Serious Play with Evolutionary Ideas
Have I mentioned already that I am part of an arts & science collective here in Vienna? It's called THE ZONE. Yes, you're right. I actually did mention it before.
What is it about? And what, in general, is the point of arts & science collaborations? This post is the start of an attempt to give some answers to these questions. It is based on a talk I gave on Mar 12, 2022 at "Hope Recycling Station" in Prague as part of an arts & science event organized by the "Transparent Eyeball" collective (Adam Vačkář and Jindřich Brejcha).
I'll start with this beautiful etching by polymath poet William Blake, from 1813. It's called "The Reunion of the Soul and the Body," and shows a couple in a wild and ecstatic embrace. I suppose the male figure on the ground represents the body, while the female soul descends from the heavens for a passionate kiss amidst the world (a graveyard with an open grave in the foreground, as far as I can tell) going up in smoke and flames. This image, rich in gnostic symbolism, stands for a way out of the profound crisis of meaning we are experiencing today.
Blake's picture graces the cover of one of the weirdest and most psychoactive pieces of literature that I have ever read. In fact, I keep on rereading it. It is William Irwin Thompson's "The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light." This book is a wide-ranging ramble about mythmaking, sex, and the origin of human culture. It sometimes veers a bit too far into esoteric and gnostic realms for my taste. But then, it is also a superabundant source of wonderfully crazy ideas and stunning metaphorical narratives that are profoundly helpful if you're trying to viscerally grasp the human condition, especially the current pickle we're in. It's amazing how much this book, written in the late 1970s, fits the zeitgeist of 2022. It is more timely and important than ever.
So why is Blake's image on the cover? "Myth is the history of the soul" writes Thompson in his Prologue. What on Earth does that mean? Remember, this is not a religious text but a treatise on mythmaking and its role in culture. (I won't talk about sex in this post, sorry.) Thompson suggests that our world is in flames because we have lost our souls. This is why we can no longer make sense of the world. A new reunion of soul and body is urgently needed. Thompson's soul is no supernatural immortal essence. Instead, the loss of soul represents the loss of narrative order, which is the story you tell of your personal experience and how it fits into a larger meta-narrative about the world. A personal mythos, if you want. We used to have such a mythos but, today, we are no longer able to tell this story of ourselves in a way that gives us a stable and intuitive grip on reality.
According to cognitive psychologist John Vervaeke, the narrative order is only one of three orders which we need to get a grip, to make sense of the world. It is the story about ourselves, told in the first person (as an individual or a community). The second-person perspective is called the normative order, our ethics, our ways of co-developing our societies. And the third-person perspective is the nomological order, our science, the rules that describe the structure of the world, which constrains our agency and guides our relationship with reality (our agent-arena relationship).
All three orders are in crisis right now. Science is being challenged from all sides in our post-truth world. Moral cohesion is breaking down. But the worst afflicted is the narrative order. We have no story to tell about ourselves anymore. This problem is at the root of all our crises. That is exactly what Thompson means by the soullessness of our time.
THE OLD MYTHOS...
But what is the narrative order, the mythos, that was lost? As I explain in detail elsewhere, it is the parable (sometimes wrongly called allegory) of Plato's Cave. We are all prisoners in this cave, chained to the wall, with an opening behind our backs that we can't see. Through this opening, light seeps into the cave, casting diffuse shadows of shapes that pass in front of the opening onto the wall opposite us. These shadows are all we can see. They represent the totality of our experiences. In Plato's tale, a philosopher is a prisoner who escapes her shackles to ascend to the world outside the cave. She can now see the real world, beyond appearances, in its true light. For Plato, this world consists of abstract ideal forms, to be understood as the fundamental organizational principles behind appearances. He provides us with a two-world mythology that explains the imperfection of our world, and also our journey towards deeper meaning.
This journey is a transformative one. It is central to Plato's parable. He calls it anagoge (ancient Greek for "climb" or "ascent"). The philosopher escaping the cave must become a different person before she can truly see the real world of ideal forms. Without this transformation, she would be blinded by the bright daylight outside the cave. Anagoge involves a complexification of her views and a decentering of her stance, away from egocentric motivations to an omnicentric worldview that encompasses the whole of reality. When she returns to the cave, she is a completely different person. In fact, the other prisoners, her former friends and companions, no longer understand what she is saying, since they have not undergone the same transformations she has. The only way she can make them understand is to convince them to embark on their own journeys. However, most of the prisoners do not want to leave the cave. They are quite comfortable in its warm womb-like enclosure.
With his parable, Plato wanted to destroy more ancient mythologies of gods and heroes. Ironically, in doing so, he created an even more powerful myth that governed human meaning-making for almost two-and-a-half millennia. After his death, it was taken up by the Neoplatonists and then by St. Augustine. It entered the mythos of Christianity as the spiritual domain of God, which lies beyond the physical world of our experience. Only faith, not reason, can grant you access. Later, this idea of a transcendent realm was secularized by Immanuel Kant. who postulated a two-world ontology of phenomena and noumena, the latter ("das Ding an sich") completely out of reach for a limited human knower.
... AND ITS DOWNFALL
All of this was brutally shattered by Friedrich Nietzsche (although others, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Auguste Comte, also contributed enthusiastically to the demolition effort). Nietzsche is the prophet of the meaning crisis. "God is dead, and we have killed him" doesn't leave much room anymore for the spiritual realm of traditional Christianity. What Nietzsche means here is not an atheistic call to arms. It is the observation that traditional religion already has become increasingly irrelevant for a growing number of people, and that this process is inevitable and irreversible in our modern times. Nietzsche also destroys Kant's transcendental noumenal domain, all in just one page of "The Twilight of the Idols," which is unambiguously entitled "History of an Error."
When Nietzsche is through with it, two-world mythology is nothing more than a heap of smoking rubble. And things have gotten only worse since then. As Nietzsche predicted, the demolition of the Platonic mythos was followed by an unprecedented wave of cynical nihilism over what we could call the long 20th century, culminating in the postmodern relativism of our post-fact world. Under these circumstances, any attempt at reconstructing the cave would be a fool's hope.
A NEW MYTHOS?
But we can try to do better than that! What Thompson and Vervaeke want, instead of crawling back into the womb of the cave, is a new mythos, a new history of the soul, (meta-)narratives adequate for the zeitgeist of the 21st century. But who would be our contemporary mythmakers? Thompson points out a few problems in "Falling Bodies:"
"The history of the soul is obliterated,
the universe is shut out,
and on the walls of Plato's cave
the experts in the casting of shadows
tell the story of Man's rise from ignorance to science through the power of technology."
In Thompson's view, scientists are the experts in the casting of shadows, generating ever more sophisticated but shallow appearances, without ever getting to the deep underlying issues. What about artists then?
"In the classical era the person who saw history in the light of myth was the prophet,
an Isaiah or Jeremiah;
in the modern era the person who saw history in the light of myth was the artist,
a Blake or a Yeats.
But now in our postmodern era the artists have become a degenerate priesthood;
they have become not spirits of liberation, but the interior decorators of Plato's cave.
We cannot look to them for revolutionary deliverance."
Harsh: postmodern artists as the interior decorators of Plato's cave. Shiny surface and distanced irony over deep meaning and radical sincerity. The meaning crisis seems to have fully engulfed both the arts and the sciences. Thompson's pessimistic conclusion is that, in their current state, neither are likely to help us restore the narrative order.
This is where Thompson (pictured above) proposes the new practice of wissenskunst. Neither science nor art, yet also a bit of both (in a way). He starts out with a reflection on what a modern-day prophet would be:
"The revisioning of history is ... also an act of prophecy―not prophecy in the sense of making predictions, for the universe is too free and open-ended for the manipulations of a religious egotism―but prophecy in the sense of seeing history in the light of myth."
Since artists are interior decorators now, and scientists cast ever more intricate shadows in the cave, we need new prophets. But not religious ones. More something like:
"If history becomes the medium of our imprisonment, then history must become the medium of our liberation; (to rise, we must push against the ground to which we have fallen). For this radical task, the boundaries of both art and science must be redrawn. Wissenschaft must become Wissenkunst."
(Wissenskunst, actually. Correct inflections are important in German!)
The task is to rewrite our historical narrative in term of new myths. To create a new narrative order. A story about ourselves. But what does "myth" mean, exactly? In an age of chaos, like ours, myth is often taken to be "a false statement, an opinion popularly held, but one known by scientists and other experts to be incorrect." This is not what Thompson is talking about. Vervaeke captures his sense of myth much better:
"Myths are ways in which we express and by which we try to come into right relationship to patterns that are relevant to us either because they are perennial or because they are pressing."
So what would a modern myth look like?
Well, according to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, there is only one modern myth: zombies! Vervaeke and co-authors tie the zombie apocalypse to our current meaning crisis: zombies are "the fictionally distorted, self-reflected image of modern humanity... zombies are us." The undead live in a meaningless world. They live in herds but never communicate. They are unapproachable, ugly, unlovable. They are homeless, aimlessly wandering, neither dead nor alive. Neither here nor there. They literally destroy meaning by eating brains. In all these ways, zombification reflects our loss of narrative order.
Unfortunately, the zombie apocalypse is not a good myth. It only expresses our present predicament, but does not help us understand, solve, or escape it. A successful myth, according to Vervaeke, must "give people advice on how to get into right relationship to perennial or pressing problems." Zombies just don't do that. Zombie movies don't have happy endings (with only one exception that I know of). The loss of meaning they convey is rampant and terminal. Compare this with Plato's myth of the cave, which provides us with a clear set of instruction on how to escape our imperfect world of illusions. Anagoge frees us from our shackles. What's more, it is achievable using only our own faculties of reason. No other tools required. In contrast, you can only run and hide from the undead. There is no escaping them. They are everywhere around you. The zombie-apocalypse is claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing. It leaves us without hope. We need better myths for meaning-making. But how to create them?
Philip Ball, in his excellent book about modern myths, points out that you cannot write a modern myth on purpose. Myths arise in a historically contingent manner. In fact, they have no single author. Once a story becomes myth, it mutates and evolves through countless retelling. It is the whole genealogy of stories that comprises the myth. Thompson comes to a very similar conclusion when looking at the Jewish midrashim, for example, which are folkloristic exegeses of the biblical canon. For it to be effective, a myth must become a process that inspires. Just look at the evolution of Plato's two-world mythology from the original to its neoplatonist, Christian, and Kantian successors.
So where to begin if we are out to generate a new mythology for modern times? I think there is no other way than to look directly at the processes that drive our ability to make sense of the world. If we see these processes more clearly, we can play with them, spinning off narratives that might, eventually, become the roots of new myths, myths based on cognitive science rather than religious or philosophical parables.
THE PROBLEM OF RELEVANCE
By now, it should come as no surprise that rationality alone is not sufficent for meaning-making. We have talked about the transformative process of anagoge, in which we need to complexify and decenter our views in order to make sense of the world. What is driving this process? The most basic problem we need to tackle when trying to understand anything is the problem of relevance: how do we decide what is worth understanding in the first place? And once we've settled on some particular aspect of reality, how do we frame the problem so it actually can be understood? A modern mythology must address these fundamental questions.
Vervaeke and colleagues call the process involved in identifying relevant features relevance realization. At the danger of simplifying a bit, you can think of it as a kind of "where is Wally" (or "Waldo" for our friends from the U.S.). Reality bombards us with a gazillion of sensory impressions. Take the crowd of people on the beach in the picture above. How do we pick out the relevant one? Where is Wally? We cannot simply reason our way through our search (although some search strategies will, of course, be more reasonable than others).
We do not yet have a good understanding of how relevance realization actually works, or what its cognitive basis is, but there are a few aspects of this fundamental process that we know about and that are relevant here. On the one hand, we must realize that relevance realization reaches into the depth of our experience, arising at the very first moments of our existence. A newborn baby (and, indeed, pretty much any living organism) can realize what is relevant to it. We must therefore conclude that this process occurs at a level below that of propositional knowledge. We can pick out what is relevant before we can think logically. On the other hand, relevance realization also encompasses the highest levels of cognition. In fact, we can consider consciousness itself as some kind of higher-order recursive relevance realization.
Importantly, relevance realization cannot be captured by an algorithm. The number of potentially relevant aspects of reality is indefinite (and potentially infinite), and cannot be captured in a well-formulated mathematical set, which would be necessary to define an algorithm. What's more, the category of "what we find relevant" does not have any essential properties. What is relevant radically depends on context. In this regard, relevance is a bit like the concept of "adaptation" in evolution. What is adaptive will radically depend on the environmental context. There is no essential property of "that which is adaptive." Similarly, we must constantly adapt to pick out the relevant features of new situations.
Thus, in a very broad but also deep sense, relevance realization resembles an evolutionary adaptive process. And just like there is competition between lots of different organisms in evolution, there is a kind of opponent processing going on in relevance realization: different cognitive processes and strategies compete with each other for dominance at each moment. This explains why we can shift attention very quickly and flexibly when required (and sometimes when it isn't), but also why our sense-making is hardly consistent across all situations. This is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite, it allows us to be flexible while maintaining an overall grip on reality. As Groucho Marx is supposed to have said: "I have principles, but if you don't like them, I have others."
INVERSE ANAGOGE & SERIOUS PLAY
Burdened with all this insight into relevance realization, we can now come up with a revised notion of anagoge, which is appropriate for our secular modern times. It is quite the inverse of Plato's climb into the world of ideals. Anagoge now becomes a transformative journey inside ourselves and into our relationship with the world. A descent instead of an ascent. Transformative learning is a realignment of our relevance realization processes to get a better grip on our situation. We can train this process through practice, but we cannot step outside it to observe and understand it "objectively." We cannot make sense of it, since we make sense through it.
Basically, the only way to train our grip on reality is to tackle it through practice, more specifically, to engage in serious play with our processes of relevance realization. To quote metamodern political philosopher Hanzi Freinacht, we must
"... assume a genuinely playful stance towards life and existence, a playfulness that demands of us the gravest seriousness, given the ever-present potentials for unimaginable suffering and bliss."
Serious playfulness, sincere irony, and informed naivité. This is what it takes to become a metamodern mythmaker.
So this is the beginning of our journey. A journey that will eventually yield a new narrative order. Or so we hope. It is not up to us to decide, as we enter THE ZONE between arts and science. Our quest is ambitious, impossible, maybe. But try we must, or the world is lost.
This post is based on a lecture held on March 12, 2022 at the "Transparent Eyeball" arts & science event in Prague, which was organized by Adam Vačkář and Jindřich Brejcha.
Based on work by William Irwin Thompson, John Vervaeke, and Hanzi Freinacht.
I've been silent on this blog for too long. What about reactivating it with some reflections on its maybe somewhat cryptic title?
The phrase "untethered in the Platonic realm" comes from a committee report I received when I applied for a fellowship with a project to critically examine the philosophy underlying the open science movement. The feedback (as you may imagine) was somewhat less than enthusiastic. The statement was placed prominently at the beginning of the report to tell me that philosophy is an activity exclusively done in armchairs, with no practical impact on anything that truly matters in practice. The committee saw my efforts as floating in a purely abstract domain, disconnected from reality. I suspect the phrase was also a somewhat naive (and more than a little pathetic) attempt by the high-profile scientific operators on the panel to showcase their self-assumed philosophical sophistication. What it did was exactly the opposite: it revealed just how ignorant we are these days of the philosophical issues that underlie pretty much all our current misery. To quote cognitive scientist and philosopher John Vervaeke: beneath the myriad crises humanity is experiencing right now, there is a profound crisis of meaning. And what, if not that, is a philosophical problem?
Vervaeke's meaning crisis affects almost all aspects of human society. In particular, it affects our connectedness to ourselves, each other, and to our environment. We are quite literally loosing our grip on reality. And believe it or not, all of this is intimately linked to Plato and his allegedly irrelevant and abstract ideas. So why not try to illustrate the importance of philosophy for our practical lives with Plato's allegory of the cave (which is more of a parable, really).
I am part of an arts and science collective called THE ZONE. Together with Marcus Neustetter, (who is an amazing artist) we've created a virtual-reality rendition of Plato's cave, which allows us to explore philosophical issues while actually looking at the shadows on the wall (and what causes them). What follows is a summary of some of the ideas we discuss during our mythopoietic philosophical stroll.
I'm sure most of you will have heard of Plato's parable of the cave (part of his "Republic"), and are vaguely familiar with what it stands for: we humans are prisoners in a cave, chained with our backs to the wall. An unseen source of light behind our backs provides diffuse and flickering lighting. Shapes are paraded or pass in front of the light source. They cause fleeting shadows on the wall. These shadows are all we can see. They are our reality, but aren't accurate or complete representations of the real world. For Plato, a philosopher (and this would include scientists today) is a prisoner that manages to break their chains and escape the cave. As the philosopher ventures to find the exit, she is first blinded by the light coming from outside.
Now we come to what I think is the central and most important aspect of the story, an aspect that is often overlooked. As the philosopher ascends from the cave to the surface, she must adapt to her new conditions. Her transformative journey to the surface is called "anagoge," which simply means "climb" or "ascent" in ancient Greek. It later acquired a mystical and spiritual meaning in the context of Christianity. But for Plato, it is simply the series of changes in yourself that you must go through in order to be able to see the real world for what it is.
For Plato, the world the philosopher discovers is an ideal world of timeless absolute forms. This is what we usually associate with his parable of the cave: the invention of what later (via Neoplatonism and Augustine) became the religious and spiritual realm of Christianity, above and beyond the physical realm of our everyday lives. But before we get to the problems associated with that idea, let me point out one more overlooked aspect of the story.
An important part of Plato's parable is that the philosopher returns to the cave, eager to tell the other prisoners about the real world and the fact that they are only living in the shadows. Unfortunately, the others do not understand her, since they have not gone through the transformative process of anagoge themselves. Through her journey, the philosopher has become a different kind of person. She quite literally lives in a different world, even after she descends back to the cave. If she wants to share her experience in any meaningful way, she needs to convince the other prisoners to undertake their own journeys. My guess is though that most of them are pretty happy to stay put, chained as they are to the wall in the cave.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this story is for the last 2,500 years of human history. Untethered in its abstract realm it is not. And it is at the very root of our current meaning crisis, as Vervaeke points out (I've largely followed his interpretation of Plato above). There is a deep irony in the whole history. Plato's original intention with his tale of abstraction was to fight the superstitious mythological worldviews most of his contemporaries held on to, which were based on anthropomorphized narratives expressed in terms of the acts of gods, heroes, or demons. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Plato did succeed in introducing new, more abstract, more general metaphors for the human condition. On the other hand, all he did was introduce another kind of myth. He invents the two-world mythology of an ideal realm transcending our imperfect world of everyday experiences.
One of the most important philosophers of the early 20th century, Alfred North Whitehead, famously quipped that "[t]he safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." Whitehead also introduced the concept of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (sometimes called the reification fallacy), which pretty accurately describes what happened to Plato and his cave: this fallacy means you are mistaking something abstract for something concrete. In other words, you are mistaking something that is made up for something real. Oversimplifying just a little bit, we can say that this is what Christians did with the Platonic realm of ideal forms. If this world you live in does not make sense to you, just wait for the next one. It'll be much better. And so, the abstract realm of God became a cornerstone for our meaning-making up until the Renaissance and subsequent historical developments brought all kinds of doubts and troubles into the game.
To be fair to Plato, he did not see his two worlds as disconnected and completely separated realms the way Christianity came to interpret him. His worlds were bridged by the transformative journey of anagoge after all. And that is why his story is still relevant today. Some time between the Renaissance and Friedrich Nietzsche declaring God to be dead, Plato's ideal world became not so much implausible, but irrelevant for an increasing number of people. It no longer touched their lives or helped them make sense. The resulting disappearance of Plato's ideal world is succinctly recounted in Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Idols" in what is surely one of the best one-page slams philosophy has ever produced.
Unfortunately though, we threw out the baby with the bathwater. With the Platonic realm no longer a place to be untethered in, we also lost the notion of anagoge. This is tragic, because the transformative journey stands for the cultivation of wisdom. Self-transcendence has become associated with superficial MacBuddhism and new-age spiritual bypassing. An escape from reality. To come to know the world, we no longer consider our own personal development as important (other than acquiring tools and methods, but that is hardly transformative). Instead, we believe in the application of the scientific method, narrowly defined as rationality in the form of logical inference applied to factual empirical evidence, as the best way to achieve rigorous understanding. Don't get me wrong: science is great, and its proper application is more important than ever before. What I'm saying here is that science alone is not sufficient to make sense of the world. To achieve that we need to tether Plato's anagoge back to the real world.
To understand what's going on, we must concede a central point to Plato: there is much more going on than we are aware of. Much more than we can rationally grasp. Our world contains an indefinite (and potentially infinite) amount of phenomena that may be relevant to us; potentially unlimited differences that make a difference (to use Gregory Bateson's famous term). How do we choose what is important? How do we choose what to care about? This is not a problem we can rationally solve. First of all, any rational search for relevant phenomena will succumb to the problem of combinatorial explosion: there are simply too many possible candidates to rationally choose from. We get stuck trying. What's more, rationality presupposes us to have chosen what to care about. You must have something to think about in the first place. The process of relevance realization, as described by Vervaeke and colleagues, however, happens at a much deeper level than our rational thinking. A level that is deeply experiential, and can only be cultivated by appropriate practice. I have much more to say about that at some later point.
Thus, to summarize: the hidden realm that Plato suspected to be elevated above our real world is really not outside his cave, but within every one of us. An alternative metaphor for anagoge, without the requirement of a lost world of ideal forms, is to enter our shadows, to discover what is within them. This is what we are exploring with Marcus. Self-transcendence as an inward journey. Immanent transcendence, if you want. We are turning Plato's cave inside out. The hidden mystery is right there, not behind our backs, not in front of our noses, not inside our heads, but embedded in the way we become who we are.
Here we can turn to Whitehead again, who noticed that to criticize the philosophy of your time, you must direct our attention to those fundamental assumptions which everyone presupposes, assumptions that appear so obvious that people do not know they are assuming them, because no alternative ways of putting things have ever occurred to them. The assumption that reality can be rationally understood is one of these in our late modern times. It blinds us to a number of obvious insights. One of them is that we need to go inside us to get a better grip on reality. This is not religious or new-age woo. It is existential. As the late E. O. Wilson rightly observed (in the context of tackling our societal and ecological issues): we are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. We can gather more data forever. We can follow the textbook and apply the scientific method like an algorithm. We can formulate a theory of everything (that will be really about nothing). But without self-transcendence, we will never make any sense of the world. And we, as artists, philosophers, and scientists, have completely forgotten about that. Perhaps, because we're too busy competing in our respective rat races, and don't allow ourselves to engage in idle play anymore. But I digress...
There is the irony again: it's not Plato, but the scientists on that selection panel that are completely disconnected from reality. They've lost their grip to an extent that they'd never even realize it.
Where does that leave us? What do we need to do? There are a bunch of theoretical and practical ideas that I would like to talk about in future posts to this blog. But one thing is central: we can't just think our way through this in our armchairs. Philosophy is important. But I concede this point to my committee of conceited condescending panelists: philosophy is only truly relevant if it touches on our practices of living, on our institutions, on our society. It is time for philosophy to come out of the ivory tower again. We need a philosophy that is not only thought. We need a philosophy that is practiced. The ancients, like Plato, were practitioners. Let's tether Plato back to the real world, where he can have his rightful impact. Just like his philosopher who ultimately must return to the cave to complete her transformative journey.
Watch the first performance of THE ZONE in Plato's Cave.
VR landscaping and images by Marcus Neustetter.
Much of this blog entry is based on John Vervaeke's amazing work.
Check out his life-changing lecture Awakening from the Meaning Crisis here.
Or start with the summary of his ideas as presented on the Jim Rutt Show [Episode 1,2,3,4,5].
Life beyond dogma!