The Sinking Myth of Progress: The Final Plunge

May 28, 1998

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way--"

--- Charles Dickens, 'Tale of Two Cities'

The birth of rationalist philosophies twenty-five hundred years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean was said to mark the 'emancipation of thought from myth'. But there was a residual myth, the myth of unnatural 'heroic' states of perfection, the myth that we could 'progress' linearly towards ideal states, that was carried over in our rationalist thought models, embedded in our 'euclidian' conception of space with its 'perfect' separation between 'things' and space-seen-as-'void'. In this 'bivalent' 'black OR white' view of reality, we were blinded to the yin-yang 'black AND white'ness of nature.

The myth of 'progress' is about to take its final plunge, and like its fin-de-siecle iconic counterpart 'Titanic', all attempts to mentally deny its demise will be in vain. Its 'time' has come and it will not be denied its final resting place in the geologic and ontogenetic record, a fossilized artifact of the nonlinear, non-euclidian, evolutionary flow termed 'nature'. This note is about our increasingly frantic attempts to salvage the myth of progress, the associated need for 'letting go' and the prospects of a far more natural and joyous future as we come home to our natural place in 'the family of things'.

The problem with the notion of progress ties directly to the euclidian assumption of a 'perfect' independence, at some level, of 'things'. It is on the basis of this independence of 'things' that we have constructed the abstract rationalist notion of 'causality'. Twentieth century physics has demonstrated conclusively, however, that space is neither euclidian nor time independent; instead, the non-euclidian space-time continuum is a PARTICIPANT in natural phenomena. More than this, the latent energy in space, the 'quantum field' aka 'ether', now seems much more 'real' than the deceptive stuff we call 'matter' whose quantity and dimensional measurements are a function of the observor's relative frame of reference.

The fact is, that we have 'leakage' between and betwixt 'things' and the space which envelopes them. This means that our linear efforts to reorder and restructure things so that we might 'progress' towards a desired state cannot succeed, because each time we attend to the next item on our list, our actions are bleeding through the ether and effecting those things we just attended to in an unknown and unpredictable way. Our efforts at 'progress' are akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

But another western cultural heritage which goes back 2500 years is the notion that we can trust our rationality even beyond our sensory experience! In one of the best selling and much acclaimed (in the west) popular philosophy books of tdoay ('Sophie's World' by Jostein Gaarder), we find the heroine-protagonist 'Sophie' doing more than a little to bolster the primacy of rationality over sensory experience. The youthful Sophie, self-reflecting on her pre-Socratic philosophy lessons says; "Parmenides had refused to accept the idea of change in any form. And the more she thought about it, the more she was convinced that, in a way, he had been right. His intelligence could not accept that 'something' could suddenly transform itself into 'something completely different'. It must have taken quite a bit of courage to come right out and say it, because it meant denying all the natural changes that people could see for themselves. Lots of people must have laughed at him."

Sticking to one's rational 'guns', by all accounts, still merits hero status in the west.

And to be sure, the Celts and the Native North Americans, did start out laughing at western culture at first exposure, but they soon found that rationality, unleashed from all coupling to ontogeny and understanding, was hugely effective in delivering power-securing weaponry in the fields of knowledge, wealth and violence, the pillars of global power. Of course, though we may develop the knowledge to build explosives and nuclear energy with the vision of 'progress' in mind, non-euclidian space leakage may, by 'murphy's law', rearrange things in the wake of our good efforts and deliver this weaponry to malcontents with a vision of retribution or control, as opposed to progress towards an ideal state. Thus a technological advance which can inaugurate 'the spring of hope' can at the same time lead us into 'the winter of despair'. Such is the yin-yang nature of a reality in which space leaks.

And how about yourgoodself? ... do you believe that we can keep afloat our practice of seeing reality first-and-foremost in terms of independent 'things' and their causal interactions; i.e. of a non-conductive, rectangular and inert space? ... or do you see a need to 'let go' of this deeply ingrained belief, letting it sink to the bottom to take its place in history, and shifting the primacy of our perception and inquiry over to the notions of 'purpose' and the 'circle of life'? As Nietzsche has pointed out; "The belief in cause collapses with the belief in purpose.", so there appears to be a need to make up (make over?) one's mind, so to speak, or at least to seriously reflect on one's unquestioned psychological 'filters'.

With this background, we can move on to discuss how we have been unawarely hedging our bets through the process of 'deconstruction', wherein we attempt to salvage the sinking concept of 'progress' --- the notion of continuous linear movement towards an ideal state, by repetitively rearranging the deck chairs on this sinking myth.

What we are currently experiencing is a manifest breakdown of the euclidian (water-tight) space paradigm, as evidenced in rising social dysfunction, and it is confusing us because (a) the euclidian space paradigm has become part of our unquestioned psychological functioning, and (b) the euclidian space paradigm has us pursuing solutions on the basis, not only of independence between 'things' (or systems of things) but also on the basis of independence between space and time. Thus it has us deal with problems 'one game at a time' and have us think that if we can fix this one system and SUBSEQUENTLY move on and fix the next, we can ultimately fix the whole overall system (i.e. this IS the euclidian assumption). Unfortunately, seen through the more reality-consistent lenses of a non-euclidian space-time continuum, wherein space is a 'participant' along with 'things', we are simply 'bailing out' one subsystem by dumping the bilge into another. We are now at the stage where this 2500 year old ship of euclidian rationalism is sinking fast and feeling compelled to bail ever faster and more furiously, still oblivious to the fact that the discarded bilge is not discarded at all, but simply displaced to another subsection or another decklevel.

This overview of how inconsistencies between the euclidian space assumption and our sensory experiencing of nature give rise to dysfunction is supplemented by the more detailed and documented observations in earlier essays such as 'understanding knowledge: symphonic liberation', 'the geometry of understanding', and 'life seen in 'toe-doe' '.

To continue this thread, it is important to note that a clear and aware decision was made by the Greeks who supported the euclidian space choice (e.g. Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle etc.) that the arbitor of any inconsistencies would be our abstract rationality rather than our sensory experience. That this primacy of rationality over sensory experience still exists in the west is evident in events of horrific dissonance such as 'the holocaust', in the results of psychological experimentation, in incidents of abstraction-based hysteria such as Orson Welles dramatization of 'War of the Worlds' and in the general persistence of mind/matter duality in the western culture, as noted not only by psychologists and philosophers, but even by eastern business researchers such as Nonaka and Takeuchi ('The Knowledge-Creating Company').

Thus, the arbitor of natural sensory experience, which has for many centuries been ringing the alarms of a breach in the bulwarks of western thinking, was 2500 years ago, subordinated to the arbitor of 'rationality' which operates through a global network of 'high priests' of the rational disciplines (academic, commercial, governmental, institutional), who have repeatedly given us the reassuring signal that the problems we are dealing with are not attributable to our rational models. And it is clear they do this in good faith, with as faultless honesty and humanist empathy as pre-Pasteur doctors assured their patients that the source of their ills derived from within them and was not attributable to the mode of (surgical) intervention (i.e. this was termed the 'theory of in-situ 'spontaneous generation' which was later supplanted by the discovery that infection was caused by bacteria).

It takes many years for scientifically discovered changes in the fundamental geometries of nature to finally permeate society as Thomas Kuhn has pointed out in 'The Copernican Revolution', 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' etc. Thus, our habitude for euclidian systems interventions which reinfect the patient in the very attempt to cure is taking a long time in being subsumed by healthier non-euclidian intervention alternatives.

The essential problem with the euclidian space assumption has been termed 'Epicurus Dilemma' and is discussed at length by Ilya Prigogine in his recent book, 'The End of Certainty'. The problem is that if we assume that space is fully characterized in terms of matter and void, even if we say that the fundamental constituents of matter can be very small and varied in attributes and capable of a great array of mechanical interactions, how can we explain sensory experience such as evolution and metamorphosis and sustained transformative processes such as 'life'? Of course, if one starts from the concept of a latent dynamical (upwelling and subducting) energy flux which continually precipitates and redissolves matter, a non-euclidian or Heraclitean view of space, Epicurus dilemma does not present itself.

What is implicit in the notion of euclidian space, and this has been burned into our western brains over the centuries, is the notion of IMMORTALITY, ... of eternal 'things'. Since our rational mind can deny our sensory experience and easily conceptualize 'things' as eternal, just as it conceptualizes euclidian space as being of infinite extent, a conflict is set up between our rational mind and our sensory experience. For example, rationally (some might say 'irrationally' or 'non-rationally') we may assume that man has a special 'eternal' role on earth, that as long as there is an earth, that man, homo sapiens, will be here on it; i.e. to our rational mind, an earth without man may be 'unthinkable' like the 'sound' of a tree falling in an 'uninhabited' forest (we tend not to include rabbits and deers in our anthropocentric philosophizing). However, our sensory experience tells us that all things die and are recycled, and our empirical tradition (e.g. the geologic record) tells us that all species come and go over the long term.

This concept of 'immortality' is bundled into the euclidian space assumption and butts heads with our sensory experience of all things having 'mortality', from electrons, through human individuals, through continents and planets to the whole of nature. This 'mortality' is in fact a necessary condition for any self-sustaining dynamical system. In the yin-yang geometrical view of reality, each yang-thing that is born, from electrons to man, is born with its shadow partner of mortality (a place or 'hole' in the enveloping nature to return to) which gives it a purpose to tune-in to the harmonies of the enveloping yin-whole, evolving into a unique, authentic and unpredictable self, fully co-resonant with its space-time surroundings and aptly prepared for re-merging with the harmonic container termed 'nature'.

So while our rational mind wants to associate immortality with all aspects of our lives, from man's presence on earth to our individual lives, to our heroic and unblemished state at birth and to our intimate physical relationships with others, our sensory experience informs us that this is a 'no-go', that all material 'things' must ultimately die. Meanwhile, the easterners, native north american cultures etc. did not have this conflict in their philosophies since they implicitly see rationality as a subordinate function or 'tool' and maintain sensory experience in the primacy. In this mode, it is the fulfillment of a 'person' or thing to ultimately rejoin nature which engendered him, and to find during one's own life, the unique and authentic co-resonances which will bring him back into harmony with the enveloping harmonic whole. He will in fact have in him an innate 'purpose' or 'will to power' to become what he needs to become to find this co-resonance with nature and come home to his place in the family of things, both in life and his ongoing role in nature.

The conflict between western man's 'rational' euclidian projection of immortality and his sensory projection of mortality sets up an internal conflict in the form of 'fear of mortality'. As Bauman, Baudrillard, Henry, Laing and others have explicitly or implicitly stated, western man responds to this 'fear of mortality' by 'deconstructing' it into as many fragmented 'little mortalities' as possible, to avoid 'the big one'. But by doing so, he is exposed to, as Bauman suggests, developing a strategy for living based on a depressing and burdensome avoidance of dying; hence exercising, dieting, quitting smoking and drinking, investing in all types of health and security systems may together become a dominant 'pseudo-purpose' in his life. In living to avoid dying, he may extend his lifespan a few years or he may not, but it is clear that to 'live' in a natural sense means to let go of the 'fear of mortality.

This same geometry is described by Baudrillard with respect to homo sapiens and environmental issues; i.e. our fear of anthropic mortality is deconstructed into many smaller anthropic health threats and we humans are collaborating on global ecological initiatives to save this appealing species or that to the point that the depressing and burdensome drive to perpetuate nature as a home for homo sapiens is becoming a powerful 'pseudo-purpose' which is eclipsing the natural purpose of living in a joyous harmony with nature. As Baudrillard maintains, we reduce nature to waste in the process.

The same geometry is described by Jules Henry with respect to behavioral issues; i.e. our fear of mortality in our inborn hero status (all wins, no losses) is deconstructed into many small 'win-lose' battles so that we may never have to lose 'the big one' and lose total face as is alluded to in the ancient Greek outlook captured by Pindar. Thus in our educational system (and in the world of commerce), we are taught zero sum competition where our win is someone else's loss and vice versa, and learn the 'dream of failure' as Henry says. Thus the depressing and burdensome pseudo-purpose to avoid losing may engender its own behavioral strategy.

This deconstructionist geometry, which emanates from the conflict between our rationalist euclidian view of space and our sensory experience, the fearful dream of mortality, appears to permeate all aspects of our lives. For example, in our intimate relationships, we typically pledge our 'undying love' and where this is seen in the (beyond physical) sense of natural and timeless intimacy, no conflict need arise in west or east, however, it is common in our western culture to dream the fearful dream of the mortality of a loving relationship, and so deconstruct it into many small relationship 'health issues' to avoid 'the big one'. Thus the depressing and burdensome pseudo-purpose to avoid breakup of the relationship may become the strategy for relating to one's partner.

In all of these instances, where the avoidance of mortality becomes the pseudo-purpose and strategy for living, a kind of 'self-fulfilling prophesy' effect comes into play; i.e. life is dulled if not terminated by living it to avoid death, relationships are dulled if not broken by living them to avoid breakup, and our species is dulled if not prematurely put on 'death row' by our living to avoid extinction. In order for our species to truly live and thrive, we in our roles as individuals and co-evolutionary team members, we must 'let go' of our 'fearful dreams of mortality and failure' which spring from the conflict between euclidian rationality and sensory experience.

This need is particularly true in the case of crime, poverty and employment. As a society, we are deconstructing our fears of the mortality of fraternity, prosperity and ontogenetic actualization into many small 'health issues' in each of these areas to avoid the 'big ones'; (civil war, starvation, massive unemployment), to the point that our strategy for fraternity degenerates into one of conflict avoidance, our strategy for prosperity degenerates into one of starvation avoidance and our strategy for personal development (education) degenerates into one of unemployment avoidance.

But as the song goes, 'if you don't have a dream, how ya gonna have a dream come true.?'... or perhaps more aptly, 'if you have the wrong dream, beware of it coming true'.

In our western euclidian paradigm, we dream the fearful dream of mortality of those things we want to be never-ending, and succumb to a degeneration of our strategies-for-living into strategies-to-avoid-dying. And in the process, something inside us dies --- the joy of living. Through the process of deconstruction of everything, we progressively fragment ourselves, as we focus on, and allocate resources to a steadily rising number of increasingly detailed issues. This movement constitutes a titanic 'death spiral' since, in this partitioned allocation of resources and attention, we move progressively further away from an understanding of the source of the behaviors we are attempting to manage and control; i.e. complex emergent behaviors which cannot be deduced from the properties of the constituent parts and cannot be dealt with on time-and-thing independent bases.

In the non-euclidian paradigm, 'things' are not eternal or immortal but innately 'mortal', continuously upwelling from and subducting back into the dynamic soup of energy latency which characterizes our reality; i.e. 'the circle of life'. In this sensory experience oriented paradigm, euclidian rationality must be demoted to 'tool' or 'ladder' status to avoid self-inflicted conflict which self-defeats movement towards a 'desired state'.

In this paradigm, the old arbitor of rationalist thought must be subsumed (i.e. must once again be subsumed, after a 2500 year hiatus) by the arbitor of ontogenesis, the 'tuning in' to our natural 'place in the family of things' which liberates us from the illusion of a one-size-fits-all linear path of 'progress', restores our individuality and uniqueness, and puts us back on our authentic yet unpredictable path of harmonious co-evolution with an enveloping nature which IS us.

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