Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dreams of a Better World

As it launched the modern worldview on its trajectory, the intellectual revolution of the 18th century – the Enlightenment, as it’s usually called – passed on a legacy with profoundly mixed consequences for the future. Central to the Enlightenment ethos was the claim that myths were simply inaccurate claims about fact, and should be replaced by more accurate claims founded on reason and experiment. This seems like common sense to most people nowadays, but like most things labeled “common sense,” it begs more questions and conceals richer ironies than a casual glance is likely to reveal.

One of those ironies became central to a discussion sparked by last week’s Archdruid Report post, when a reader took issue with my characterization of progress as a myth. Like most people nowadays, he assumed that “myth” meant a story that isn’t true, and drew the usual distinction between myth and science – that is, between the cosmological narratives of other cultures, which don’t usually make experimentally testable claims about the natural world, and the cosmological narratives of ours, which does. It took, as it usually does, several exchanges before he realized that the popular definition of myth he was using is not the only game in town.

What makes this ironic is that the definition of myth he was using is itself part of a myth: the very one I mentioned in the earlier post. Only from within the myth of progress – the belief that all human existence follows a single line of advance leading straight from the caves to today’s industrial societies, and beyond them to the stars – does it make sense to treat the belief systems of the past as inadequate attempts to do what we do better. The notion that other mythologies might have other purposes, and accomplish them better than ours does, is practically unthinkable these days. Yet many traditional belief systems have done a fine job of enabling the people who hold them to live their lives in harmony with their environment for millennia, while modern industrial cultures have proven hopelessly inept at this basic and necessary task.

Now of course there are plenty of people nowadays who use arguments such as this last to stand the myth of progress on its head, and insist that these traditional cultures are more advanced than ours. As I see it, though, the predicament we are facing demands something subtler. Rather than swapping one narrative for its mirror image, it may be time to step back and look at our mythic narratives as narratives, rather than imposing them by force on the world around us.

This backward step has a useful if uncomfortable effect: it reveals the awkward fact that the cultural narratives we use to make sense of the world today, however new they look, are generally rehashes of myths that have been around for a very long time. The anthropologist Misia Landau pointed out some years ago, for example, that contemporary scientific accounts of the rise of Homo sapiens from its prehuman ancestors are simply rehashed hero myths that follow Joseph Campbell’s famous typology of the hero’s journey, point for point. In the same way, those like Ray Kurzweil who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a hypertechnological future, just as much as those who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a return to the hunter-gatherer past, are simply projecting the myth of paradise onto one or another of the very few locations a secular worldview offers for it.

All this has to be kept in mind when considering an odd phenomenon that has become steadily more prominent in recent months, and seems likely to become even more so in the near future.

Well over a dozen times in the last six months, I’ve found myself in conversations with people who believe that the imminent crash of industrial society will inevitably lead to the birth of the sort of society they themselves most want to live in. What I find most interesting is that no two of them agree on exactly what sort of society that will be. Some of them come to the discussion with detailed plans for their perfect future, backed up figuratively – and now and again literally – with a backpack stuffed with supporting documentation laboriously cherrypicked from their favorite authors and the media; on the other end of the spectrum are those who have no idea what the world of the future will look like, but cling to an unshakable faith that it must be better than the world of today.

This astigmatism of the imagination is remarkably common. A good friend of mine once recounted a conversation he’d had in the last days of 1999 with someone who confessed she was deeply worried about the imminent Y2K problem. He assumed that she meant she was worried about the struggle for survival in the aftermath of the massive systems collapse some people were still predicting at that point, but she quickly set him right. Her job was unsatisfying, her marriage was on the rocks, and her life was at a standstill; what worried her was the possibility that she might wake up on January 1, 2000 to find that nothing had changed.

For my part, I knew quite a few people who became profoundly depressed when the world still worked after Y2K came and went, and there are many more people placing similar hopes on the potential catastrophes of the present and near future. It might seem that coping with a boring job, a troubled marriage, and a midlife crisis would still be preferable to starving to death in a burned-out basement in the aftermath of a cataclysmic social unraveling. The fact that many people in America today see things differently is one of the least noted and most troubling indicators of the temper of our times.

History has a good deal to do with the popularity of the belief in utopia through apocalypse these days. Over the course of the 20th century, the dizzying range of political-economic ideologies that once jostled for position in the western world narrowed gradually down to two – free market capitalism and Marxism – and then to one, which combines most of the objectionable features of both. The collapse of the New Left in the aftermath of the Sixties, and the abandonment of traditional conservatism by the pragmatist Right of the Reagan era, left a political vacuum that has yet to be filled. For some years now, as a result, most radicals of left and right alike have pictured their task in the purely reactive language of resistance and opposition, while the mainstream parties abandoned their old commitments in favor of the pursuit of business as usual for its own sake.

This has spared all sides the daunting challenge of coming up with constructive proposals for the future, but the downside is that those who sense the necessity for change are left with nothing but fantasies of a perfect world after an apocalyptic collapse to feed their hopes. In the process, it has been all too easy for many people to forget that in every other example in history, the decline and fall of a civilization leads not to utopia, but to a long and difficult age of warfare, mass migration, population decline, impoverishment, and the loss of priceless cultural treasures. Just as revolutionaries who insist that nothing can be worse than the status quo are often unpleasantly surprised to find just how much worse things can get, those who insist that today’s industrial societies comprise the worst of all possible worlds may find themselves pining for the good old days of suburbs and freeways if they get the collapse they think they want.

Furthermore, especially but not only in America, the last few decades has seen the emergence of a culture of political demonology in which the slight differences between competing political parties get redefined in terms of absolute good and evil. Vigorous debate over the relative merits of candidates for office is the lifeblood of a republic, but when opponents of a public official don’t seem to be able to walk past his picture without screaming obscenities at it – and I have seen this on both sides of the widening political chasm in America today – something has gone seriously wrong. Carl Jung’s useful concept of “projecting the shadow” is more than a little relevant here; too many Americans nowadays have fallen into the seductive but disastrous habit of blaming their political adversaries for their own feelings of shame and resentment. Even the briefest glance at history shows where that sort of scapegoat logic leads, and it’s no place any sane human being would want to go.

Still, sanity may be in short supply as the crisis of industrial society deepens around us. Lacking a clear sense of the logic of myth – and the legacy of the Enlightenment has made such a sense uncommonly hard to gain these days – it’s far too easy for people in crisis to get so deeply entangled in mythic narratives that they lose track of the direction those narratives are leading them. A good deal of what happened during Germany’s “few years in the absolute elsewhere” between 1933 and 1945, as Jung pointed out in a prescient essay, can best be understood as this type of entrapment in a myth, with a grand Wagnerian Götterdammerung as finale. It’s entirely possible that some similar madness could grip America in the years to come.

Whether or not anything so ghastly happens, the unfolding crisis of industrial society is likely to bring in a bumper crop of misplaced myths and self-defeating ideologies unless we can manage to gain a wider recognition of the role of myth in public life, even – or, rather, especially – in those modern societies that pride themselves on their hard-headed rationality. When claims that an imminent catastrophe will inevitably result in the coming of a desired new world are seen for what they are – religious myths of apocalypse decked out awkwardly in secular drag – it’s easier to see through them, and also to notice that the same claims have failed catastrophically every time in recorded history that they have been projected onto the inkblot patterns of current events.

If we can regain a certain degree of mythic literacy, and apply it to the myths that shape our public life, we might even be able to stop thinking of modern industrial society as either the best or the worst of human cultures, and recognize it as the ramshackle product of a long process of evolution, containing much that is worth saving alongside much that belongs in history’s compost bin. We might also find ourselves realizing in time that catastrophe is no guarantee of Utopia, and a better society will emerge out of the wreckage of this one only if a very sizable number of us are willing to muster the courage, forbearance, and capacity for hard work needed to make that happen.

68 comments:

Danby said...

Myths are always about a thruth. The critical point of a myth is what truth it reveals. Myths of Eden, for example, show the very deep disconnect between how people are wired and how circumstances force them to live. Myths of Apocalypse reveal our powerlessness in the face of injustice. In the current state of affairs, the evil prosper. At the End though, everyone will get theirs. And hard.

green with a gun said...

That's true that in catastrophe people see hope for Utopia. Nowadays I'm seeing a lot of people happy at the rising price of oil - "this will wake them up!" I can't be happy, because an SUV driver's inconvenience is some Ghanan girl's removal from school to cart water when the diesel pump can't be fuelled.

I've often been tempted by Utopia, to think that the changes forced on us will lead to the kind of world I'd like to see. It's a constant temptation, and hard to resist. And the power of myth is such that you're often not even conscious of the stories you've absorbed, and which you repeat again and again.

With articles like The Shape of Food to Come and The Oily Smudge on the Future of the City-State I've tried to paint in broad strokes the sort of future I anticipate, but I'm sure I'm not immune to my own Utopia creeping in.

My fear is the most likely path in the coming decades is little islands of Ecotopia in seas of enslaved poverty. That is, chunks of cities will become powered by renewable energy, with "cradle to cradle" manufacturing processes, organic food for everyone, no cars and lots of walking and public transport... surrounded by walls, with slums of impoverished people outside.

Already in China we see that in refining silicon for photovoltaic cells they're letting dreadful poisons out into the water and soil; that is, less pollution in the West is at the expense of the poor in the Third World having more pollution.

I think also of certain carbon offset plans, where diesel water pumps are taken from Indian farmers and replaced with treadle pumps, then the calculated offsets sold to Westerners taking planes. Eco-friendly slavery?

So that's my fear: that we'll have Ecotopia islands surrounded by seas of human misery, and indeed built on them at their expense.

Robert Magill said...

It is as pointless to project backward on the past as it is to conjure the future. Jung also said that if we fail to rapidly discern the universal truth of what constitutes being human we can slip into another dark age.


We're Not Hirsute No More, No More, No More: A MYTHIC FABLE

The folks way back when were very, very hairy. Life had been going along as usual for eons and eons with everybody just learning to walk upright and throw rocks until one day someone discovered fire.
Everybody was thrilled and excited but soon learned (upon bursting into flame) that this was dangerous stuff for extremely furry people to handle.
So nothing much happened with the new discovery until one day somebody started using an old gnu hide (skin side out of course) as a sort of apron for protection. Viola! The first clothing was invented. It was not used for modesty or for warmth but as a barbeque bib.
So the hunt was on. Everything that could be caught and tasted nice went onto the grill. Life was good.
One day much later on, the strangest little baby boy was born. Cute little guy, no doubt, but almost hairless.
Nobody knew what to do with him. One bunch said ," leave him for the hyenas" but his mother was frantic so they said," ok ,but if the kid is a problem ,he goes".
Years passed and the little hairless boy grew into a big hairless man.
One day he astounded the gang by handling fire quite easily without even wearing an apron! This was a really big deal and he grew rapidly in status and prestige. So much so that this naked young firebug was so exalted he became the very first shaman.
Apparently he was hugely popular with the ladies because he left a great, long legacy...the rest of us.

The end

Loveandlight said...

We might also find ourselves realizing in time that catastrophe is no guarantee of Utopia, and a better society will emerge out of the wreckage of this one only if a very sizable number of us are willing to muster the courage, forbearance, and capacity for hard work needed to make that happen.

In other words, much of it will be a game of ketchup, but it will also be challenge we will relish if we've mustard the courage!

/ducks and runs

Bill Pulliam said...

I've long found it rather sad the way that scientists generally disown and are embarrassed about their intellectual ancestors. Other creative endeavors, such as visual arts, literature, architecture, and engineering, happily trace a proud ancestry back through the millenia through the great civilizations of antiquity and on through to prehistory. Even economists, those uber-devotees of the Myth of Progress, don't view primitive economic systems as "wrong" or "shameful," just simpler and older. Well, OK, maybe when you get to slave economies (which sadly are not actually entirely a thing of the past), but that is a specific moral issue, not a general revulsion towards earlier ways of thinking. Science, however, tends to cough, look ashamed, and quietly divert attention the other way once you get back more than a few centuries. Astronomers want no connection whatsoever to astrology; chemists snort derisively al alchemy.

On the matter of "return to Eden via global economic collapse," is this really a new way of thinking? It seems a natural tendency of people throughout the ages to hope for a massive external force that will obliterate their dull dreary lives and establish an earthly paradise. If it is indeed an upswing now, I'd wager that it's because now that we have reached such a pinnacle of affluence (we are still the richest, healthiest, and most leisured society that has ever existed, in spite of "lagging consumer confidence") we find ourselves no happier than we ever were, and hope for external salvation since we have been unsuccessful at shopping ourselves into Nirvana.

There are many things I will be happy to see go away if the "Long Emergency" and "Long Decline" play out as forecast. Suburban sprawl and the electronic virtualization of society and experience are among the biggies. But there are many things I fear that temper this, such as resurgence of warlords, pillaging gangs, slavery/indentured servitude, famines and pandemics, and a global deforestation in a desperate attempt to fuel our vehicles and industries off of cellulose before it all grinds down.

"Still, sanity may be in short supply as the crisis of industrial society deepens around us. " Alas, I think that is a safe bet.

Lance Michael Foster said...

The opposing myth to the one of progress and final Utopia/salvation, is that found in such narratives of the Norse and the Hopi. The Norse saw the eventual decline into the final collapse of Ragnarok, which seems to echo entropy, from the Big Bang to ultimate eventual chaos, quite well. The Hopi saw this decline as a cycle of decline: successive "worlds" where things start out well, then decline through human misdeeds to collapse and death, and then a cycle where things are new again and then again, decline.

Perhaps people in our culture, whether their paradigm is scientific or JudeoChristian, see evolution rising to salvation or perfection, but the older narratives often echo entropy, with cycles of beauty and hope locked within that entropy, like a great beating heart. The problem with the current crop of crash and burn collapsists is that they are confusing Ragnarok with the Shining City on the Hill.

I agree that a recognition of the place and deep structure of myth would help us gain a sense of proportion, but the problem is that the intellectualization of myth is the antithesis of myth, light to its dark and dark to its light, and the truth can only be grasped at as one door opens and the other closes.

While the mythologization of "America," with George Washington never telling a lie and the Pilgrim's Progress, may provide the Wagnerian theme for a future American Fuhrer (after the next cycle of failed political "steady-the-course" sinks us deeper and deeper and people become as desperate as the Germans after WWI), all the examination of myths and deep structure will only create more Socrates and Cassandras, with their very same fates.

Christine Lydon said...

Is it not the case that the prevailing economic system, in particular its dependence on advertising/marketing, has a vested interest in a population who don't recognise that they live by mythic narratives? There has been much emphasis on 'emotional literacy'in recent years, but not a whisper about 'mythic literacy'. I find almost noone around me sees a big picture, or that other versions are possible. This makes people very susceptible to marketing and propaganda.

John Michael Greer said...

As if on cue, somebody tried to post a long rant about everything that's evil with the political movement he hates, complete with LOUD CAPITALS just in case nobody got the point. I couldn't have come up with a better example of today's political demonology if I'd tried. Still, it was irrelevant to the post and way too long, and has been deleted.

Dan, I've always liked Symmachus' comment -- "myths are things that never happened, but always are."

Green, that's a common fear these days. My guess is that the level of social organization needed to maintain such a system will be an early casualty of the approaching dark ages, but we'll see.

Robert, Jung had a very clear sense of where modern civilization was headed; his essay "Wotan" (referred to in the post) ought to be required reading for students of the future.

Loveandlight, my condiments for a well-roasted pun.

Bill, modern science adopted the 17th century Protestant attitude toward other religions -- "we are the children of light and they are the children of darkness" -- and applied it to other sciences. Hopelessly unproductive, but that's their story and they're sticking to it. As for the return to Eden via collapse, of course it's an old belief -- that's exactly my point; it's a rehash of apocalyptic beliefs that have been around for millennia. What interests me is just how widespread they have become in their latest incarnation.

Lance, I don't see the intellectual understanding of myth as the antithesis of myth, any more than the intellectual understanding of how we breathe gets in the way of breathing. To grasp myth as a carrier of meaning is to become a participant in myth on more than one level, and ultimately to practice magic -- the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to give one of its classic definitions.

Conscious myth is a central tool of magic. What made Cassandra and Socrates ineffectual, and eventually killed both of them, is that one couldn't and the other wouldn't translate their insights into mythic narratives that could shape the consciousness of those around them. Plato, Socrates' student, got the lesson and became a master of creative myth, which is why his ideas still shape how people in the western world think about anything you care to name.

Christine, remember that the people who run today's economic system are just as blind to myth as the rest of us, and just as powerfully shaped by the history of the modern world's revolt against myth. If they had a clue, I doubt they would be following the mythic pattern of hubris and nemesis with such enthusiasm.

David said...

I'd like to believe that we can come to recognize the myths that fuel our image of our selves, our societies, and the world we live on. But I don't see it happening. Except slowly. We've been carrying these stories around for millennia.

And I'd like to believe that we can replace these toxic myths with ones more in harmony with our selves, our society, and our planet. But I don't see that happening either. Except slowly.

Do you (JMG) have any reason to believe that there will be some kind of accelerated 're-mything' coming up? A time of turbulent social change and environmental havoc seems like the petri dish for this sort of thing. But all kinds of terrible things can emerge from that sort of extreme chaos as well, and I don't want to put my money on some kind of rewriting of our stories about ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Maybe you can give me some hope on this score.

nika said...

As a deeply committed and staunch atheist, I do not tend toward the mythic, my magical thinking gland withered a long time ago. I know that doesn’t make me immune to delusion tho. As a scientist, I can promise you that the only sorts of scientists who sit about musing on the dark pre-scientific method past are social scientists, bioethicists, and the like. Its much more likely that your average scientist is thinking about how to read the terabytes of data off the latest genome-wide sequencing run off her 454 next gen sequencer. Modern science, as experienced from within, is absolutely not about processing the past other than how it affected our (or our model organism’s) body and genes.

All that being said, this also may well mean that the stochastic forward progress of science (other than taking the time to repeat your competitor’s experiments to prove him wrong but no one has time for this, have to get data for the next grant proposal) doesn’t really inform your average scientist’s home life and how they may prepare (or not) for the collapse.

Whew.

Ok, but the real reason I write is to add that for me, and my own tendency to see post-collapse with rosy tints versus utter despair, I feel that mine comes not from a need for myth but my intuitive and usually non-articulated sense of dehumanization and un-empowerment in this wage slave life. I really think that is what I am reacting to when I see the benefits of collapse .. things like the ability to barter the raw milk and foods we already produce for things we may need with no governmental interference, a release from the agony of debt and mortgage, the utter stupidity and unsustainable rat race that is higher education these days (this coming from someone who went all the way through for the Piled Higher and Deeper degree), I could go on. You may be exposed to more happy go lucky people than me, most people I know who are not spiraling down the nihilist doomer path into ineffective depression are thinking about what they can get DONE, post collapse. More and more, I am preferring to get things done before, during, and after so that this stress from waiting goes away. In other words, I would prefer to powerdown now and raise my kids that way than to suffer the addiction pains just when I need to be most functional. That whole skilling up thing.

Nika

http://www.peaknix.com

NeoLotus said...

I'm not lazy and will do a google on Wotan. But for the sake of the lazy people in the world who need to read it, could you please post a link to the essay if there is on available on line?

Robert said...

It sounded like you were talking about me at times (knowing full well you weren't). Allow me to clarify my position:

Although there are many things about the current situation I don't like, the worst thing I can imagine is what will happen if things don't collapse. A resource war Armeggedon is in our future unless we abandon our current consumption habits. Avoiding this means abandoning consumerism and requires the collapse of the economic status quo.

I am quite aware that economic collapse will not necessarily result in something better than what we have now, but it is possible. It's up to us. We can preserve some of the good things we have now. We don't have to loose it all. We can take comfort at the extent to which the resources we use now are wasted. We could bring down the system gently by nonparticipation.

It seems to me that the most common reason that people who are aware now don't practice conservation is that they don't think others will. Therefore they think they will be chumps for doing so. Everybody is waiting for others to go first. This could change.

There is no point in talking about the odds of this happening. We just have to do what is right and have faith that others will come around. The alternative is too grim to consider.

JosephG said...

In his book, "The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light", William Irwin Thompson talked about myth along these lines.

He posited that, any time a scientific theory attempts to answer the questions, "Who are we, where did we come from and where are we going?", the organization of the narrative will fall into mythic form.

He posited the highest level of myth as the hieroglyphic/archetypal, the Platonic realm. Here, very similiar to psychedelic shamnism, myth is a directly experienced information read-out/enactment of things like the origin of humanity, DNA, etc.. Graham Hancock has a very good book out on this.

In "Metahistory", Hayden White posits that historical narratives are framed by tropological/rhetorical parameters and lingusitic schemas that prefigure the historical narrative.

Following the analytical methods of literary criticism, he posits the idea that historical narratives fall into 4 categories: Tragedy, Comedy, redemptive Romance and ironic Farce.

Direct archetypal experience would be considered to be outside the framework of western rational-empiricism, and would be considered to be "revelation."

Noah Scales said...

Mr. Greer, stepping back is a useful place from which to evaluate what people actually do, and to evaluate what they think, feel, and know, I can step into their shoes, briefly. If I confront someone suffering fear of the apocalypse, I can reframe the particulars they perceive as a "new hope" or "better tomorrow", but I did not give them a recipe to survive in that future.

Since the apocalypse is at least possible, what resources can I provide someone else who (like all of us) must deal with all possible futures, good or bad, until they arrive?

Mr. Foster, please distinguish between intellectualizing and collecting information. Revealing the deep structure of a narrative applied to the actions of a group of people invalidates the summary of those actions by that narrative, but leaves open other summaries as still valid. For example, invalidating the apocalypse narrative leaves open a bright future without a predictable form.

Bill Pulliam said...

Forgive me a digression, which you may decide not to post...

In the Eden myth, as I recall (don't really wanna go read it again to confirm), didn't Jahweh's first clue that something was amiss in Paradise come when he saw the humans covering their nakedness in shame? So from this, doesn't it (mytho)logically follow that the Original Sin is in fact... clothing??? I can see the naked hairy people standing in front of of the mall now carrying their placards reading "CLOTHES ARE THE TOOLS OF BEELZEBUB," "GOD HATES CLOTHING," and "REPENT! UNDRESS!"

Robert... as one of the shaggy-and-proud contributors here, not sure I'm all that fond of your myth ;) Personally, I have yet to catch fire even once!

Megan said...

The grass is always greener on the other side; on the other hand, a change is good as a rest; and yet, better the devil you know. Evidently, the difficulty in weighing the costs and benefits of a change is not a new problem. I think that difficulty is responsible for both utopian and dystopian scenarios. Of course abolishing the status quo would mean an end to our current troubles. It would also mean an end to our current joys, though new joys - and new troubles - would arise to replace them. How do you weigh the relative value of all these factors? Most people can't in any realistic fashion, so instead they zero in on the ones that interest them most. If you hate your current woes more than you value your current benefits, burning it all down and starting afresh does sound like a net benefit, even the way to utopia. But we often take good things for granted until they're gone - ask a drowning man how he feels about air.

yooper said...

Excellent article John! Oh,how I do love to think about myth, progress and utopia! Do you suppose, utopia has been unachievable because of the myth of progress, thoughout the histories of mankind?

I've a question for Danby, since you brought it up, my thought is solid (being a believer) about the Garden of Eden being the only utopia in recorded history. I'm very interested in what your thoughts might be concerning this "very deep disconnect between how people are wired and how circumstances force them to live".

One thought just floored me by John's pal "Jason", that is, during Adam and Eve's time in the Garden of Eden, they did not till the land, only "gathered". Only after the orginal sin, did the "first Adam", till or cultivate.

I'm very likely to come back asserting that "utopia" is unachievable..

Thanks, yooper

Court said...

Hello John,

I am afraid I am going to have to issue with your assertion that I 'saw the light', as it were. I implied, or meant to imply via Ortega y Gasset, that it was possibly to see new ever-evolving technologies as magic. I did not say that this implies endless progress.

In any case, you sidestepped my question, which I will pose again: how does the computer sitting in front of me partake in a 'myth of progress'? If you respond by saying the computer is a 'mythical narrative', I'm going to reply that that is mushy-headed semantics. Similarly, if Stone Age people used Stonehenge as a calendar or a cutting board, then it seems to me they were making pragmatic use of objects they themselves had erected (as opposed to finding in nature) to assist them, as they thought, in the goings-on of their society. Maybe they didn't have any better technical understanding of teh rocks before them than I have of the computer before me. So they may have viewed them as magic, as in practical terms I do this computer. A myth? A narrative? Or something far simpler?

Also, I think you fundamentally misunderstand science. Science is not the same thing as technological progress; technological progress is an epiphenomenon , or byproduct, of the social doing of science. Because of the transparent (to those who can understand the technicalities - but theoretically anyone sufficiently dedicated could), open nature of science and the continuing discoveries therein, it could be interpreted as making 'progress', even as partaking in a 'myth of progress', as you seem to think. But this is not in fact the case. Progress is a convenient label attached to science, one many scientists themselves at least provisionally accept, and is especially popular in looking at technological innovations, but I don't think it is 'progress' in a linear, straightforward,onward and upward sense, any more than evolution is 'progress.' It is simply a series of new developments. The simple-minded think of it, welcome it, as progress, but I think it is necessary to think more deeply. In any case, I think it would be naive to deny that there is not a fundamental difference between the social process of science, and a 'mythical narrative.'

Perhaps a kettle of fish for another time and / or post.

bryant said...

JMG,

As I read this essay I was impressed with the erudition and clarity of your thoughts; thank you for keeping this blog.

John Michael Greer said...

David, I don't think there's anything inevitable about a revisioning of our myths just now. That does happen in the twilight of some civilizations, but it's not a universal. That's exactly why I'm suggesting that it's a good idea to push in that direction at this point in our history.

Nika, mythic thinking is innate in human beings. To use a modern metaphor, it's the inborn operating system of the human mind; it's only by a sustained effort of reflection that we learn to think in any other way. The fact that most people (and most scientists) are mythically illiterate doesn't free them from myth -- quite the opposite, it's the mythic pattern you don't recognize that entangles you most completely.

Neolotus, I don't know of a source on line. It's available in Civilization in Transition, Volume 10 of Jung's complete works.

Robert, we'll have resource wars -- we have them already -- but other than that, I'm not arguing. The future is not set in stone, and much can still be saved.

Joseph, Thompson's work has been a significant influence on my own take on myth -- not surprised that you caught that.

Noah, that's hardly a question I can answer in a few sentences! My forthcoming book The Long Descent, though, is an attempt to point to the potentials for hope and constructive change in the approaching age of decline.

Bill, you've pretty much reinvented the Adamite heresy. Nice.

Megan, I suspect a lot of people who think they want a collapse will know exactly how a drowning man feels about air if one should happen. It's easy to fantasize about a postapocalyptic future, so long as you don't look at the evidence from history about what dark ages are like.

Court, your computer -- like Stonehenge -- participates in a set of cultural narratives that give it social meaning and purpose. A society that didn't value the specific things computers can do wouldn't invent, build, or use them; the values of each culture, in turn, are expressed in that culture's core narratives. In that sense, each artifact of a culture embodies some part of that culture's narratives; a stone circle, and the rituals performed there, embody a narrative of cyclical change; a computer, and the activities done there, embody other narratives. That's the short form; a complete discussion would take, oh, about 50,000 words, which is a bit more than I have time to write just now!

Seaweed Shark said...

The Archdruid's fine essay well expresses the dire situation of a life--in this case the collective life of a society--under the spell of a mythic narrative that is not consciously recognized. That is one of Jung's core arguments.

My concern is that to my reading, the essay implies that we can, and should, attempt to stand outside of that narrative and critique it, or consciously grasp another one. Perhaps I'm misreading it. In any case the assertion that we ever can stand outside of our myths is arguably deeply compromised. This is also a point Jung makes: IIRC it is a central theme in his work "Aion"--the book that largely invented the new age movement.

It seems that what we need is a way to renew the myths--the deep springs of the creative process in human society--from within, not by standing outside of them and pointing our finger and saying, 'I caught you having a myth.' When the myths are renewed, the formal structures of society get broken and upset and some are discarded, which could be identified as the "changing of the heavens and the earth" that is spoken of in the apocalyptic narratives of some faiths.

Court said...

John,

Well, I don't have time for a 50k word post either. We may be arguing chicken vs the egg here, but here goes: I think you have it backwards. Which is to say, a society that has the technical know-how to build a computer or Stonehenge proceeds to do so, assigning values to these productions either or after the fact or concurrently. It seems to me you are committing a classic logical fallacy in looking at it the way you are. I find it difficult to imagine that a society could invent a need for Stonehenge, then create Stonehenge. No: it found it could create Stonehenge (or something like it, a proto-Stonehenge), assigned values to it, built more, assigned more values, etc.

And I still think you're missing a crucial difference: science first discovers what's 'out there', in the form of mathematics usually; the technical innovations flow from those discoveries - e.g., this computer and, I would argue, the 'narratives' that go with it. But first the fundamental natural phenomenon that govern the functioning of a computer had to be discovered. Not the other way around. This makes the doing of science, in my view, fundamentally different from the longstanding operation of societies. Science is, in that sense, outside history. That is why, as an earlier poster noted, scientists sniff at the ancients. (Btw, I'm not sure that good scientists do this - the ones I know and know of don't.)

My point: science is not a narrative, cultural or otherwise. It is an ongoing process more akin to evolution or cell biology than it is to history. Which is not to say it has no relations to narratives at all; obviously it does. But, like technology, any narrative associated with science is a byproduct thereof. Or so it seems to me.

I have a larger point here, but I'll cease and desist here. Thanks for the interesting ongoing discussion.

RAS said...

JMG, I follow everything you have to say, but when you get to this point "a better society will emerge out of the wreckage of this one only if a very sizable number of us are willing to muster the courage, forbearance, and capacity for hard work needed to make that happen." I get stumped. Not because I don't agree, but because I have a hard time envisioning what needs to be done, especially as regards the mythic narratives. Would you mind saying a few words on this? Thanks.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I was thinking about some Buddhist friends who caution me about overintellectualizing things, especially the truths. I believe mythic thinking to be one of those truths.

But what was I thinking...criticizing the intellectualization of anything on a blog which is created through the Internet and by means of a computer. LOL. D'oh! Hermes would have his panties in a bunch. That's sort of like being a PETA member talking about the evils of hunting to a Lakota eating buffalo. Or a Lakota talking about the benefits of bile on raw steaming liver to a vegan. Never mind. We all have our myths...or as you say, JMG, our operating systems for the deep mind.

I guess I was letting my native traditions get the best of me...we believe the biggest reason that western culture got into the destructive mode it is in, is an overreliance on the brain (or what some call, the monkey-mind...ook-ook, let me pick at this scab until it bleeds...oh look, it's bleeding...now what happens if I pick at it some more...). Of course, that's our mythic structure.

However, perhaps if I rephrase it, to say encountering, analyzing, and trying to understand myth through the intellect can be a very useful exercise. Just as analysis of literature or taking apart a small engine can be very useful...or dissection of a frog. You can learn a lot that way...how things work, how they operate, what can go wrong.

But you have to put together the engine again and put gas in it before it will run...you have to forget the iambic pentameter and just read the poem with emotion and beauty to truly touch the heart of a listener...and no amount of re-assembly will set that frog a-hopping again.

John Michael Greer said...

Shark, I'm not suggesting that it's necessary, or even possible, to stand outside myth. A myth is what Wittgenstein called a form of life -- you can't get outside it except by moving from one to another; there's no Archimedean point outside all myth from which myth can be assessed. No, my suggestion is that there are different ways to participate in myth, some more reflective than others, and a more reflective and conscious approach to living with our myths is what's called for here.

Court, what you're suggesting is a form of technological determinism -- a society can create a given technology (Stonehenge, a computer, or what have you) and therefore it automatically does so -- that's impossible to justify historically. Look at the different uses of gunpowder in Chinese and European culture; the Ming dynasty Chinese could easily have invented firearms -- their metallurgical technology was much more sophisticated than that of the late medieval West -- but they didn't. The cultural narratives of classical Chinese civilization directed their technology along different paths.

In the same way, the technological suite evolved by modern industrial societies is not an inevitable product of "progress;" technologies, after all, don't pop out of nowhere by some sort of spontaneous generation. Specific choices, made for reasons freighted with cultural meaning, brought the technologies we now use into their present roles.

The same thing, by the way, is true of science. I'd recommend a look at Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions sometime as a useful corrective to the assumptions that seem to underlie your argument here.

RAS, that's a huge theme and one that has been central to a great many posts already. The work in question has many aspects -- first, putting together tools that will make the opening phases of our civilization's decline more manageable; second, transforming the legacies of the past into forms that can make it through a dark age; third, untangling the mythic narratives and unspoken assumptions that make the present seem inevitable so that we can see the possibility of another way of life more clearly. I'll talk about all of these in more detail as we proceed.

Lance, it's an interesting modern assumption that the only way to study a frog is to hack it apart. I suggest an alternative: watch it, examine it, come to know how it lives and what effect it has on its surroundings, and then notice the similarities that unite it with the frog in the next pond, so you can begin to get a clear sense, not simply of this frog, but of frogs in general. That's what I'm suggesting we do with myth. Does that make more sense?

Megan said...

It's worth defining and redefining myth in such discussions, if only because when getting across a new concept, you often have to try out several explanations on your audience before one clicks. So, with apologies for belaboring the point, here is my attempt to explain 'myth' as it's being used here.

My university has a large engineering faculty. For engineering students, even graduation itself pales in importance compared to the secret Iron Ring ceremony. What is publically known is that the centerpiece of the ceremony is the telling of a story about a bridge. The bridge collapsed, you see, due to flawed engineering. Participants in the ceremony are given iron rings, made from the wreckage of that bridge, as a reminder of the solemn trust placed in them as engineers.

The story about the bridge is a myth. Every detail is factually true, and the story contains no supernatural element or magical thinking of any sort. A myth does not require those things to be a myth, though they are often included because of their power to evoke emotion. No, what makes it a myth is that recounts the facts with an emphasis on Why It Matters - what it means to be an engineer, the higher purpose of all the technical know-how. It invests the facts with value and significance. Similar stories could be told - and have been - about why science matters and the dignity of being a searcher for truth. I'm sure you can imagine many other wholly factual 'Why It Matters' stories.

However, investing something with meaning and value makes you more reluctant to give it up. Someone who's been thoroughly indoctrinated with the Iron Ring brand of professional pride will probably feel more conflicted about leaving the engineering profession than someone who hasn't. Likewise, our society is having difficulty accepting the necessity of widespread economic and lifestyle reform because the status quo is invested with a sense of entitlement, necessity, historical inevitability etc, which makes such changes unthinkable. In order to make real progress on these issues, we first need to alter the value-laded terms in which we frame the facts - we need to develop different myths.

Danby said...

Bill,
In the Eden story, the serpent tempts Eve (and she Adam) with Moral Theology. The fruit is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Man wanted to know what was good and what was bad independent from God. In my view, that's what the first sin was, the attempt to know good and evil independent from God. Original sin is a completely different concept. It is an artefact of our spiritual inheritance. Not to get all Catholic on you.

Yooper,
The best way I've heard it described is that "Man was made to tend a garden." How many of us can make the claim that that is our life? Certainly not most wage slaves, and not even the great majority of farmers. Farming these days consists mostly of driving a tractor and paying out the nose for the privilege. Jason is correct, and so are you. In this fallen world, Eden is not attainable to fallen Man. We were kicked out.

John,
I know it's convention to describe the Judeo-Christian view of history as linear, but it's not simply that. It comprises a single detour out of eternity. It is marked by a pattern of cyclic decline. When things get bad enough, they are fixed by the direct intervention of the Creator. His renewal is unfortunately marred by human sin. Our condition is then one of steady decline, until the next intervention. Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to David, David to Elijah, Elijah to the Messiah.

MoonRaven said...

I've been reading your blog a while and admire the thinking that goes into it.

I'm a peaknik and an avowed utopian, but that doesn't mean that I think that utopia will automatically happen when we run out of easy oil. I do think that collapse (and I'm aware it will be awful) provides an opportunity for new things to happen. (Hey, I've been part of radical groups that wanted to smash the state and dismantle corporate capitalism--now it looks like we needn't bother.) I'd like to see the changes come in the least harmful way, but I'm not sure, other than trying to work with those around me to build alternative, that there is much else that can be done. I find myself agreeing with the second Robert--we need to just do what we see as right. It's what I was taught--do the best you can, it's all you can do. Is there a myth that reflects that?

JosephG said...

It's been a while, but I seem to remember Morris Berman investigating the rise of modern western science and the split into "two cultures" in his book The Re-enchantment of the World."

As i recall, he used Newton as the bifurcation point where quantitative and qualitative - what we might call left-brain and right-brain - approaches to *science* were kind of mixed together and then seperated out from each other, with the quantitative moving on to create formal rational-empirical science, and the qualitative merging back into the esoteric spiritual tradition (alchemy being an example).

It seems to me - and others - that one of the reasons for this is that on some unconscious level, science "knew" that it could only survive if it stuck to the external-objective since the subjective realm was the vehemently guarded province of the Church.

Qualitative science then became the "spiritual underground", surfacing here and there, now and then - we might call these "surfacings" Pythagorean revivals - in Renaissance Hermeticists, people like Blake, the Romantics etc.. I also think it possible that this qualitative science has roots in Egypt, and in the ancient Vedic rishis (a la Aurobindo).

It seems entirely plausible that things could have developed much differently, especially if wetern civilization could have developed its scientific tradition free from the Inquisitorial threats from the Church.

In other words, it seems possible that we could have a very different scientific tradition today, and therefore a very different civilization and history.

I know there are those who claim that science as we know it is a "given", built-up from deep invariant structures, but I am not so sure. What do you think?

Regards, Joseph

Anthony said...

Dang! I was going to bring up the Chinese and gunpowder but you beat me to it!

On stepping outside of mythic structure do you feel there is validity in the Chaos Magic theory that one can consciously choose ones paradigm (or in this case mythic structure) and by willing a change in that structure one is able to have better reflective view of all structures?

AV

John Michael Greer said...

Megan, of course you're right; I get into the bad habit of thinking that since I've discussed myth at great length in posts here before, that everybody knows what I mean.

Dan, that's most interesting. The same narrative of cyclic decline, as Lance pointed out, is common to Native American cultures and quite a few others. While there's a certain unavoidable linearity to any cosmology that starts with a creation ex nihilo and ends when time is no more, the variations within that course may be more relevant than I'd considered in the past.

Moonraven, any hero myth you care to name has "do your best and let the universe sort out the results" as its central theme.

Joseph, I'm very much on the side of Thomas Kuhn's theory here. There is no such thing as "science," only sciences, each of which has its roots partly in nature and partly in human cultural narratives that take the shape of paradigmatic experiments and theories on which the rest of the science is modeled. Margaret Jacobs has written some excellent books on the way that Newton's work, the paradigm for most of modern science, reflected the specific political and theological concerns of his time. That's equally true of every science, in every culture.

Anthony, my disagreement with chaos magic is that I don't believe it's possible to get outside of myth; human beings think with myth with the same inevitability that we eat with mouths and walk with feet. Chaos magic has its own myth, a myth of absolute freedom; the claim that you can choose your own paradigm only makes sense within that specific paradigm! Thus the chaos magician judges all other myths from within his own set of narratives, just as (say) a fundamentalist Christian judges myths from within his rather different mythic narrative.

RAS said...

JMG, you wrote: "first, putting together tools that will make the opening phases of our civilization's decline more manageable; second, transforming the legacies of the past into forms that can make it through a dark age; third, untangling the mythic narratives and unspoken assumptions that make the present seem inevitable so that we can see the possibility of another way of life more clearly. I'll talk about all of these in more detail as we proceed."

I hope so! The first I get; the second I mostly get, but the third makes me scratch my head and go huh? Oh, I can understand it for myself -it's how to apply it I don't get.

Megan, I went to engineering school and we had the same ceremony. Guess what? It's mostly meaningless. Yes, we had a nice little ceremony and yes each of us vowed to, essentially, do no harm. Immediately upon graduation 99.9% of my classmates went to work for the DOD building bombs.

Noah Scales said...

Mr. Foster, people who pick at scabs are not engaged in myth encountering, analyzing, or understanding. Equating compulsive behavior to intellectual exercise falsely gives the conclusion that intellectual exercise is self-destructive, compulsive, and unintelligent. If you also accuse a person of compulsively performing intellectual exercise, intellectualizing - in your monkey-read, monkey-do approach, your suggestion could result in unhealthy skin for this monkey. More specifically, digging into surface structures of language, as opposed to digging into skin, leaves its body intact and in good health.

Does movement toward a metaphor in your future meet anyone's values well?

Your concerns deserve better expression than I can manage. Likewise for Mr. Greer, but maybe some practical communication behaviors are his preference.

To motivate those expressions, it will help people to appreciate the connections between a person's mind and their well-being. Ascribing unintellectual behaviors to the intellectual function is the wrong approach to helping both. That much is clear to me.

slomo said...

This is a very smart essay.

Heteromeles said...

I have comments on a couple of levels here.

@Green with a Gun: your fear seems to be articulating another myth, or at least, something that showed up in the early 80s in the cyberpunk movement, starting with Gibson's Neuromancer. I'm starting to wonder if they weren't somewhat prescient about the future. However (and importantly) we also have to watch out that our visions of the future aren't rehashes of our favorite books.

@Bill Pulliam and Nika. Let's see, I've got a PhD in the biological sciences and I'm a druid. I don't argue with atheists about the nature of spirituality, but I'm living proof that it's possible to be both. Barely. Still, Nika is more right than Bill Pulliam, in my experience. A few scientists (none of whom stayed on the academic track) were interested in spiritual matters. Most of the scientists I know have little knowledge or interest in religion, spirituality, or anything of that sort, and conversations on that subject reflect ignorance, rather than an active disowning of the past.

Nika's other points are good.

Bill, you may be against virtuality (and I even agree) but you may want to look at the cyberpunk literature that I referred to above. It started the whole idea of a cyberspace in the middle of a decaying urban civilization. Sound familiar?

@JMG: Good essay again. Thanks for saying things I've been thinking about better than I could have.

Bill Pulliam said...

Nika and Heteromeles --

I think you both completely missed my point, as well as the fundamental concept of JMG's entire original post. I wasn't talking in any way about whether scientists have "religious" beliefs. I was talking about their utter revulsion at acknowledging their own intellectual roots. Whether or not you "believe" in astrology or alchemy is absolutely beside the point. If you are a scientist, these people are your direct line intellectual ancestors. These were not misguided embarasing little superstitions that some otherwise intelligent people wasted their time on as a delusional side obsession. They were striving to uncover the nature and workings of reality, existence, matter, life, and the universe exactly as the modern molecular biologist is doing. And their students had students who had students on down the line, leading directly to Crick, Watson, Einstein, and Hawking.

Modern science's refusal to even think about its deep origins and past actually gives away the great dirty secret of atheistic materialistic science: It *is* a religion, not just an academic field of inquiry. The belief that science represents the ultimate breaking free from a past of mysticism, irrationality, and hoo haa mumb jumbo, replacing it with the one true path to actual objective truth and knowledge, thereby rendering all earlier forms of inquiry irrelevent, obsolete, and not even worthy of mention.. this is a *religious* belief, it is the underpinning of the mythos on which scietific atheistic materialism is based. The fact that you will cringe at this notion and reject it out of hand, proclaiming once again that science in fact represents the escape from religion and the dawning of the true age of intellectual inquiry... take three big steps back and think about those words. Where have you heard them before?

There is nothing wrong with accepting that science is essentially similar to other religions in fundamental aspects, and is deeply steeped in its own mythology. This hardly invalidates it. In fact, it affirms its central place as a natural, organic product of hundreds of thousands of years of human thought, inquiry, and invention -- deeply connected to all that came before, not divorced and isolated from it. Which gets to JMG's fundamental theme of all his writings here: it is all about mythic narratives, science and technology included.

Oh, by the way, I have a Ph.D. from one of the top schools in my field (Ecology, UGA), and worked as a full-time research faculty person at major state universities funded by enormous international multi-institution grants for many years. I speak from neither ignorance nor an outsider's perspective on this. I've also worked as a trucker, and when I started trucking school, our textbook opened by talking about the history of commercial transportation from the medieval spice trade forward. So, it seems, truckers have a better understanding of their deep cultural and technological ancestry that scientists do.

Re: cyperpunk -- am somewhat familiar with it, from back when it was new, not history. Any worldview that has no acknowledgment of even the mere existence of the "natural world" (i.e the world that keeps us alive) has little ability to inform us meaningfully about the large scale structure of the past, present, or future. In my opinion (of course, what other perspective can I speak from?)

Rick Loftus said...

As a fellow scientist and doctor, I sympathize with Nika's bafflement re: the pre-scientific worldview. I have found that the work of religious scholar Karen Armstrong has allowed me to better understand the importance of mythos in human existence. (Mythos, mythical understanding of reality, stands in complement to logos, the logic-based practical way of thinking about reality that we scientists are so familiar with. The are as immiscible and inseparable as wave-particle metaphors of quantum mechanics.) Karen Armtstong argues that the development of the vicious monotheist fundamentalist religious movements of the 20th century are in fact a reaction to the aberrant absence of mythos from scientific Western post-Modernity--and, despite clothing themselves in "old time" traditionalism, are in fact warped modern mutations that lack a core component of religions that sprung from the Axial Age: compassion.
From an excerpt from The Battle for God:
"In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under the sun....Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society...In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile." (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/a/armstrong-battle.html)

There is no doubt in my mind that many people, everywhere, for different reasons, have a deep sense that post-Modernity is On The Wrong Track, which is why there is this creepy nihilphilia intersticed in peak oil discourses. But I am agreement with many of you on this blog, including blessed JMG, that a complete collapse of (post-)Modernity will bring many ugly, scary horrors. As a doctor, just for starters, I rather enjoy being able to reverse AIDS, control diabetes, and cure hepatitis and cancer--all of which I do (with other docs) every day. Much of what lets me do that effectively is petro-chemicals. That will not be possible in a time where I'll be growing Oregon grape to harvest berberine to control blood sugar, nevermind distilling African violet for primitive chemotherapy. Modern medicine--while often culuturally reflecting the "high tech but low touch" taint of many Modern scientific traditions--is an example of the good that scientific industry has brought Humanity.
Also, since this is my first posting, I just wanted to thank JMG for being a simulatneously religious and rational Voice fostering discourse on the problem of post-Modernity, and to all of you whose postings give me food for thought. You all make me feel less alone.

JosephG said...

John,

I dont know if you have ever heard of John Lamb Lash, or if you have the time for such things - I know I often do not - but Lash has written one of the most in-depth explorations of Gnostic mythopoetic cosmogony I have ever seen in his book, *Not In His Image.*

Even when I disagree with him on some thngs, I still find his narrative incredibly rich and powerful. Tackling Gnosticism is a daunting task, IMO.
Interesting that he begins the book with the murder of the Alexandrian scholar Hypatia in the 4th century AD., which some historians consider to be the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Lash is absolutely adamant in stressing that the Church's destruction of the Pagan culture of Europe - and the ancient Mysteries - has had devastating consequences for all of humanity.

BTW, like many in esoteric spirituality and psychedelic research these days, he posits an astrobiological/panspermia origin for life on this planet, something also discussed in Graham Hancock's book *Supernatural.*

Also, it seems that Sir Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the spiral structure of DNA and a proponent of a theory of panspermia (directed panspermia, I beleive), was experimenting with LSD at the time of his "discoveries."
It should also be noted that people like Hancock are drawing on the ideas of Jeremy Narby's book *The Cosmic Sepent.*

Regards, Joseph

The Oil said...

JMG, amazing piece. I agree with your mythology argument, but I wonder about our capacity to step back far enough societally, which is I guess your point. Those who can will do so.

I often think about this as a race between the Singularity and resource depletion, with resource depletion ultimately winning--or the Singularity winning but with many fewer people remaining.

We had a wonderful discussion over at TOD about that idea/thought experiment a few weeks ago. (link's here if anyone is interested...especially the comments. It is amazing how many perspectives and theories can be brought to bear on these ideas though.)

JMG, you have recognized the macro battle in this piece very well--well done. I just fear that the fight between these two sides is going to be a cosmic struggle that will cause a lot of suffering.

John Michael Greer said...

Ras, we'll discuss that third part in much more detail in posts to come.

Noah, it's precisely in the wide and poorly explored territory between abstract intellectual conceptions and life as it's experienced that the largest part of the work ahead of us needs to be done.

Slomo, many thanks.

Heteromeles, I suspect Green's concern about fortress ecocities surrounded by slave-worked plantations has less to do with cyberpunk than with claims being circulated by a lot of people on the far left just now, insisting that the current political classes are deliberately planning a "feudal-fascist" future. It's one aspect of the way that politics these days has become an exercise in projecting fears and seeking scapegoats.

Bill, exactly. Scientism, like most prophetic religions, has a hard time dealing with its own history and the close ties that link it to other religions of the same type; it's a central belief of most prophetic faiths that they embody a unique and uniquely valid inspiration. From my perspective -- which is admittedly that of a faith that makes no claims whatever to uniqueness or unique validity -- that seems like an unnecessary burden, but to each their own.

Rick, Armstrong makes some solid points, but falls into a bit of a trap when she claims that logos rather than mythos dominates today's society. The human mind is incurably mythic; take away its myths, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment tried to do, and it will construct new myths out of the raw material of logos. Most contemporary discourse, accordingly, is mythos disguised as logos: religion claiming to be science, explanatory myth claiming to be history, and so on.

Joseph, no, I haven't read Lash; I'll put him on the list.

Oil, thank you, but I find the modern myth of the Singularity even less convincing than the more overtly religious myths from which it borrows so heavily. The rise and fall of civilizations is a natural process that will doubtless be repeated many more times over the history of our species; I don't find it useful to treat the present example as anything more than one autumn, if you will, among many.

Stephen Heyer said...

green with a gun: “So that's my fear: that we'll have Ecotopia islands surrounded by seas of human misery, and indeed built on them at their expense.”

Me too! I know exactly where green is coming from.

Mind you, I expect the balance between those “Ecotopia islands” and the surrounding seas “of human misery” will be very different in different countries and at different times. Further, that the difference will depend much more on social, economic and political decisions and strategies than on an area’s natural resources.

I of course hope that my country, Australia, (The Lucky Country) will come through relatively well. Problem is, all the resources we have: There is good historical and economic research that suggests that the discovery of large, point source resources is very bad for a country long term.

Part of the reason seems to be that it encourages the capture of wealth, then political power by a small elite while destroying the kind of industries that encourage a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power. It also encourages an excessive population buildup (largely through high immigration) during the boom period, worse, much of the new population has skills, traditions and financial commitments that are not appropriate to post-boom times.

If I had to pick social/political traditions that would yield the “nicest to live in” countries during a possible coming period of scarcity I would still pick the Nordic Model every time (old conservative/socialist that I am). In fact, in a world where the religious dogma of Globalisation is failing and being replaced by more traditional policies and the USA neo-con social model is discredited, many of the mainstream criticisms of the Nordic Model evaporate.

John is right, utopia is not going to automatically emerge from a collapse: It, or at least a reasonable life, is far more likely to be the result of hard, grinding, innovative work and social changes that allow some countries to make the best of the world they find themselves in.

Then again, maybe one of the wildcard outsiders like Steron, Blacklight Power, chukanovenergy.com or whoever will rescue the current system at the last moment with magic – bet the Romans were hoping for the same thing as the barbarians came over the wall.

P.S. Good blog green with a gun!

Danby said...

Lash is absolutely adamant in stressing that the Church's destruction of the Pagan culture of Europe - and the ancient Mysteries - has had devastating consequences for all of humanity.

This is either historically illiterate or fundamentally dishonest. The Church did compete with with the Grove, true. But paganism was abandoned far more than it was killed. As early as the end of the Roman republic, temple worship had become a social formality ins which few people really believed in any way. That is why the mystery religions of Persia and Egypt had taken such a hold in Rome itself. By the 4th century people's mode of thinking had changed and the Christian life was more satisfying to their spiritual needs than Paganism was.

There was indeed persecution of Pagans, particularly in the early middle ages. But if persecution is what killed paganism, why did not the much more brutal persecution of Christianity by the Pagan Roman government not kill Christianity?

Bill Pulliam said...

Ah, the Singularity...

If you are worried about a race against the Singularity, don't bother. That horse hasn't merely not yet left the starting gate; that horse doesn't even exist. The hypothesis that sometime in the near future exponential progress in artificial intelligence will render human consciousness and existence obsolete has not one shred of evidence to support it. We don't even yet have a machine that can brute-force its way through a readable translation of English in to German. What makes living intelligence unique, distinctive, and powerful is the capacity for creative problem solving. The current capacity for creative problem solving in the arena of AI is nil, zero, nada, the null set. So if it continues doubling every year, in a century we'll still be at nil. Existing "AI" works through rote and brute force. You might be able to construct algorithms to generate every possible German sentence structure that agrees grammatically with an English sentence, create metrics to quantify their "aesthetic suitability," and choose the optimal solution, and it might do a fair impression of a human translator. But it'll never crack a joke, concoct a beautiful and totally unexpected metaphor, or make you groan with a truly wretched pun. That is because the only real "intelligence" involved in it is that of the programmer who created it and codified the rules. The machine is just applying these rules with lightning-quick speed. Similarly your machine might be able to optimize the parameters and design of an internal combustion engine, but it's not going to invent one in the first place. I have yet to see a single instance of claimed "AI" that displays any real innate creative problem solving. It is all just clever but rote simulation.

In the larger context, this whole notion that our generation is experiencing unprecedentedly rapid change in our world is just narcissism. Somehow we have this idea that in "the past" people lived in worlds that moved and changed with glacial slowness (an interesting metaphor considering what glaciers can occasionally do), with the granddaughter living pretty much the same way the grandmother did. Romantic fantasy, dudes. Just think, for example that you lived in York (UK) in the mid 4th Century. You are in a thriving Roman city, so much so that Constantine himself chose to travel all the way there from Rome with his the Imperial entourage for his Coronation. Now skip forward just 100 years. Rome is gone. The villas, baths and fortifications are crumbling and being repurposed as walls to keep the sheep fenced. The elaborate administrative, judicial, and military heirarchy is entirely gone. Trade takes place with the neighboring village, not the neighboring continent. You eat what you grow, or you starve. Somehow, our high tech revolution is more profound that this? I hardly think so. Throughout the world, throughout the ages, you see that societies have undergone rapid and drastic change -- both towards greater affluence and organization, and towards poverty and isolation. We are not the first generation to see this, and we won't be the last.

Robert Magill said...

Tread Softly Because...

Our planet is one big cemetery and that's a fact. But so what if we drink water that passed though the gut of Rameses IV, your Great-uncle Gus and Dumbo the elephant. That's the deal here on Earth. So drink it down. Enjoy.
Ditto the air. If it once lodged in a coffin in Peoria, was a bit of platypus wind and once got all smelly in a Monsanto lab no problem, you can handle it. Breathe deep.

Finite resources, these two, but reusable to a point. Only to a point. We shouldn't press our luck. It all works out ok so long as the Earth's various filters keep cranking along.

Civilizations and cultures come and go but the recycled air and water keep them viable if not successful. People use natural resources according to their needs and abilities. Less developed or smaller cultures by necessity use more easily
acquired materials than larger or more sophisticated ones. Those big time consumers can exploit less readily available raw materials until all or most of the easier to acquire stuff is used up.
Then it is necessary to invent ever more costly and complicated devices to wring out fewer and fewer remaining goodies from the planet.

When advanced exploitive civilizations come a cropper there is a big problem. All the easy to dig up stuff is long gone and no more big gadgets are coming on line to get the remaining dregs out of the ground.

What to do?

If the air and water filters still work there is a chance for some sort of decent future.
Smaller numbers of us, no doubt. Way smaller. No metropolises at all but life can go on and the folks will have stuff to work with. Lots of stuff. Lots and lots of it. The place might resemble one massive Goodwill store or uber junkyard but that's ok. Plenty of work to do for everybody. Hey natures recycles, so who are we to look down on garbage pickers?

They are the future and will be happy to be alive and working!

Megan said...

one autumn, if you will, among many

Hmm. One of the (relatively few) common elements between modern pagan faiths is seeing processes in terms of natural cycles - dawn, noon, dusk, night; spring, summer, fall, winter; growth, peak, decline, dormancy.

Do you think that people who already view time this way would be more open to seeing our society's current difficulties in the same light? In other words, do you think Druids et al. are predisposed to accept the 'Peak' idea more easily because it plays into, not against, their mythos?

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, the Romans were indeed hoping for the same sort of thing when the barbarians came over the wall. A lot of rich Romans were also stashing gold in large quantities and trying to figure out ways to maintain their comfortable lifestyles in a post-Roman world. Their villas -- sacked, gutted, and burnt -- are archeological sites these days. My guess is that efforts to create fortress cities in the postpetroleum future will end much the same way.

Dan, the established religion of an imperial society pretty much always turns into a piece of crowd-control equipment, valued for its role in maintaining social order and approved values. That's why, as Toynbee pointed out, new religions rise as empires fall. I'll still read Lash, mind you; even a blind mouse finds a broken clock, or what have you.

Bill, from my perspective the Singularity myth is just another rehash of the Second Coming with the great god Technology playing the role more traditionally assigned to Christ. Nicely put.

Robert, when big exploitive civilizations come a cropper, they leave all kinds of raw materials behind, in the form of ruins. Civilizations of the future will be awash in cheap iron for many centuries -- how many knives can you make from a fallen skyscraper? -- and even when the old ruins become heaps of rust, iron oxide is an excellent ore, easily reduced to ingots by charcoal fires.

Megan, good. While Druids are an independent-minded lot -- ask three Druids a question, expect five answers -- the ability to think in cycles rather than straight lines does seem to make it easier to grasp historical processes of rise and fall. Once again, the narrative you choose shapes the understandings you can reach.

Heteromeles said...

Dear Bill and All,

Hmm. I don't think I'm the "you scientists" you're talking about. I guess you're assuming that scientists can have "religious" beliefs, so long as they believe in SCIENCE. Not quite, but I'll admit that it's an interesting and novel polytheistic belief system that I've never before encountered. It's certainly not what I believe or practice.

There's this useful term: scientism. It's the belief that science is the one true and right way of explaining reality (in other words, a religion. There's also this useful term: science, which is effectively a craft that utilizes a set of techniques (varying by field)for answering questions in an objective way that allows both their methods and results to be independently examined and validated, often by anonymous colleagues. Since most of these methods rely on repeating patterns, science is inherently limited. It's not so good at dealing with non-repeating events, although some fields (notably evolutionary biology) have made major inroads.

I'm surprised that Dr. Pulliam is conflating scientism and science, but I'll admit, it does make a good rhetorical device.

As far as "our" utter revulsion at acknowledging their own intellectual roots, I've had history of science classes, and I've sure sat through a number of lectures (often dating back to the ancient Greeks) of the development of biology, ecology, botany, plant taxonomy, and astronomy (including building an astrolabe and learning to cast a horoscope). Perhaps this simply reflects the fact that Bill and I went to different schools in different decades?

So far as cyberpunk and The Singularity go...the point about bringing up cyberpunk is that it is a cultural referent, whether someone read Neuromancer or saw Blade Runner. It's the idea of a powerful and corrupt cultural elite, and beaten down lower class, the ubiquitous presence of high tech, even embedded in people's bodies, and often, little, strongly controlled, corporate ecotopias that litter the dark landscape. That sounds a lot like what Green with a Gun is worried about, and that's what made me wonder at the source of this idea of The New Feudalism. It sounds very, very familiar. Mythic, perhaps

The Singularity (or as Charlie Stross calls it, The Rapture of the Nerds)? While I'm typing this, I'm listening to a story on NPR's On The Media, about how Google processes a petabyte of data every 72 hours. By comparison, we speak about a terabyte of text (1/1000 of a petabyte) in our lifetimes. I don't know if this is the densest flow of information the world has seen or not. For all I know, the microbes in an elephant's gut exchange more information than this (as chemical signals) in a year. Whatever. The point of the interview, and the point that's critical here, is that we're entering a realm of information flow that is unprecedented in human experience. While I don't think that The Web will suddenly "wake up" and "become human" one day, I wouldn't be surprised if entities evolve (or are written) to take advantage of the emerging virtual environments that such an information and energy flows provide. In fact, bots and the like are already around. We may indeed see a Singularity, but I don't think the Second Coming is the right mythic parallel. Rather, I think the myth that better describes it is the Scientific "myth" of The Cambrian Explosion, when a bunch of new life forms evolved to take advantage of the new free oxygen in the air brought about by cyanobacteria's photosynthetic attempt to take over the planet. As with the Cambrian explosion, I'd also predict that most virtual life-forms will soon go extinct, because we can't, in the long run, support the level of energy consumption that brought them into existence. This is what happened in the Cambrian Explosion too. The problem for all of us is that, so long as the net survives The Long Collapse, the toughest of these new life forms will also survive, and they will compete with us for resources. So yes, it's worth thinking about the Singularity. It's also worth realizing that, 700 million years after the Cambrian Explosion, bacteria still run the planet. I suspect the same thing will happen after the Singularity, and humans will survive it. Perhaps we'll also see an explosion in the diversity of technology based life taking advantage of the niches left by the loss of biological species. I don't know.


On a side note, has anybody noticed how much people are quarreling right now? What gives? I've seen this on a number of unrelated websites, and at work. Is it the weather, or is there something else going on that I'm not noticing? Perhaps we all need to sit back and think about whether some exogenous factor (such as the "August Uglies" as they're called where I live) is causing us to argue more. Thoughts?

Correspondent said...

I've noticed the same thing Mr. Greer, people talking only the downside of our civilization, and imagining that the collapse will pave the way for some kind of utopia.

In my latest post I try to argue that the American way, as people used to say without so much sarcasm and irony, is the right basis for the post-fossil fuel future for this country, because it was conceived before fossil fuels, and that people working on sustainability, most of whom are politically Left, have trouble seeing this because of the revisionist history that has poisoned the Left's mythology of America. Please check it out!

John Michael Greer said...

Heteromeles, I sat through quite a few history of science classes as well, and found exactly the same thing Bill found -- those classes treated the occult and religious origins of science with acute embarrassment, rather than with an effort at sympathetic understanding. Whig history -- the habit of treating the present situation as the goal of the historical process that led to it -- still pervades today's history of science, with a few stellar exceptions.

As for today's superdupercomputers, Theodore Roszak dealt with the shaky logic behind this sort of claim some years ago in The Cult of Information. One of his central points is that data is not the same thing as information; information is not the same thing as knowledge; and knowledge is not the same thing as understanding -- much less wisdom. Beyond a certain point, heaping up data at dizzying speeds makes it harder to achieve knowledge. Consider this article on the way that science is grinding to a halt on sheer data overload.

Correspondent, most interesting -- but you didn't post a link to your essay, which makes it a bit hard to find. Please feel free to repost with a link.

Danby said...

JMG said: Dan, the established religion of an imperial society pretty much always turns into a piece of crowd-control equipment, valued for its role in maintaining social order and approved values.

Makes me think about the Straussians and the way that the Republican party treats the Evangelicals and conservative Catholics.

Heteromeles,
a petabyte is really not that much. The company I work for has 6 Petabytes (and growing every day) of call detail records (calling number, called number, call start call end, which cells used when and for how long) going back 7 years. This data is regularly mined for information on calling habits and usage patterns. Still it's nothing compared to the data efficiency of DNA. The Human Genome project required petabytes of data too, and that 5 and more years ago. In fact, sex transmits far more data, far more quickly and in far more usable form than is possible with the highest bandwidth (fattest pipe) data center it would be possible to build today.

BTW, for those of you who think that you have actual privacy, the FBI and the NSA also have a tap into the data warehouse (as such systems are called). No call content, yet, at least on our network. Just call detail records and sms messages. Yes, your text messages are stored by the cell phone carrier (at both ends if they are different companies, and sometimes by other carriers if they happen to touch the transmission, such as ATT). For now our lawyers believe we don't have authority to actually read them, so we just store them against a brighter, happier tomorrow.

The Singularity is a myth, in both senses of the word. It is a story about the nature and purpose of some people's lives that reveals a great deal about them. Mostly that they don't really care for people, but really like machines. They are tired of cheap sex with the machines and want the machines to have their babies.

It's also not anything that has any possibility of ever actually occurring. None. Ever. A computer has no intelligence, natural or artificial, nor does the network. None. Zip. There are no "new life forms" on the Internet. Not even the most primitive.

Every few years, AI enthusiasts come up with some new method of trying to generate artificial intelligence. Once it was Lisp and self-modifying code. Some years ago it was random mutation and natural selection. Recently it was neural networks. These days it's "Intelligent Agents". None has ever produced even the faintest glimmer of intelligence.

A computer is a very fast, very complex adding machine and teletype. It has a very good store-and forward mechanism similar to that developed by the Western Union Telegraph company in the 1950's. They have no capabilities different in kind from what computers were doing in the 1950's, and indeed they are not very different in principle from Hollerith's 1890 tabulating machine or Babbage's difference engine. Expecting them to become intelligent is like expecting an internal combustion engine to grow legs.

Bill Pulliam said...

Heteromeles --

Just a few points to add to JMG's comment: There is no confusion here on the conceptual disctinction between science and scientism. However, in the real world of the 20th and 21st century scientific community, the vast majority of professional AND amateur scientists also are adamant adherents to scientism (scentismists?). I'd put the number at around to 98 or 99%. There is some slight allowance for extremely mainstream religious views, especially if you are not a Westerner, but even Unitarian-Universalism is sniffed at. Had my own spiritual views and practices been widely known in professional circles, under the peer review system my career would have been over, no trial, no questions asked. I wouldn't have been fired, of course; that would be illegal. I'd just never get anything funded or published, nor ever short-listed for a permanent job, so my money and CV would have just dried up and blown away. Indeed the reason I left academia was that I could no longer live in a world of fundamentalists. So, the distinction between science and scientism may be a useful rhetorical device, but it has no real meaning when discussing the scientific community in the Western world at the present time.

Did your history of science classes cover the development of the conceptual underpinnings of Astrology or Alchemy? Did you learn about the humours or chi? Did it cover creation mythologies as early attempts to understand the origins of the universe and life? Did it cover the lively intellectual debates among scientists of the 16th Century about whether we should even expect their to be natural laws in a world designed by an omnipotent god? Did you come to learn the deeply personal reasons why, in fact, Galileo did recant his heresy other than just "pressure and threats from the church?"

And just to echo JMG's second point, it is quite obvious that now in the information age, the flood of data has not in fact lead to a flood of knowledge in the mainstream. It actually seems to impede higher knowledge and understanding in many ways. You can find supposed "data" purporting to support any belief you like with a quick google search.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sorry, just gotta make one more comment about the internet, virtual "life forms" (cyberbugs) and all that...

As energy resources become scarcer, we're going to see a lot of last-in-first-out going on with technology. Your 3G iPhone will be one of the first things to become useless, for example. In reference to cyberbugs exploding Cambrian-like on the net and competing with us for resources.. what critical resources will they be taking away from us? Bandwidth? YouTube videos? Wikipedia? Instant-gratification IM-ing? Cheap Viagra? Google Earth? The Archdruid Report? I'm sure JMG will be the first to agree that the ADR is hardly an essential need for human survival or contentment, no matter how much we all enjoy participating in it. The resources that matter most for human society are food, water, air, materials, energy, etc.; the fundamentals. Petabytes of data processing doesn't make the list. The net will cease to exist the moment it begins to take up energy and material resources that are needed elsewhere for real economic activity, like food production. These cyberbugs will wink out of existence in a heartbeat as though the sunlight were switched off on their imaginary ecosystem. If you were to rank technologies in the order that they would be thrown overboard to save a sinking ship of humanity, the internet will be very early on the list.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, exactly. The remarkable thing is that you'll find academics in the sociology-of-religion end of things who treat this sort of cynical social manipulation as religion's primary purpose.

Bill, as energy becomes scarcer and the internet falters, the obvious move for The Archdruid Report (and other blogs, for that matter) is to shift to print media -- which were around back when petroleum was a geological curiosity, after all. I'm already making plans.

Elizabeth said...

Hello, JMG

I agree that the technologies we use are pretty much the result of our culture. That’s quite obvious for Stonehenge. After all there were a lot of agrarian chiefdoms in Europe at that time and most did not build anything remotely looking like Stonehenge, for the same reason I suppose that the Song did not build anything looking like the Cathedral of Canterbury. That also true for computers. After all we could have had home terminals linked to centralized mainframes instead of home computers. That was pretty much the way the French minitel worked. I am glad the Internet model won the day, but that was not a foregone conclusion.

I don’t think that fascism or anything like that is going to be a threat in the future, at least not in Europe. Racialism is too important for them and it is anathema – for obvious reasons – for the huge majority of Europeans. Now other ideologies might emerge, a combination of corporatism and radical environmentalism maybe, or an offshoot of the traditional left which would replace the proletariat by the nation.

Now ethnic nationalists might also be worth watching. In Europe they are often left-wing, ecologically minded and race blind. I am not aware of any of them which has integrated peak oil or ecological collapse in his thought but it is easy to imagine a mythology along the lines of “ the world is collapsing but Wales will rise again and protect you”, which would not necessarily be good news for anybody east of Offa’s Dyke.

To put it in jungian terms. I am pretty sure Wotan won’t enter the world anytime soon. I am less sure about Diane or – I shudder at the idea – Dahut.

Robert said...

Lynn Margulis on the religion of Neo-Darwinism.

"a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology"

Stephen Heyer said...

One of the odd things I’ve noticed in this discussion is a lack of debate on the purpose of myths. That is, why myths are such a common, central part of societies.

Anyway, here is my contribution.

Obviously, as societies are subject to the same evolutionary rules of selection as are individual creatures, and live in the same, ruthlessly competitive “red in sword and pike” world, anything as common as myth must have selective advantages.

And there is little disagreement over what that advantage is: social cohesion and identity, in other words nation (or tribe) building. Even in the 50s and 60s when I was in school this was widely acknowledged and references made to writings and statements from ancient civilizations and tribal people that made it obvious that they were well aware of that function of shared myths.

This is, of course, why there was often such an emphasis on everyone following the official state religion.

There are of course a number of problems with official national myths held too tightly, even apart from those of intolerance towards and lack of civil rights of non-conformers, the main one in my opinion being inflexibility.

I’ve been constantly amazed it see how when complex, otherwise advanced societies encountered an outside problem that their myths and social models could not deal with they went under rather than make a few, pretty obvious changes.

Some of my favorite examples occurred during the Roman expansion into Central and North Europe. Societies that were quite advanced with well armed warriors who were individually much bigger and stronger than the average Roman soldier went into defeat rather than replace their tradition of more individual combat with tactics effective against Roman highly organized, disciplined, centrally directed armies.

The Romans, by the way, were highly adaptive, quickly modifying both equipment and tactics to suit local conditions. In that way, I suppose, they were a “modern” empire. It’s interesting how few historians acknowledge the important contribution this flexibility made to Rome’s success.

Stephen Heyer said...

danby: “A computer is a very fast, very complex adding machine and teletype.”

No, computers are not adding machines!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer: “A computer is a machine that manipulates data according to a list of instructions…

“The ability to store and execute lists of instructions called programs makes computers extremely versatile and distinguishes them from calculators.”

That ability to follow a long list of instruction, including what to do when things go wrong, or even switch to a new set of instructions is what makes computers so immensely flexible.

Will it ever allow them to be truly self-aware: I doubt it. Will it allow them to become philosophers’ zombies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie ): Depends on whether programmers bog down in complexity before they reach that point.

Note that while I doubt that true, self-aware intelligences will ever result from current computer technology there is no doubt that they can be built, after all, very unskilled human couples do it rather too easily and often.

Conclusions:
1. Computers are enormously useful and will become more so, enough so to ensure they will come through almost any imaginable coming troubles.
2. Artificial Intelligences (AI) can and probably will be built, but probably not on anything like current computer technology, as will a lot of half-way stuff such as cyborgs.
3. If it turns out that humans really do have an immaterial core (soul and/or spirit) that survives death and moves / can be moved between bodies then it is a whole new ball game.

Stephen Heyer said...

The Singularity

I would not entirely dismiss The Singularity and especially would not dismiss its less violent version – The Event Horizon.

Ok, the original model where the process was driven by Strong AI and happened world wide, though centered in the USA, does not look at all likely. But then, maybe the very fact that that model seemed self-obvious was a clue that it was wrong: After all, the whole point of a singularity is that post-singularity conditions are unknowable.

I suspect, also, that the necessary conditions for a singularity to occur include a vast population and industrial base, (already assumed in about all models) but further, a population that is dynamic, intoxicated with success and progress, and self-confident to the point of recklessness.

Strangely enough, we have a single nation that may well be able to fulfill all of those conditions well before the middle of the century – China. That is, of course, if it manages to avoid imploding.

And it very well may: I’m becoming increasingly impressed by the adaptability and competence of the current incarnation of the Communist Party and of the new young generation of middle class Chinese who seem to have a rather innovative solution to living in a one party state – all join the party. For them, this achieves most of the advantages of a multi-party state without the disruption of switching to such, of for that matter the expense and trouble incurred by multi-party systems.

Correspondent said...

Repost w/link...

I've noticed the same thing Mr. Greer, people talking only the downside of our civilization, and imagining that the collapse will pave the way for some kind of utopia.

In my latest post I try to argue that the American way, as people used to say without so much sarcasm and irony, is the right basis for the post-fossil fuel future for this country, because it was conceived before fossil fuels, and that people working on sustainability, most of whom are politically Left, have trouble seeing this because of the revisionist history that has poisoned the Left's mythology of America. Please check it out!

FARfetched said...

«If it turns out that humans really do have an immaterial core (soul and/or spirit) that survives death and moves / can be moved between bodies then it is a whole new ball game.»

Stephen, I think it's important to remember that mind and spirit are two different things (and a body is a third). A spirit with no mind or body is what most people would think of as a ghost. A body with no spirit is a zombie. But what is a mind with no spirit or body? An AI, perhaps? What would motivate a mind, if not a spirit?

We fear ghosts and zombies as supernatural things, which intend us no good. The Singularity mythos shares with them the sundering of the mind/spirit/body connection, and would thus be equally fearsome. It yields both a disembodied mind, and a spirit in a body with no mind… two new creatures of the night. Perhaps its best if we stay put in our own bodies and ride out the coming storm as best as possible.

Heteromeles said...

Hi JMG and Bill,

Don't know if I can still add a comment, but all I can say is that I had a different education, because I did learn most of those things. Now granted, it was a long time ago, and much of it (such as chi) I learned in martial arts classes and through subsidiary reading rather than direct teaching. Still, I don't recall the contemptuous fundamentalism you describe. I was taught the story of progress, of course, but it was the story of the building of knowledge, rather than the story of stupid old ignorance replaced with modern knowledge.

Reading your comments, I can only thank the Powers That Be that I had more enlightened teachers. It's too bad you had to deal with that kind of attitude.

I've had negative teachers, and one of the best things I ever learned was that it's possible to have fun and enjoy the sciences, instead of being a bitter careerist. I'm certainly not eloquent, but I think it's a message worth repeating. It's not all bad.

It's sad that your experience in the sciences seems to have left you focusing on the negative, rather than acknowledging both the negative and positive, and going on.

John Michael Greer said...

Elizabeth, remember that fascism and Nazism are not the same thing. Italy under Mussolini is the type specimen of fascism, and was exactly what you've described as "ethnic nationalism" -- Mussolini's state was based on claims of cultural, rather than racial, supremacy. You're quite right that it's likely to become a common option in the future.

Robert, many thanks for the link!

Stephen, I've actually addressed the purpose of myth many times here. Mythic narratives are the basic tools of human thought; we use them to understand the world. The sort of social use you've outlined is secondary, and most often happens to myths in their decadence, when they've lost their relevance to most people's experience of the world. As for the usefulness of computers, the crucial point remains whether they are useful enough to still be worth making when the labor and resources needed for them might better be used for food, shelter, and the like; I suspect not.

Correspondent, thanks for reposting.

Farfetched, magical theorists were there long before you. A mind with no spiritual dimension and no body is one traditional definition of a demon. (The implication seems to be that mind divorced from spirit inevitably drifts into madness.) Interestingly, there's a bit of Cabalistic lore in the Jewish tradition that demons -- specifically the Qlippoth, "shells" or "husks," the demons of the Cabala -- are entities surviving from a world before ours. I suppose it would be too science fiction-y to suppose that they might be AIs from some long-dead planet...

Heteromeles, Bill and I both practice science and are working on ways to preserve crucial elements of the environmental sciences through the approaching age of decline. We're both quite able of enjoying the sciences, and making use of their positive elements, while recognizing the serious problems with the way the history of science is so often taught nowadays. I'm not at all clear why that seems incomprehensible to you.

By the way, anyone can comment on anArchdruid Report post even if it's been up for months -- I don't respond to comments on old posts, but that's another matter.

Stephen Heyer said...

farfetched: “Stephen, I think it's important to remember that mind and spirit are two different things (and a body is a third). A spirit with no mind or body is what most people would think of as a ghost. A body with no spirit is a zombie. But what is a mind with no spirit or body? An AI, perhaps? What would motivate a mind, if not a spirit?”

Hi farfetched,

First, John Greer’s comment in answer to you sort of resonates with my experience.

Now on to my comment, which is more a fun rant and “disturbing thought of the week” and not meant to be taken too seriously.

The trouble is, it all becomes a matter of semantics and personal cosmology.

For example, for most people who have some belief in the supernatural there is only the soul, which is more or less you, and that is what ghosts are. That’s the simple model, brain/mind, soul, heaven, hell, that sort of thing.

Then there is a model that goes brain, soul, spirit, with mind as some emergent combination of all three. At least in one version the soul, while an entity in its own right, is more or less the personality we wear in this life, it sort of wraps over the spirit. Oh! And maybe you can have more than one soul.

Ever seen the movie “The Mask”? That’s a very good interpretation of that kind of soul into the material world.

The spirit is sometimes thought to be an actual spark of God.

Incidentally, I started off as a pretty complete scientific materialist as was my father, but personal experiences such as the very strong ESP that ran in my family and personal out of body experiences have left me sort of thinking there might be something in the brain, soul, spirit model.

Then there’s the body of light! Experienced practitioners of OOBE and Remote Viewing often eventually become aware of a non-material “body double” near their physical bodies, yet separate from their conscious selves. This, despite often being ignorant of Eastern ideas about the Body of Light.

So maybe there is no such thing as a spirit without a body, but there is a “subtle” body made of something else (dark matter anyone?) the soul/spirit can move to. Doesn’t sound much like our Western religions, in fact, sounds disturbingly Matrix.

Oh! And scientists are not much help. Not only are their latest theories about cosmology and quantum physics sounding more convoluted and unlikely than Eastern esoteric religion, they now tell us that a straight extrapolation of current technology demands that there are/will be many more, perhaps trillions, of computer generated virtual reality worlds/universes for every real one.

Just have a little think about where that statistically puts us!

Not content with ruining our whole day with disturbing thoughts like that, the hardest of hard core cosmologists are now stuffing up our whole trust in the most basic features of physical reality. They now reckon that the amount of information a volume of space can contain is limited by its surface area, not its volume.

Just think about that for awhile! The only interpretation that makes sense without being so disturbing as to blow your brain is that one of our three spatial dimensions is in some way an illusion.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you have to panic. Anything we are likely to be able to do in the next century or two, even if it involves Strong AI, people having artificial (machine, biological) replicas of themselves made to continue after they die, human agelessness (immortality is a different thing altogether) or even souls/spirits moved to new bodies or into machines, it’s likely to be pretty small stuff compared to what the greater reality turns out to be.

Of course, our gracious host John Greer would say that we’ll all be far too busy hoeing our turnip patch and trying not to starve in a deep Post Peak Oil world to be playing around with any of that nonsense.

He may well be right but me, I’m not too sure. Even if we don’t manage to utilize other energy sources and adapt to using less, so don’t have a surplus to play with, I keep being reminded of the vast hunting estates the medieval nobility retained despite gross overpopulation and poverty among the serfs.

The nobility liked hunting! I suspect that even, no, especially, if things get that bad the elites of the mid and late 21st century will really like anything that offers them any hope of avoiding or delaying death and as a byproduct gives then lots of lovely hi-tec toys and zombie war machines to keep the serfs in line.

Me, I’m hoping that things turn out rather better for all of us and we all get to play with the new toys.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “Mythic narratives are the basic tools of human thought; we use them to understand the world. The sort of social use you've outlined is secondary, and most often happens to myths in their decadence, when they've lost their relevance to most people's experience of the world.”

Hi John,

Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree there. The way I see it, given that humans always populate to or beyond the carrying capacity of their area resulting in continuous efforts to take the next tribe’s land, evolutionary pressure has shaped a number of behaviors that increase group cooperation. Shared myth is one of the more effective.

Ok, I don’t use myth to understand the world, though I do pick out the bits that I think may correspond with reality, while being always ready to adopt a better theory if one comes along, so, I guess I might have the wrong idea about how most people use them. My brain does work a bit differently to most.

Still, I’d put causation and effect the other way round, with a behavior that evolved to strengthen social cohesion also coming to be used for personal purposes.

Neither can I agree that their social use becomes more prominent in their decadence. All the Judaic/Christian/Islamic family of myths were definitely really hot stuff at enforcing social conformity and warfare against non-believers when they were new and young. Tolerance seems to have mostly grown in areas of the faiths that were falling into gentle decadence.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, of course you think with myths. Human thought inevitably follows explicit or implicit narratives, and those narratives tend, with monumental predictability, to follow archetypal patterns that, as Jung pointed out a long time ago, are the subjective experience of humanity's biological instincts. What distinguishes modern thought from its older and more explicitly mythic equivalents isn't that we don't think with myths; it's that most people nowadays allow their belief in the innate superiority of modern thought to lure them into a pigheadedly unsophisticated way of thinking about their own myths.

Thus you can see any number of people trot out classic mythic narratives while insisting that these narratives are history, or scientific fact, or reasoned extrapolation, or simply the way things are. The problem, of course, is that when you embrace a myth in such an unreflective way, the myth has you at its mercy; it stops being a tool to think with, and becomes a barrier to thought. The myth of progress, as I've pointed out elsewhere, is a fine example; the myth of the machine -- you'll find that detailed at length in Lewis Mumford's work -- is another.

RJ said...

Neither candidate? The Greens' 2008 energy platform has yet to be ratified, here's 2004-

http://www.gp.org/platform/2004/ecology.html#761292

Cynthia Mckinney 2008-
http://mckinney2008.com/PRESIDENT/

Heteromeles said...

Dear JMG,

Thanks for clearing up the posting. I tried to post to an old comment, and it never appeared, so I assumed there was a 1-2 week limit. Since there was nothing offensive or off-topic in that post, I suspect there was a technical glitch in the submission.

As for the rest, your mission for saving the sciences is in no way incomprehensible to me, because I'm doing much the same thing. Since I work largely in a smaller, more specialized and more traditional field, I know how easy it is to lose the knowledge I carry, and how hard it will be to recover it once lost. In my current position, I regularly fight to make sure that I have the time to keep my skills honed and to teach others.

Rather than not comprehending your mission, I am responding to what I perceive as the anger, negativity, and absolutist attitudes in Bill Pulliam's posts (and to a lesser extent, in yours), and both of your accusations of my ignorance. As I have noted repeatedly, I seem to have had a much different experience than you and Bill did.

If you wish to approach this in a rational and objective manner, you may want to reflect that there is a diversity of experiences in the environmental and life sciences, and your personal experiences capture only a small part of that range, as do mine. I would speculate that your negative experiences may be blinding you to opportunities to profitably collaborate with scientists who share your worldview, but hopefully I am wrong about this.

In any case, I enjoy reading your posts.

mattbg said...

This was a very thought-provoking post. Thanks.

In imagining a better future, though, I wonder if some people know more than others how indignant our current Western society has become.

Consider one of Dalrymple's essays on the subject, based on his experience in oppressed areas of Africa, for example:

Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England.