Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Big history/grand narrative

Early human history (book illustration)
artist: unknown
The Big History Project has been in the news lately. At first glance, this seems something new by including data from all disciplines to frame our development, and then extending the time line on each datum to show how we made various discoveries connected with that datum. In other words, creating a nested or multi-dimensional time line so that when we start at the Big Bang theory, threads of continuing development of the thought through history form other, specialized, time lines.

Yet for all of this, I think that the project is not so much an innovation, but the latest development in an old way of looking at things: Big History seems like a synonym for grand narrative and certainly, the word "narrative" is well-used in the news report. Of course, critics of postmodernism are quick to point out that the identification and criticism of grand narratives becomes another grand narrative in and of itself. Such philosophical navel-gazing acts a bit like a reductio ad absurdum, lessening the practical value of replacing grand narratives with little narratives (micronarratives).

Grand narratives give the impression of states to which we are evolving ― Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point which he saw as Logos. In other words, evolution is pulling us (an action which goes against everything we can observe) rather than pushing us as we see from adaptations, or the lack of them, to accidental events which can mean either survival or extinction. It was this unswerving move toward logos which greatly depopulated Easter Island and brought about the extinction of many civilizations as we learn from Jared Diamond's Collapse.

As I often say in this blog, I see Logos as one terminal of human existence and Mythos as the other. In recent centuries, most societies have been moving further toward Logos in this spectrum. At either end of the spectrum is extinction because these are hypothetical states of non-adaptability. The very centre of the spectrum would seem to be the place to be as this position is the resolution of all opposites which is a goal of eastern religions and modern depth-psychology. However, the centre point cannot be fully attained because the resolution of all opposites is also a point where time and energy cannot occur. In other words, there could be no universe at all.

Strange phenomena occur whenever we approach the centre point of the Mythos/Logos spectrum: In transdisciplinarity, this is the T state (section 3.2 of the linked essay). At this place we find alternate realities and perhaps even alternate universes. In mediation, it is the point where opposing parties realize that they had both been substituting other things for what both parties really wanted and that these substitutions could not support each other, but when the true goals are realized and the substitutions are abandoned in favor of one which does support both parties desires, then there is no longer any conflict. A successful mediation can seem almost magical: both parties leave with more gains than they had previously thought possible even if they had absolutely won the original conflict (through legal actions, i.e. more Logos).

In evolutionary terms, a conflict is a test of adaptability in a single instance and the relative numbers of this same test occurring in a population has a bearing on its chances of survival. Most of such tests are not life or death situations and will be resolved sometimes even before there is any awareness of conflict at all. It is only through many generations of the same decisions that the accumulated effect can be perceived as having either survival or non-survival potential. The actual process remains mostly hidden, so when it is first perceived it is at a potential T state. Its identification as a conflict depends on at least two opposing opinions: A and not A which are both realities. In classical logic, nothing can be both A and not A, and this is the law of the excluded middle. Modern physics, however, has shown that light can be both a wave and a particle, so light can be a wave and a non wave, and a particle and a non particle. From this duality comes the T state or included middle of transdisciplinarity which can resolve apparent opposites.

As conflicts become grander and the excluded middle is being maintained, and if a society is expressing more Logos than Mythos, then logos type solutions will start to be employed. These all take the form of energy and that energy is gradually increased until it becomes too great to be opposed. A small amount of energy is expressed with a law, and the ultimate amount of energy is expressed with a global nuclear holocaust. I look at Law as one of the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse ― a new law is a sign that an unresolved adaptation has reached a societal level because its T state has not yet been realized. In this situation, the included middle will allow for more Mythos to form a resolution. It is important to know that these processes are going on all the time below our level of perception. The T state is not so much a new invention as it is a new discovery ― something that has reached our consciousness and thus allows us to use it as a tool.

Here is one of the videos from the Big History Project. Pay particular attention to where he says "merchants needed courts to settle disputes":

We can almost imagine some lawless and anarchistic city where the merchants finally rise up and demand a legal system. This is an expression of our position at the Logos side of the scale and we are using this to create a past grand-narrative. Carts have been placed before horses: courts existed before money, tradesmen, and cities. You can see this in the early Irish laws where its evolution from agreements within small groups of agricultural people working toward group survival is very clear. It would not be an aspect of agriculturalism, either, the same would have happened with hunting societies and we might have to go as far as primate behavior to find its first expressions.

In early Irish law, penalties would not be merely determined by the nature of the crime, but also by the societal standings of the criminal and the victim. As these small agricultural societies consisted of a few families the family, itself, was more part of existence than we understand it to be today in our large cities. In early Irish law there was no need for police or prisons, an offender would pay a fine (often in livestock) as compensation to the victim. If this fine was not paid, then the criminal's family would then have to pay.

In today's society with its large populations, we are annoyed when a fine is cheerily paid by a very wealthy person when the same fine could ruin the average person. The city has demanded more logos than we are comfortable in giving it. So is the City a glorious Omega Point in our evolutionary development? Is it just another Horseman of the Apocalypse? It all depends on grand narratives and our ability to see more of the micro-narratives at the edge of our consciousness.

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