Manifestation

As discussed earlier, humanity pursued science as a program for obtaining control over objective reality. While a moral outcome, the principles of science are not moral principles. They are axiomatic statements that define the primitives we can use to change reality. We can use them for good or ill: we can design super-medicines, or cultivate super-diseases. We can create super-materials, or super-weapons.

Science, although manifesting an intention (to control objective reality) and revealing intention (of primitive matter, organisms and societies), does not impose an intention. We do with our knowledge as we will.

On the other end of the problem-solving process, we find engineering. Engineering produces a specific mechanism to solve a specific problem. The artifact, once deployed, manifests the intention of the sponsor that commissioned the design. However, that intention cannot be gleaned from the mechanism by itself.

First, if the mechanism is successful, the problem that motivated its design is solved. Once the problem is removed, how can we know why the mechanism was deployed? Only by removing it. But, once in place, who knows which mechanism came first?

Secondly, the mechanism represents an axiomatic means for creating change. It can, and almost always is, capable of being integrated into some other process. For example, a hammer can be used to drive nails, or to break windows.

Of course, a sophisticated designer might come up with a completely different device for breaking windows: one that doesn’t make so much noise as a hammer, for example. But the window-breaker doesn’t necessarily have the time and energy for such niceties: consider the parent liberating children trapped in a room by a fire.

Unfortunately, as the scale of our endeavors increases, indeterminacy of consequence becomes untenable. If we want to build a six billion-dollar microchip fabrication facility, we would like to have a process for evaluating the design before committing money for its construction.

In actual practice, the manifestation of something as complex as a microfabrication facility rarely comes off perfectly. The problems that occur are the subject of further design analysis. If the statement of goals is not clearly related to the design in place, we may have a great deal of trouble fixing problems without disrupting another desirable behavior. In software, this is the problem of iatrogenic defects: changing code to fix a bug creates another bug, which is usually the failure of a feature that once satisfied the sponsor’s intention.

So how do we manage these problems? Science does not impose an intention, and engineering resolves it. What is the glue that ties science and engineering to the intention of the sponsor?

This is the discipline of programming.

A programmer responds to the goals of the sponsor with a statement of an abstract operational hypothesis (variously called a plan, or a cause-and-effect network) that states the interaction of axiomatic means that are predicted to accomplish those goals. The program is abstract because it does not specify the geometry and components of the assemblage in sufficient detail to allow its construction. That is left to engineering analysis.

With the program in place, we now have the final process for tying intention to outcome:

  • Possibilities are constrained by the axiomatic principles delineated by scientists.
  • Goals are addressed through an operational hypothesis provided by programmers.
  • A concrete construct, addressing a specific situation, is defined in an assembly designed by engineers.

Intention

In a specific sense, everything in our reality manifests an intention. At some scale, those intentions appear trivially primitive: a rock “intends” to be hard; water “intends” to be liquid. But at the scale at which their form becomes manifest, these intentions can become, to those that study them, wondrous and magical. The hardest rocks manifest crystalline structures of great intricacy. A crystal can be thought of as a manifestation of the properties of the chemical and thermodynamic conditions of its growth: it manifests the “intention” of those conditions to produce a crystal, and under those conditions no other crystal can materialize. Once formed, that crystal acts as a seed for growth even under conditions that would normally manifest other crystalline shapes.

Human beings, we typically like to think, are conscious and intelligent in the management of their intentions. Of course, in some circumstances – such as in conditions of war, famine or plague – those choices may be severely constrained: we can choose to either live at others’ expense, or we can choose to die. Infants in those circumstances may never progress much beyond the crude level of the crystal: they are brought into the world through the chance of circumstance, and die.

Bummer.

I don’t mean to be flippant about such tragedies, but as we are composed of matter, it appears inevitable that such conditions will continue to recur. The choice to destroy others to survive is an emotional choice. Rationally, we would agree to preserve the best and brightest in the culture. This is rarely what happens: only those trained to the service of a higher ideal are likely to make this sacrifice. Normally, the descent to the emotions of the survival imperative is accompanied by a complete loss of rational control, and people will act like beasts. The resulting conditions are not supportive of the attainment of higher human aspirations.

In more successful circumstances, the child will be nurtured at least until he or she is able to be a productive contributor to the community. In primitive cultures, this may be as early as eight or so, when the child can manage animals. In modern social elites, it may be as late as 30, after completing a rigorous qualification for research in academe.

At what point does choice become available to an active member of the community? In primitive cultures, usually once the child is able to escape the coercive influence of his or her parents. (For those that believe there is a gender imbalance: we’ll get into sexual politics later.) In advanced cultures, only when the earnings capacity of the child becomes sufficient to sustain an independent lifestyle. This can be anywhere from 13 to 40 years of age.

So what do we do with this freedom? Well, that depends upon the refinement of our judgment. Judgments are something that we start to make once our guardians determine that we have mastered a skill, and leave us without supervision. In the worst case, that time alone is undirected: the outcomes of the child’s endeavors are never subjected to mature evaluation. His or her judgments are not refined, and the child may be tempted to destructive action. (“The devil makes work for idle hands.”) In the best case, as with children schooled at home by a permissive and constructive parent, the child makes judgments as often as possible, and receives direct feedback frequently, until his or her judgment regarding the need to have guidance becomes sufficiently refined that he or she can be trusted to seek guidance independently.

What is the basis for making judgments, and refining that capacity? It is instructive to consider the processes evolved by our culture to control the natural tyrannies.

Emotions

I’ve focused to this point on thought as the characteristic that differentiated us from other animals. But thought only helps us get where we want to go. What makes us want to go there?

Our motivations come from our emotions. Emotions form the long-term psychological context for our lives. Where thoughts flit through our mind, our emotions persist. Typically, we have predominant states that may persist for many months, with episodes of other emotions that may last from minutes to days. Compare this to the evanescence of thoughts, which last only a few seconds.

Emotions are hidden, sometimes frightening things. They arise from deep within our brain, along neural pathways that were hard-coded over millions of years to facilitate our survival and the survival of the species. Fear, lust, greed, vanity and envy. You know the lot. The drive us to be separate, to dominate and to control. And on the other hand, courage, love, compassion, humility and pride. They drive us to join, to sustain others and to sacrifice for the common good. The survival of a new-born infant depends upon them.

Emotions are dangerous when they drive us into magical thinking. Our strongest emotions occur in the course of imagining, particularly when the subject of our attention involves great psychological loss or gain. We focus on the end results – achieving the goal, or avoiding the loss – and go “tilting at windmills”. The end result can be a disastrous squandering of resources that would be better focused on more realistic means for improving our lives and our selves.

Unfortunately, our media-driven society tends to emphasize this predilection. In any large society, events occur daily that happen only once or twice in most lives. Presented with a common diet of “true-life” stories that manifest our wildest hopes and fears, the moderate diet of rationality most of us live on can be worn away.

Many of our deepest emotional experiences occur when we are children. They are powerful because we have so little control, at that age, over the circumstances in which those events occur. We have limited means for reasoning about the outcome of an event, so we simply replay it over and again in our minds. The association of an emotion with the event becomes deeply ingrained in our neural pathways. If the experience is powerful enough, any sensory our conceptual association may trigger that emotion, sometimes inappropriately.

Two common strategies are followed to control these associations. One is to suppress our emotions, denying ourselves the motive energy for sustained action. The other is to ride on those emotions, using them to drive others and us to behavioral extremes. Powerful emotions are a type of drug. They exhaust the body’s energy and eventually disorganize our thought processes. If indulged too long, we may succumb to psychological or physical collapse.

The only way out of this trap is to consciously and rationally choose different stories. This can mean changing our source of news, or watching different movies. When we have difficult stories of our own to overcome, we can make a concerted attempt to rewrite those stories – to imagine outcomes that would have occurred if we had the benefit of past experience, and to assert those as the model for our future behavior.

Mastery of this process of cerebral re-interpretation is one of the critical skills we must develop on the road to becoming a mature adult. As the skill develops, we can better harness our emotions by rapidly evaluating their relevance to our intentions. To prevent a loss of focus, we can call upon other experiences that evoke emotions more consistent with direction of our energies to the purposes we have chosen.

Priorities

Our modern age is an age of science. Despite the nobility of science as an endeavor, to a degree that will only become clear later, this age of science has culminated in an era of spiritual violation. This is not the fault of the scientific process. Science is simply an application of respectful rational inquiry to convert magical thought into understanding. Our spiritual difficulties are a consequence of the order of priorities faced by our forebears.

To anyone who has faced the force of a natural disaster, it is obvious that life is a fragile gift. For various reasons, our urge to master the management of energy requires that we commit ourselves to the preservation of life. First, each person is a chance to achieve mastery. In some sense, they are an experiment. Unplanned interruptions of an experiment limit the understanding that can be gained from it. Secondly, we are Lamarckian creatures: we benefit to the degree that we share our journey. Disrupting that participation robs us of the chance to accomplish our goals.

Obviously, there is much to respect and admire in primitive cultures. In many cases, they manifest a lost balance with the earth that sustains us. But they were fragile, precisely because they could not reliably manage the natural tyrannies. The elements, disease, hunger, and predation were all terrifying and imminent realities that have faded dramatically in the consciousness of advanced cultures.

It is hard to argue that magical thinking did not play a significant part in how ancient peoples responded to the natural tyrannies. We know that sacrifices of wealth and life to propitiate the gods were a normal practice by ancient peoples. The diversity of the pantheons among ancient cultures would lead us to conclude that whatever basis those practices may have had in reality, the implementing mechanisms were not understood clearly by the practitioners. One significant problem, perhaps the overwhelming one, was the difficulty of training competent practitioners and channeling their intentions. Consequently, their activities produced unreliable results.

Science was the response to that difficulty.

The scale of the problems represented by the natural tyrannies has certain social implications. The complexity of reality meant that, even with the benefits of Lamarckian evolution, any individual investigator could achieve only an incremental increase in understanding over that of his instructors. Specialization was required simply to achieve mastery of what was already understood, much less to participate successfully in advancing knowledge. Finally, the effort involved in building systems for controlling the effects of natural tyranny requires the energy of many individuals. For all of these reasons, significant progress was predicated upon the development of institutions to organize, coordinate and sustain effort across cultures and generations.

By nature, successful coordination of these activities limited efforts to those aspects of reality that are almost universally apprehensible. (We commonly call this “objective” reality.) In fact, the necessary cultural focus was so narrow and intense that today we relegate to “mental health” providers all those that are unable to conform their perceptions.

Our current mental health “crisis” is one manifestation of the problem of optimization. The driving goal of science was to allow society to successfully evaluate and respond to the life experiences of its members. In part, the compact between members of society was that the experience of successful members would be transmitted to their fellows. But if society is so fragile and narrowly focused that experimentation must be controlled to avoid disruption, does the compact still survive?

On the other end of the scale, as institutions grow, the complexity of their internal working goes up as the square of the number of participants. Unfortunately, the number of managers only increases linearly. At some point, the skill of managers is overwhelmed, and organizations must be “restructured”.

In what follows, the reader will be introduced to techniques, until now largely misapprehended by science, for negotiating and optimizing the relationship between the individual and society.

On a Short Leash

Now, as I have put it before, the process of imagining seems fairly efficient. However, the efficiency presumes an unlikely mastery of abstraction. What does a dog know about “leash”? That flexible object with patterned blobs of (reflected) light that is necessary for leaving the boundaries of movement defined by the hard, cold, transparent force field (“fence”) , and connects another force field around Fido’s neck (“collar”) to master? And on and on.

Obviously, imagining is facilitated by understanding. The more powerful our abstractions, that more powerful and efficient are our imaginings.

Understanding can be of two types. It can be a categorization (“leash”), or a relationship (“necessary to leaving”). Relationships can be causal (establishing preconditions that determine an event), or probabilistic (defining the likelihood that an event will happen, when we cannot determine or control all conditions). The value of relationships is that they enable us to

  • predict the range of outcomes that can be expected to occur, and
  • focus our resources to control the risk of adverse outcomes.

Let’s again consider Fido’s leash as an example of the realization of a category. Whence arises this apprehension? This occurs in two kinds of realizations: “is-a” and “not is-a”. Fido interacts with master, and notices the magical restraint on his movement (“is-a”). He studies his environment. Many things in his environment, such as his dinner bowl, never seem to be associated with the magical restraint. These are to be disqualified (“not is-a”). Among those things that appear to be associated with the restraint, some are those that are always part of master (“not is-a”). On an important occasion, Fido breaks the magical restraint by lunging suddenly, and notices that something slaps his back and legs as he runs. He investigates, chewing, sniffing and scratching at the offending thing. Master arrives, and intervenes to end the investigations, taking the offending thing into his hand. And the magical restraint resumes (‘is “is-a”‘)!

Through experience and manipulation, Fido apprehends “leash”.

What is the apprehension of a “relationship”? The leash is related to Fido’s desire to explore territory. It is an enabling element.

Now, in a world in which Fido lives solely to go on walks, leash becomes the most important thing. If Fido can find it reliably on a certain table or inside a certain closet, he may ignore large portions of his domestic reality.

People in the thrall of romantic infatuation also experience this magical effect. No other prospective mate has meaning. The attentions of those candidates may be completely ignored. To those rejected suitors, it may seem as though they don’t exist at all to the subject of their intentions.

Where writ here in the small, so has been the course of human understanding. Primitive men lived in an extremely rich perceptual environment. In order to understand that environment, they had to narrow their perception of events. Objects successfully categorized became the focus of their perception, excluding the apprehension of phenomena that appeared less relevant to accomplishment of their goals.

In other words, living creatures, whether through Darwinian or Lamarckian processes, control their perceptions in order to improve their control of outcomes. With regards to human intellectual achievement, understanding has a cost in experience: our perceptions deepen, but narrow.

I have already observed that thought has allowed us to dramatically change the nature of the reality we inhabit. Possibilities and outcomes are far different now than they were when mankind first began the experiment of understanding. It may be impossible for us to apprehend exactly how different their perception of reality was from ours. I have found it instructive, however, to consider “Why?

First Causes

Thought is a talent that develops in us.

An infant, in this regard, may be likened to an animal. I say “likened” because there is an important spiritual difference between an infant and a mature animal. However, animals and infants manifest similar behavioral strategies, and so we can use the animal as an analogue for the development of thinking in an infant’s brain.

Early in life, the infant is considered to think magically. It constructs its behaviors as a series of stories. When in discomfort, it cries. When happy, it coos and waves its hands. These behaviors elicit responses from the Universe that satisfy its physical and social needs. It does not understand how the Universe succeeds in that regard. This is painfully obvious to any father that tries, over the course of half an hour or so, placating an irritable infant by changing the diaper, offering the bottle, and adding and removing clothing in various combinations, only to learn upon her return from the store that the infant wants to see its mother’s face.

In adult animals, we have enough control over the context of its life that we can see magical thinking unfolding as a story. We open the door and whistle, and the dog comes in for dinner. It does not understand the preconditions to its consumption of dinner. We worked to earn money, we bought dog food from the store, and we stored it in suitable conditions to ensure it remained free of contamination.

Let’s suppose that our car breaks down and we are unable to buy food for our pet. What kind of trauma awaits the animal when we call it in at night? The story fails. What is it to do next? Many animals suffer the symptoms of depression under such circumstances. It may take hours for them to recover their equilibrium and resume their routine, to the extent possible. Or its behavior may be irrevocably altered. Fido may stay outside hunting at night when it feels hunger, instead of coming in when we call.

Now, if the dog were human, what would we expect of it? If it were an infant, we would expect it to cry and rage until it evoked a solution from the Universe – pretty much like we would expect from a dog. But if it were an adult, we would expect it to ask why dinner wasn’t presented, and to fetch leash, coat, wallet and keys for the journey with master to the store.

This second response has two parts. First, the animal engages in a process of respectful rational inquiry. As described, it seeks to elicit knowledge of the cause of the difficulty, while preserving master’s emotional commitment to a solution. Once the difficulty is understood, the animal imagines a new story. The story, involving personal choice by master, is still magical. But if executed many times over the course of a week, the predictability of the story’s outcome makes it a rationally defensible proposition – as was Fido’s initial expectation that dinner would be waiting on the other side of the open door.

Paradigms

The evolutionary imperative that gave rise to homo sapiens has expressed itself most powerfully in our urge to understand and order reality. As we have come to dominate that reality, our grasp of the scope of our knowledge has become fragmented. In this section, we consider the underpinnings of knowledge, and develop a framework that will serve later to organize our use of the rigorous predictive capacity of science and the intuitions of spirituality.

Thought

Among the forms of life we perceive on this Earth, humanity is gifted with exceptional mental powers. Specifically, our power of thought – the ability to negotiate possible futures through the abstract vehicle of symbols (words, pictures, formulas, etc.) – has made us masters of this kingdom.

Why is thought important? Let’s consider evolutionary theory.

Darwin was not the only proponent of evolution. Lamarck also offered a theory that proposed competition as the driving force of species development. Darwin noticed, however, that in the animal kingdom at large, individual improvements were transmitted only through procreation. If an animal developed improvements during its life – for example, larger muscles due to exertion – these could not be transferred to its progeny.

Lamarck had the opposite philosophy. He held that an herbivore feasting on leaves, if forced to stretch its neck because overpopulation caused depletion of leaves on lower branches, would pass the predisposition for a longer neck on to its progeny. Lamarck preferred this hypothesis because it meant that species could evolve far more rapidly. Rather than only at the moment of conception, every moment of contact between an adult and a child was an opportunity to transmit the benefits of experience.

Darwin, of course, has been preferred. Lamarck was rejected because he appeared to subscribe to magical thinking: he could not specify a mechanism for transmittal of characteristics developed during life to an animal’s offspring. Darwin, on the other hand, had the work of Mendel with peas, which showed that plant characteristics where transmitted through seeds. Today, we know that the specific mechanism of transmittal is DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Unfortunately, in one specific realm, Darwin’s ideas have been misapplied. Social competition is engaged almost entirely in the domain of thought. The capacities present in a baby when it leaves the womb are completely unsatisfactory for his survival in the world of adults. Obviously, improved motor skills and physical strength are critical to survival in an adult world, and the limits of those capacities are defined genetically. In the modern world, however, machinery reduces the significance of those differences. Far more important are the social and productive thought processes originating from his elders. To the degree that his teachers have improved the skills passed on to them from their predecessors, the child will also benefit.

Human beings, to a degree unique among living creatures, benefit from Lamarckian evolution. (Bacteria, which exchange DNA plasmids, may also be thought of as participants in Lamarckian evolution. However, this method is not significantly more efficient than normal genetics.) The manifestation of thought means that we adapt to our environment far faster than other species. Furthermore, we are capable, through thought, of conceiving of and constructing man-made environments, to the degree that we have succeeded in redefining the nature of existence in almost every corner of our world.