Zak Stein is a writer, educator and futurist. He studied philosophy and religion at Hampshire College, and then educational neuroscience, human development, and the philosophy of education at Harvard University. Zak has published two books. Social Justice and Educational Measurement
traces the history of standardized testing and its ethical implications. His second book, Education in a Time Between Worlds
, expands the philosophical work to include grappling with the relations between schooling and technology more broadly. His work has appeared in a variety of journals including, American Psychologist
, New Ideas in Psychology
, Mind, Brain, and Education
, Integral Review
, and the Journal of Philosophy of Education.
Zak is also co-founder of The Consilience Project
, which is dedicated to improving public sensemaking and building a movement to radically upgrade digital media landscapes. As a scholar at the Ronin Institute
, he researches the relations between education, human development, and the evolution of civilizations. His latest essay, Education Must Make History Again
, was published by Perspectiva Press.
Elizabeth Debold: What does it mean that we're in a time between worlds?
Zak Stein: This phrase emerged from a confluence of thinking about the historical moment that we are in. We are in a major transition between historical epochs. This relates to the idea by the historian and economist Immanuel Wallerstein, who saw broad historical patterns of what he called “world system transformations,” in which the whole modality of human existence, from economics to culture, changes. One recent example would be the Enlightenment, and the democratic revolutions that overthrew the ancient regime in Europe and moved us from a certain mode of economic production and cultural thought to a completely novel one. I also draw on the work of Peter Turchin, who does large scale quantitative historical analysis. Similar work was done at the Santa Fe Institute, where they put out a book on big history and meta-history.
When you put those models together, they all point to the time between the years between 2000 and 2050. There is a coming transformation of human existence in all areas, in the economic, political, governmental, cultural, and personality systems. Just as in the transformation from “archaic” or pre-modern humans into the modern human. We're in another major world-historical moment of transformation, in which the old world is passing away, becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and the new world hasn't emerged yet. We don't know yet what will need to be created to stop us from all dying as the old system runs down. The complex dynamical open systems, in which we are living, have a high throughput of energy as we move through this phase transition. We're in a period of chaos, the old forms of order no longer hold, the new forms of order have not emerged. We're at a moment when we can think about design parameters, about systems that would allow for emergence of new forms of order, a re-worlding, if you will. That's why it feels like such a potent time, both dangerous and exciting.
As the human species spreads out around the globe, we inevitably encounter one another. We move towards what Teilhard de Chardin called planetization, but we have not yet arrived. That's the situation of being in a time between worlds. It's a uniquely potent choice point. Not only infrastructures like economics or military power are changing, but also cultural identity formation and educational configurations. In all these areas there is important work that needs to be done to get us through this transition into some new form of order that could exist in perpetuity.
So, given the enormity of this change, I was trying to find the right phrase. The notion of being between worlds has the power to name this transition we are in.
An educator I see the importance of culture and personality and the changes of capacities and consciousness that are necessary—above and beyond the merely technological, infrastructural, economic, and governmental change also needed. The priority is to change our identities and worldviews before rethinking government, economics, and other areas. If we start to rethink government, economics, and law from our position now, we'll solve our problems in ways that create new, worse problems.
Emergent novelty comes first in the realm of human capacity, consciousness, and education. At least that's my stance. However, when I speak with people who work on A.I. and nuclear security, it's hard to argue this point, because they also have problems to fix. If we don't get A.I. right or if we don't stabilize nuclear security at a planetary level, education is for nothing. So, there are multiple fronts that need to be worked on.
E: What capacities are needed to abide in this uncertainty or in this time between worlds?
ZS: In my psychological work, I break it down to three broad categories that characterize ontogeny—or the evolution of the individual. First, we find the development of cognitive complexity and the capacity for skilled behavior. Then we find dynamics of personality maturation, or ensoulment, which means the psychodynamics of dynamics of emotion and interpersonal relationships. And thirdly, we find phenomena of transcendence, which means consciousness, awareness and the capacity to be emotionally self-regulating. All these three are important: development, ensoulment, and transcendence.
There's a strong argument that we need to boost cognitive complexity across the board—that we need to promote “vertical development.” In a simple sense, we do all just need to be smarter. When we look at the task demands of the technological problems and the coordination problems that need to be solved, the amount of complexity embedded in those task demands outstrips our capacities. It's an overt educational crisis in the domain of development. We need to move vertically through development to get more people into a reflective capacity across many complex domains.
In the domain of personality, or ensoulment, we are not going up and out into more complexity, but rather we need to go down and into a more relationality, reality, and deeper images of personhood. This kind of maturation shows up as increased collaborative capacity, including radical empathy, profound trust, and interpersonal commitment.
Ensoulment also specifically includes the thematization of death. I look at the domain of personality and ensoulment as where we speak about our relation to death and the images we hold of one another in that context. In the domain of ensoulment, we start to get into religious or ultimate concerns. Just like we need to get people up into more complexity, people also need to go down into more relationship and connection with the sacred. This involves creating relationships with commitments to trust, collaboration, and empathy. It also means being with each other in relation to death and dying.
Finally, In the domain of transcendence we need to be able to hold radical uncertainty and move into states of experience where we have an “awareness of awareness”—including an awareness of our own thought patterns. Specifically, the meditative and contemplative prayer traditions focus on this psychological modality of transcendence. When we deepen our contemplative practice and relate to a kind of immortality that can be experienced in deep states of meditation, it relieves neurosis and opens capacities in development and ensoulment for greater depth and complexity. You can only open those doorways if you have a certain relation to your own awareness, your body, and your ability to self-regulate awareness and emotion through practice.
So, we need to boost all three of those domains. If we boost any one of them without boosting the others, we are messed up. If you just boost developmental complexity and ignore shadow and the capacity for contemplation, then you just get what we have: a bunch of nerds running out of control with high IQs and great technical capacity, but no heart and no sense of transcendence. If you just boost personality and ensoulment, then you're endlessly “circling” and doing shadow work and can get stuck in the tragic. We then misunderstand the importance of science. And, of course, you can engage in spiritual bypassing by focusing just on the domain of transcendence, meditating your way out of the global catastrophe into oneness.
Too many developmentalists focus on cognitive development and say, we need to get people up to post-formal operational cognition. And that's true, but there are also these two other essential domains, involving things like collaborative capacity, empathy, self-understanding, and contemplation. This doesn't mean I would ignore the need to educate nuclear scientists and people with expertise in A.I., technology, and infrastructure redesign. What I am saying is that across these three domains we need a division of labor amongst educators and development experts.
E: What would be the motivation for an acceleration of development to happen in all three areas you described?
ZS: The motivation has to do with reimagining our relationships to death. Working in adult development my experience is that when you get calcified personality structures and people set in their ways, it often takes something tragic to unwind those stuck patterns. In our confrontation with existential risk and imminent civilizational collapse we're starting to taste this kind of tragic, but we are still in denial.
At the Center for Integral Wisdom, we have spoken about the first and the second shock of existence. The first shock of existence occurred when ancient humans encountered individual death. This self-awareness of death was unique in the animal kingdom. Anthropologist have argued that it was from this shock that humans created religious rituals--to deal with the awareness of death. The second shock of existence happened after World War Two in the Cold War. Here it was not just my individual death. The death of humanity was at stake, the end of the world due to nuclear war, human mistakes, or human greed. The second shock of existence is about awareness of a self-induced species extinction. In response to that shock, we are slowly creating cultural innovations of religious depth.
The increasingly obvious cultural confrontation with existential risk is going to be the motive for a broad, sweeping educational change. And my sense is that it's going to take lessons even harder than the pandemic to open those motivations. There are very scary and quite likely scenarios of weaponized A.I., broadly distributed biotechnologies based on A.I., and geopolitical situations that could return us to global kinetic warfare.
In this situation, we're likely to have something emerge that looks like “a religion that is not a religion.” The crisis will open out into new forms of love, of Eros, and provide thereby the motivation for rethinking education very broadly across all domains.
I suggest in my second book that this could mean the end of schools and eventually a rethinking of society itself as fundamentally being about education. We could turn the entire city into a school by reprioritizing and repositioning education in relation to other social goods and values. We could create an education-centric society with human development and capacity at the center of our civilization.
The best pattern for a civilization to avoid self-termination lies in constantly improving its own ability for learning and constantly refreshing its capacity for adaptive learning. This would require a focus on the human dimension of civilization.
A profit-centric civilization or domination-centric civilization cannot go on in perpetuity. They are inevitably going to exhaust their resources and radically polarize their populations so that violence and collapse becomes inevitable. But a civilization that is increasing its own capacity for learning could be called a “meta-stable civilization.” The ability to adapt at the levels of governance, infrastructure, and education is the only response to the climate fluctuations we're going to see. It's not totalizing geo-engineering, but rather allowing humans to be adaptive, intelligent, and fluid enough with their technologies that they can rework civilization as needed in the context of a changing biosphere. This requires focusing on learning and education as the heart of social life.
E: Can you explain the role of a new eros or love as part of a religion that is not a religion?
ZS: One way to think about evolution in general, and social cultural evolution in particular, is as the evolution of love. That sounds like some new age stuff, but I pull the term from the great American philosopher and polymath, Charles Sanders Peirce. In the late ninetieth century, he was one of the first people to articulate a sweeping evolutionary cosmology that focused on dynamical self-organization, which is a dance between difference and unity, resulting in the evolution of greater wholes, greater intimacy, closeness, depth, consciousness, and complexity. Peirce recognized this looks a like like Eros. These trajectories that characterize evolution, which Peirce foresaw, go far beyond the so-called Neo-Darwinian synthesis.
I talk about the end of one form of social order and the emergence of a new form of social order. Another way to say that is the exhaustion of one form of love and the emergence of a new type of love. In his new book “The Dawn of Everything” David Graeber argues that domination emerges out of a perversion of care. The modern state emerged out of an intense wanting to care for people through a standing army and legal systems and so on. Today our capitalist, economic systems and states with geopolitical borders, were arguably put in place to care for people. But now these systems are getting in the way of people being able to care for one another. If you hold on to a prior form of love beyond when it is appropriate, it becomes twisted and becomes its opposite.
The pandemic, and in particular the political polarization it has spawned, has sent us splintering apart from one another—increasing alienation and individualization. So, there is the need for a new emergent form of social care, a new social body of love. There is some hope that we can pull out of contemporary perversions of love and remember again what it means to care and protect one another. Maybe only in the wake of a much greater catastrophe will we remember how precious that is.
E: Emergence arises out of elements that don't possess the qualities of what emerges anew. So, how do we create the conditions for emergence?
ZS: I was using terms like design parameters, when speaking about a future meta-stable civilization on the other side of the transition. And in fact, as you're saying, we can't specifically design it, we can only speak of design patterns. We need to create conditions where new solutions can emerge.
Today, we've become so self-aware. The complexity sciences and the social sciences are increasing telling us that a transition point is coming where we need a truly novel and spontaneous emergence to occur. But at the same time we have become neurotically avoidant of giving up control over important elements of our lives. Now we come back to human development. As we become aware that we can't really predict or control the future, and that it is all very risky affair, many psychological defense mechanisms and biases being to kick in.
One response is to say that humans are different from the natural world, which is unpredictable and chaotic. We need to design our future to be predictable and ordered, transcending nature. According to this view we should not have faith that the self-organizing processes that created us will continue to sustain us. We should not believe that we're part of a self-organizing process that could usher us into the future. Instead, humans are understood to be in control of all the variables and to have an obligation to predict the future by creating it.
The other response comes from learning the lessons of the complexity sciences and therefore stepping back from ambitions of omniscience and omnipotence. This means working to position ourselves within a stream of self-organizing processes that we're just faintly aware of.
This view requires “negative capability”—the ability to look at a problem, not know the answer, and be fine with that. It's the ability to hold not-knowing and uncertainty. That is something we need to cultivate a great capacity for. But it's very difficult when life and death are on the line.
This brings us back to “the religion that's not a religion” and the deepening of connections, of embodied experiences, of symbolic immortality, and an ensoulment process that lessens our neurosis around death and control.
I'm speaking to a different psychological state that needs to be inhabited by people making important decisions. Not to abandon science and reason, but to put them in the context of other emotional and consciousness capacities. We need to prepare for emergence.
E: The constant practicing of letting go and allowing oneself and what one knows be available to that which one doesn't know is a skill that takes enormous practice. There is always the temptation to let go until a certain point, but then I grab on to it and know what's happening.
ZS: We need this ability to radically let go because the future is radically uncertain. But if we don't know what the future looks like then we don't exactly know what to teach our kids. This all has implications for education. There's a major shift that needs to occur in our education of younger people, framed by this conversation, we just had. What are the capacities that would help people create emergent order out of what will be dangerous and chaotic transitional time?
We need to get people much more comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and disorganization. And we need to value and display greater emotional capacity to hold tragedy, otherwise we will fear unavoidable tragedy, and neurotically clampdown at a society wide level to avoid it—and in so doing create a much worse tragedy.
A great deal of this hinges on new forms of teacherly authority, and new contexts in which legitimate teacher authority can be exercised, specifically in the domains of ethics and religion. That's one of our most precious resources, which is squandered right now. We need new teachers in the domain of ethics and morality. And we need spaces where it is possible to speak about the basic ethical and moral questions, about the value of family, about the value of human life, about the autonomy of one's body, about what kinds of risks we're willing to take in terms of our own death. What makes someone a hero, what makes someone a villain? How do we deal with the tragedies of history in our own lives? Those are the questions that are tearing us apart, and we don't have any contexts or forums in which teacherly authority is exercised and people are learning. I think that must shift and new forms of education must flourish.
Elizabeth will be dialoguing with Zak on Friday, March 25, 2022, to reflect on the question whether our planetary crises can be a species-wide learning opportunity. To register for the online event, please click here
This interview was first published in German in evolve Magazine
, issue no. 33, in February 2022.