This is the third of a series of seven posts to offer some philosophical, historical and strategic context to the Emerge project. Part one was an introduction about the challenge of field creation. Part two was about our epoch of being in a time between worlds and what follows from that realisation. Here we consider the need for method, and what follows when we grasp why method needs to apply to systems, souls and society and the evolving relationship between them.
In November Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmachtenberger appeared on the epicentre of the new mainstream: The Joe Rogan Show
. The whole conversation is worth listening to. It felt to me like ‘the end of the beginning’ of the liminal web’s attempts to bring an understanding of the meta-crisis to larger audiences. At one moment Daniel gave a typically crystalline description of converging pressures and indicated all the things that would have to happen for humanity to have a chance of contending with them, including (I paraphrase) democratic education at scale, good faith communication at scale, wise application of technology at scale, ecological sanity at scale and so on. Daniel is anything but naïve, and Rogan didn’t disagree, but his response stopped me in my tracks because it is the heart of the matter. I get it, but I don’t see it.
Our main challenge is not primarily that we cannot conceive of a better world but that we cannot perceive a path to get there. What feels necessary does not seem possible.
Method is worth focussing on because we expect too much from critique, and vision without method is just dreaming. The analogy is not tight, but we can think of critique, vision and method as tools distantly inspired by the classical qualities of truth, beauty and goodness respectively. To be good is to act in a way that aligns with truth and beauty, and the challenge is to figure out what that means for method today.
Method here means personal, social and systemic responses to our predicament and comprises any kind of action that is grounded in procedural know-how, systematic exploration and informed experimentation. It is no accident that the term method makes us think of ‘the scientific method’ and ‘research methods’ because method is what makes a field a field. If Emerge is to become a field, it needs to coalesce around a range of innovative civic, technological, communicative, social and psychological methods that make sense in this time between worlds.
An emphasis on method is in some tension with a focus on emergence, but informed by it too. We are part of what is emerging, emergence is probabilistic, and in the absence of new methods most outcomes are likely to be bad. But method also feels passé, and somehow too earnest, as if history has taught us to distrust anyone who claims to know what we should be doing. Method is typically about systematic change, and yet often fails to contend with our deep-seated immunity to change, which is actually the heart of the matter today – the world runs on its own habit energy. We are creatures who like to put our feet on the gas and the break pedal at the same time while pretending we are going as fast as we can. For example, more than half of total global carbon emissions have occurred in the last thirty years, when political leaders around the world have been aware of the extent of the climate challenge and professed to care about it. Whatever we have to say about method, it should speak directly to our immunity to change.
Some of the methods in the Emerge field are already doing that, and have been touched on in post one on field creation
and post two on epoch
, and there are too many to list or examine in depth here. They include, for instance, attention training in professional practices like education, health and policing, bioregional regeneration in which rivers and mountains become the locus around which we organise collective life, post-activist movement building in which activists unlearn us-against-them tactics and think about how to make a difference when you realise ‘getting the bastards’ is not working; transformative education
, Ensouling Web 3.0 – because technology is often an answer that has forgotten the question, metapolitical practice
which seeks to change what politics is about, Metamodern
art which seeks a kind of cultural renaissance, peer-to-peer infrastructure
production that changes how we live, work, value and share. There are many more of course, and many of these sub-cultures are already deep in conversation with each other, which is part of what Emerge seeks to offer.
From the outside it can all look a little fragmented, but I believe there is some philosophical coherence in the field. Not only are we in a time between worlds, but the world that is in transition contains three distinct kinds of world, all of which are changing in different but related ways. We live in an objective world of things, processes and events; a subjective world of self, thoughts and feelings and an inter-subjective (and inter-objective) world of discourse, symbols and institutions. These are entirely different kinds of phenomena, but they also co-arise and influence each other. This distillation into three worlds comes from many different places and the language varies, but in recent years the main proponents include Karl Popper, Jurgen Habermas and Ken Wilber.
I believe meaningful method today has to speak to immunity to change, and it can only do that if it is grounded in a recognition of the dynamic relationship between what is changing outside us, inside us and between us; as well as the abundant forces of inertia and resistance that characterise the human condition. I believe inertia is partly a function of the lack of work in the world that explicitly acknowledges the importance of the relationship between these different worlds. This is also why one of my short descriptions of Perspectiva’s purpose is that we seek to overcome immunity to change in a time between worlds by understanding the relationship between ‘systems, souls, and society’ in theory and in practice.
This three-world premise explains why Emerge features people working on crypto currency in the same room as integral developmental coaches and political activists as if they are working on the same thing. This is a distinctive feature of the kinds of methods that already characterise the field to some extent, but need to become more widespread.
As an undergraduate back in the late nineties, I learned that a key debate within Marxism is whether major societal change stems primarily from the economic base (system!) or the cultural superstructure (souls!) and that the answer to that depends to an extent of on the social structure (society!) and the extent to which it is aware of itself in ‘class consciousness’, particularly whether classes ‘in themselves’ could become classes ‘for themselves’. But I had forgotten all about it. It was quite a shock to realise that for the last decade I had been unwittingly responding to Marx.
What prompted my initial interest in bringing spiritual
questions into public policy debate around 2011 was a sense that we lacked the imaginative and creative resources to contend with the ecological, economic and political problems we have created for ourselves. The social imaginary we were caught up in felt somehow exhausted; and that exhaustion was partly because too many of the doors to different kinds of cosmologies were locked, too many hidden spiritual resources that were not permissible to even contend with in the public realm. I was working in a world where all the energy went on discussing the economic base and took the cultural superstructure for granted, or paid lip service to it, and that's partly because the postmodern culture around us did not feel generative. My growing conviction was that in some sense, that I was feeling my way into, society needed to be 'spiritualised'.
In recent years I have faced the opposite challenge. Today I am often working with people who over-emphasise the need for a new collective imaginary. Even a brilliant mind like Iain McGilchrist’s is, with the greatest of respect, sociologically ambivalent. And when I met Jordan Peterson, I challenged him
to articulate his sociological vision, which he doesn’t really have. Although very different characters and intellects, they are both politically relatively conservative (at least in the philosophical sense). That means they distrust changes to the economic base and somewhat over-emphasise (in my view) the relative importance of changes in superstructure i.e. the perception and appreciation of certain kinds of character and culture.
But I believe any effective mobilisation or even emergence of collective action at scale needs to be about the co-arising of changes in three worlds. This idea becomes self-evident to anyone who thinks deeply about the possibility of social change. For instance in forthcoming work on The Consilience Project Daniel Schmachtenberger and Zak Stein speak about the particularity of the current relationship between the infrastructure (technological and economic base), social structure (relations of creation and production) and superstructure (culture, norms, values, metaphysics, religion).
There is a question here about directionality. At the moment, one major societal critique is that Big Tech is now a defining aspect of a broader pattern of Rentier Extractive Capitalism (infrastructure/system) that is atomising society, creating cultural polarisation and undermining civic capacity (social structure/society) leading to alienation, anxiety, loneliness and depression (superstructure/soul). Some hope to change the technology/economy to change the social structure to change our subjective states, but some believe a countervailing direction of influence is necessary because a full frontal attack on the powers that be will be too easily repelled. For instance, a new global Paideia may begin to form online with offline sites, offering transformative education or Bildung at scale (souls) co-arising with peer-to-peer cosmo-local production fuelled by renewable energy or bioregional regeneration combined somehow with relatively benign versions of AI and/or Web 3.0 (systems) giving rise to meaning, purpose, solidarity, friendship and love!
Sounds good, and even promising, but how is that kind of thing going to happen? It can only happen if the changes somehow co-arise and inform and empower each other, because otherwise each of the different changes will lack the power to establish themselves before forces with different kinds of priorities take hold – before our immunity to change kicks in. Again, this is the work, and why we need new methods, supported by a new field.
The difficult point to grasp is that the method is not an action plan but the commitment to cultivate sustained coordination across three different kinds of worlds that influence each other more than we typically accept; all of which are going through tumultuous changes. I hesitate to name this method, but ‘third order change’ comes close.
The news is awash with first-order change: change as a shift in predicament, for instance a new policy, a new government or even a new species, but always things that happen within our existing frame of reference. Most theoretical models offer second-order change: changes in the paradigm in play, with conceptual tools that try to illustrate what is really going on so that we can see and alter the underlying process of how and why things change. The U-Lab process or The Inner Development Goals are examples from the context of our liminal community. In all cases some kind of schema – an organising conceptual structure - is applied to construct a new vision for theory and practice of how things do change, could change or should change. Second order change approaches have their own timeliness, dignity and value. We need them, but they rarely ‘work’ in the sense of making any dent on the world historical system or paradigm.
The problem is not just that the map not being the territory, nor the wise counsel to “beware of the person with one theoretical model”. The deeper limitation of second-order change is that it depends on descriptive ontology – on synthetic descriptions how the world or the mind is. This is a limitation that matters at a time when there is an historical intensification of conceptual inadequacies, due to what Jean Gebser would call mental-rational consciousness being in its deficient mode. One way (and only one way) to understand how we experience that deficiency is that the intellectual function is now humiliated by its inability to grasp or adequately theorise hyperobjects
, which include the pandemic and global warming.
Timothy Morton says that hyperobjects are viscous (they stick to us), phased (we notice them intermittently), non-local (they out-scale us) and inter-objective (they’re irreducible to the multiple other objects they’re comprised of). Hyperobjects contain aspects of each of the three worlds, and I think of them as structures of shared life that are data-rich but experience-poor. They are objects that cannot be directly detected by our senses but still profoundly shape in our lives. One way to think about the meta-crisis is that it’s the lived experience of the co-arising and collision of multiple hyperobjects that we cannot fully understand or control. (I’m grateful to ‘ChrisD
’ for this insight).
While I don’t know Gebser’s work well enough to endorse his prophecies, we do indeed appear to be living in a time of the deficient mode of mental-rational consciousness, and moving towards ‘aperspectival’ phase of history, where the mental constructions we have known and trusted will regularly miss the mark. I feel this way for instance about the left-right political spectrum, a zombie of misinformation that no longer reflects political reality yet continues to shape it as a social convention.
What follows for method and relationships when the intellect struggles to make sense? We need to re-establish contact with ‘the really real’ and encounter reality more directly than we can through news systems that we sense are awash with hyperobjects, but which never treats them as such. Instead, this is a time for new metaphors that reflect the three worlds, as a kind of generative ontology (this descriptive/generative ontology distinction comes from Steve March). In this time between worlds, those with the greatest agility with naturalistic myths and metaphors will start making the most sense. Organismic vitality is called for, animated by our encounter with the biosphere and the enlivening metaphors that encounter seeds.
I am referring to the simplicity “on the other side of complexity” that Oliver Wendell Holmes said he would give his life for. Third-order change values schemas, but it starts from an awareness of how they get in the way. The aim is the intimacy of a shared story that is not synthetically constructed for an instrumental end, and which arises instead as a revelatory return to reality. The subtle point to grasp here is that the regenerative story always follows innovation rather than leads it.
In essence, our method will arise from and through and to an extent for a new metaphysics. The injunction to reengage with a metaphysics that fits our times is clear in recent work Bonnitta Roy
and Zak Stein
and Iain McGilchrist
for example. This work is not just philosophical, but also entails the practice of working with what my Perspectiva colleague Ivo Mensch calls ‘temporics’ (our relationship to time) and the imaginarium (the imaginal, imaginary and imagination) which is about the inner world in the context of a world outside that is on fire. For the integrally inclined, that means a spiritual practice that makes the effort to include the bottom right quadrant.
Finally, in the context of our need for generative ontologies and better metaphors, I am inspired by Bonnitta Roy’s gentle critique of the crypto-messianic tendency of think we can grow our way out of our problems, and I mean psychological growth as well as economic. Here is how she put it in the end of her wonderful chapter on metaphysics in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds:
“As moderns, we only value change in the direction of 'progress' because these are models of change that preserve the identity of the thing, the individual, the process, without having to undergo the kind of metamorphic transformation which replaces the old identity with a new one. In this world, as 'modern' caterpillars, we only want to get bigger, stronger, grow more legs and devour everything. In the next world, as 'modern' butterflies we will only want to get bigger, stronger, fly faster, farther, longer, and lay more eggs. The chrysalis, the time in between, is never invited and hardly ever welcomed. The metaphor of the chrysalis as opposed to that of the cocoon is particularly relevant here. A cocoon is an external enclosure spun out of silk that covers over the pupa stage of a moth. The chrysalis of the butterfly, however, grows from within the caterpillar’s insides, eventually erupting through the skin. The caterpillar then is the appropriate metaphor for the times we live in, where our identities at every scale—individual, social, and planetary—are dissolving by forces erupting from within.”
Caterpillars are of course in the process of becoming butterflies, so there is still growth of sorts, but we need to see the full picture. In the next post we’ll continue to play with metaphor as part of making sense of our Ethos.
Main image by Akhilesh Sharma @Unsplash.
Links to all the articles in this series: