial question is what are they? Could there be hidden, implicit biological, psychological and sociological factors at play? (Yes!)

Humans utilize reductionist strategies all the time, it comes to us naturally. We are less successful with integrative processes. There are a number of existential reasons for our situation, some related to the core of our being. This would be a wonderful subject to explore at length but here are some basic elements to consider:

1. Living organisms are reductionist when sensing the environment. Only information useful for the organism is culled from the ambient universe and is then reduced to signals that can be processed and responded to. Unlike dogs we cannot hear very high frequencies. Unlike chickens we cannot detect four different bands of light, only three – our mental pictures could be much simpler than theirs, who knows. We will have to ask a chicken. And unlike mosquitos we can not ‘smell’ carbon dioxide. Some birds, frogs and salamanders use earth’s magnetic field for orientation and direction. Still, humans capture more information from the ambient universe than any other creature, but it is still meager, i.e. highly reduced. Captured information is then converted to generic electrical and chemical signals impinging on neurons.

2. Conscious awareness is an almost realtime reconstruction based on integration of trillions of bits of continuously changing electrical and chemical information. We are only just beginning to identify the sites at which different tasks are performed in the brain, but we already know that most of our subjective experiences via the senses are rife with ‘illusions’. Colors, sounds and tastes do not exist independent of consciousness. Our reconstruction of nature is exquisitely precise but not very accurate. Our subjective reconstructions are in fact detached from ‘true reality’.

3. On the other hand “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler” – Nietzsche. Sounds true, but even further down the reductionist road are the words used to describe such thoughts and feelings. So, when we read or listen, we are getting a reduced and redacted version of events which we reconstruct and integrate into our subjective experience. Misunderstandings of all kinds are inevitable.

4. Science is the prototype of reductionism. Believers in ‘holism’ use this fact to undermine knowledge gained from analytic experimentation. However, “Reductionism is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it”—Richard Dawkins. A surprising fact is that “Few scientists will voluntarily characterize their work as reductionistic. Yet, reductionism is at the philosophical heart of the molecular biology revolution” – Fang, FC; 2011. Anyone who wants to know what they are talking about must understand and know reductionism, and it seems that few do, even scientists.

5. Philosophy is a complex personal thought narrative integrated from abstract reductionistic concepts such as truth, love, beauty, reason, good and evil. Religion is a similar narrative except for the use of an abstract reductionism, God, to rationalize the difficult and mysterious parts. (This does not imply, of course, that there is no God.)

6. Our conscious dealings with other human beings are reductionist inasmuch as everything we say, write or do is filtered through the mechanisms and concepts existing in our and their minds. The information thus exchanged is a greatly reduced version of the conscious awarenesses on both sides. It is impossible for anyone to ‘fully understand’ another person. We do like to believe that it happens though, in spite of the evidence, and this probably relates to that powerful axiom, our common humanity. We love, care for, help, sympathize and empathize with our neighbors because that is what most members of a community do, but not all. We also hate, discriminate against and make war for more complex reasons.

A huge problem should now be evident in our almost exclusive reliance on politics, philosophy and religion as guidance on the most difficult questions. These systems of thought and communication are all based on integration from reductionist inputs which can not yield anything even approaching a complete understanding of reality or any complex issue. Integration always takes place within an idioverse where information is very incomplete and rules apply that are unique for each person. Serious disagreements and opposite views are inevitable. Our huge problem then has been our general unawareness of the systemic imprecision and inaccuracy of religious, political and philosophical thought – the deep personal and cultural biases of such thinkers are not acknowledged. These modes of ‘higher thought’ or speculative thinking are even more susceptible to the systemic error inherent in integration. However it seems that times could be a-changing. Complexity science is being developed and the role of education in a supercomplex world with few definitive answers, is being addressed. So there is progress and hope as people are waking up to the enormity of our challenges, but also to our unrealized potential. (See Ronald Barnett on supercomplexity and education.)

There is more to be careful of. The integration process at the level of politics, philosophy and religion is further compromised by elites competing for power and influence. Fairness and honesty fly out the window when self-interest is at stake. This has been a distraction, a sideshow, deadly, wasteful and corrupt – we still live in the midst of cycles of war and peace, boom and bust. One of the things that distinguishes elites from the rest of us is that they have access to more information, partly because they are closer to the levers of power. They often come out ahead when things go wrong. However, given what we have indicated above, there is very little reason to believe that these power brokers are any closer to the truth than the rest of us. They are, on the contrary, much more prone to the common delusion of “Since I am smarter and know more, I am right”. The problem with our so-called great leaders is that they are frequently wrong, do not take responsibility for their failures and failings, and are insufficiently aware of their own limitations and ignorance.

There is another narrative that is more plausible: society has survived and even progressed in spite of the difficulties and obstacles, in spite of the disastrous adventures of leaders and governments. There apparently are powerful hidden, implicit, common human factors at work, throughout society, including elites – it could be our ‘common humanity’ or maybe something like our ‘common sense’ as described during the Scottish Enlightenment. How this operates is almost completely unknown at the present, but it appears to be real. The idea of instincts comes to mind. Hints are also coming from the study of complex adaptive systems in which unexpected emergent features develop spontaneously. Human beings do not need to be told to have families, to provide for and raise their children, or to participate in the organization of a community. We are competitive, we respond to incentive and disincentive. Above all, it seems, we learn, share information and ‘pursue happiness’. Of course we love to do things better, and for this purpose, good teachers are supremely useful. Everyone, however, should exercise judgement and be appropriately skeptical. Beware of alligators!

In the end individuals evaluate, consciously AND unconsciously, all the information available to him or her and react in the perceived interests of themselves, their family and/or the community. Every decision is a psychological event amongst numerous others in a single, utterly unique idioverse. While our decisions are often intuitive or based on woefully incomplete information, others provide direct feedback on their wisdom or otherwise. This is the level at which society operates and shapes itself. Individual, unique humans and their networks are at the center of our universe. A single human is the most complex and powerful learning and decision-making entity in the universe, pound for pound, that we know of, committees and deliberative bodies not so much. Those billions of idiṓtēs out there should realize that they are in the best position to evaluate and act on what is best for them and their community.

So yes, because our society is a widening gyre, neither the falcon nor the falconer can see or hear each other, unless they focus on better communication. We are still looking for our lost center but a sense of it should begin to appear as we become less distracted by epiphenomena and more appreciative of our greatest asset, those formidable abilities residing in each of us. We are the center of the functional universe and we should all act appropriately, expecting more of ourselves and others.

__________ __________

Some random political thoughts:

We should not be surprised when systems theorists and complexity scientists soon start publishing results about sophisticated computer models, utilizing the largest databases in the world, being able to predict social outcomes. Policy recommendations will be based on their findings, and the smartest people in the world will promise that, if elected, they will fundamentally transform the world. A new UN Commission on Freedom and Justice will be chartered for the benefit of all. China and India will be permanent members of the Commission since they account for more than a third of the world’s population. Unfortunately, results will be very disappointing! All the world’s leaders, and all the world’s elite professors will explain how reactionary forces had caused the failure. All will recommend that far more resources be invested and the programs be expanded.

It would seem axiomatic that a smarter, more responsible and more empowered populace would forge a smarter, better and more prosperous society. The USA has been the country that has historically diffused power the most and, not surprisingly, has been the most prosperous. Our representatives are given power to govern and it is absolutely crucial that they not be given power that is not required for their responsibilities. They should also be held as accountable as possible. The central authority in a large state such as the US should only be delegated the power to do things that can not be done by institutions closer to the people. The closer government is to the people, the less large scale corruption there should be. Powers not necessary at the federal level should automatically revert to the people or the states.

Presently an increasing amount of power and influence is being vested in central government in most societies because it seems like an easy solution for just about any problem – that, at least, is the current favored narrative. However, when things go wrong, and they frequently do, it can be incredibly destructive and deadly. We must find leaders who are honest enough to appreciate the superior wisdom of the people. We need more empowered and competent citizens who are prepared to challenge abuses of power and assume more responsibility in their own lives. We do not need a revolution.

The above is not a recommendation for more self-loathing in ‘the West’ (a useful reductionism), there is enough of that. The West can be blamed for much, not because we are necessarily evil, but because we have been the most dominant actors on the world stage for quite a few centuries. The disasters have occurred under our watch and so we own them, but other cultures have been caught up even more in their own ruts. The ultimate geopolitical problem, everywhere, is how to bring power under control, specifically how to align it with the interests of The People in all their diversity. This will happen when power understands its own interests better. The West gets little credit and much blame, but we appear to be further along on the winding road to empowerment, liberation and realization of the individual human self. A turn to a new narrative that respects and values the diversity and power of each individual, a narrative that does not idolize reductionist fallacies is my recommendation. No revolution required, we just have to put people, philosophy and religion in their proper perspective.