Is humankind in the midst of a radical and unprecedented transmutation of its collective society? On the surface, we can witness well-known changes. These can be labeled beneficial, such as in radical advances in computer and medical technology. Or changing circumstances exist as challenges, such as in debilitating disparity between rich and poor, globalized economic insecurity, and a species-threatening ecological crisis.
Deeper beneath the surface, however, may be stirring the heat of change that boils ever so seldom across time and culture. When it rises to the top, it radically transforms all human institutions within its fiery scope. I refer to the rare times when a collective significantly expands its perception of reality, reorients its relationship with the cosmos, and elevates its values and motivations. We can look back into history to see similar transitions, such as the Renaissance period that bridged medieval and modern eras. Time will tell, however, if any such epoch will rival the changes we have begun and will continue to see for decades to come.
In this installment of a two-part article, I frame this alleged transition historically and by showing how numerous individuals, seeking understanding, become disillusioned with traditional and modern stories of existence. In Part II, I will show how new paths of truth are emerging within, as well as converging across, the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, and science. Such paths better satisfy an evolving truth seeker and arguably foretell inevitable institutional change.
Conditioning—Old and Older
Many Westerners go through similar rites of passage as they grow and attempt to perceive truth. They expand their views to match their development, experience, knowledge, and values. Generations of North Americans and Europeans have been exposed to conditioned beliefs via schooling, church, parenting, community, and media. The vast majority of such influences, however, falls under two main categories—science and faith.
Conditioned beliefs may be traditional and derive from the millennia-aged Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Or, views may be relatively young (up to 400-500 years)—outgrowths of the modern worldview that was significantly shaped by Newtonian science. While the latter perspective carries greater “acceptance” today, particularly in the more rigorous halls of academia, both views remain highly influential and maintain considerable political and economic influence.
These almost polarized versions of truth have left many abandoning one for the other without ability to bridge their glaring contradictions. Confusion for the “truth seeker” sets in when neither perspective can house his or her expanding perceptions. Often, these individuals are left in existential despair or set themselves on a path to find a cohesive worldview deeper within or outside of such perspectives.
Fathers of the Renaissance
Essentially, most current mainstream and Western institutions—medical, economic, political, and educational—are rooted in modernity. The establishment-shaking march against traditional religion began during the Renaissance with research from the likes of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton.
Copernicus, for example, was credited with contributing the first comprehensive cosmology that replaced the Earth with the Sun as the center of our local system of revolving planetary bodies. Galileo furthered the popularity of Copernican astronomy with solid science but also observable proof via telescopic advances. Kepler began constructing a bridge between astronomy and the laws of physics that was completed by the work of Newton. Strengthened laws of motion and gravity assured the lasting success of the scientific revolution. It sealed the coffin of Earth and human biased geocentricm (the view that we are at the universe’s epicenter).
Most of these giants of modern lore, while spiritual to their core, adapted their metaphysical assumptions to fit their discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Their proven assumptions required adaptation of religious ideology that dominated medieval times. Tradition, however, was intimately married to the political, economic, and moral institutions of the times. This set up a more than uneasy confrontation.
The Great Divide
The mighty Catholic Church first shunned and silenced such discoveries. But the science showed undeniable proof as it also gained increased acceptance. As a response, those in power, more than likely influenced by fears of weakened status, successfully chose to separate the hard sciences from faith. For the day’s conservatives, the compromise ensured that ultimate truth and morality would remain safely under the Church’s jurisdiction.
The progressive and scientific discoveries of the Renaissance, now governed only material existence. Generally speaking, we discovered laws of the universe by studying how astronomical bodies related with one another. Thanks to the telescope, we could also study the atom–an object we believed was the smallest component of existence.
Surprisingly, we witnessed similar relationships–protons and neutrons revolving around the atom’s nucleus. We would later assume that measured outcomes at a material level could produce reliable answers to most, if not all, phenoma. We could do this under the assumption that truth can be reduced to the smallest, individual components of objectified physical matter.
The work of Charles Darwinin biology and that of other geneticists was instrumental in bridging a material view of the cosmos with a secular view of nature and evolution. Under Darwinian assumptions, matter replicates and interacts with itself to become more complicated over time, which leads to the formation of life. Life procreates and only changes minutely over long periods of time due to random and mistaken permutations. Anomalous forms of life become prominent if they better situate their species to its environment.
We followed to believe that we are children not of a Creator but of a material “big bang.” This gaseous happenstance randomly produced an environment capable of sustaining early “life” in the form of a small organism. A microcosmic organism, comprised of the “right” elemental combination, replaced Adam and Eve as modernity’s “mythic” forbearer. We also bought into the notion that we might just be a highly complex but animal-like group existing at the outer reaches of an empty and void galaxy that operates under mechanistic and rationally observable laws. Under this worldview, matter is king; self-aware consciousness is a fortunate but random product of evolution.
Modern Assumptions Mirroring an Evolutionary Advance
Many philosophers (e.g., Ken Wilber, Jurgen Habermas, and others), convincingly argue that this modern way of perceiving reality, reflected an evolutionary advance in the species’ consciousness in 16th and 17th century Europe. Such views imply that a large number of humans reached an advanced level of mental sophistication, which leads to a more sophisticated and rational brand of thinking. Such rationality helps the observer take on an objective perspective and solve challenging problems. According to influential cognitive researcher and theorist, Jean Piaget, the emergence of this level represents the fourth and final stage of cognitive development known as formal operations.
For the truth seeker exposed to measurable data, evidence-based empiricism brings a refreshing means of organizing the cosmos and human behavior. Sense and reason proved themselves worthy of discovering universal laws more logical than those assigned to personified Gods and Goddesses. Modern science makes some of the following assumptions: (a) reductionism (the notion that the smallest parts of reality are the most essential, fundamental, or true and do not possess information of larger wholes); (b) predictability and distinct cause (cause precedes effect independently and in linear fashion); (c) fixation and linearity (space, which is three dimensional, can exist without energy or matter; and time is linear and constant); (d) objectivity(subjectivity holds little validity); (e) nature lacks an overarching purpose; and (f) consciousness and self-aware insight are the result of increasingly complex brain states (Woodhouse, 1996, pp. 11-12) (link).
Again, through this reductionistic lens, we attempted to find solutions at the rational and materialistic level and were convinced that all problems could be resolved through this assumed summit of evolution. For example, the modern healer seeks to manipulate human chemistry, biology, and anatomy, the assumed forerunners of human behavior and thinking. Often by applying “left brained” rationality and the new assumptions of existence, humans became the most productive and technologically sophisticated species this world has glimpsed.
Among many other accomplishments, we explored space, cured many diseases, and designed complex and high-tech cities; in addition to creating sophisticated communication, travel, and computing devices. With such success, the common notion was that humans have mastered the physical world, which is all there is. It follows that humanity is capable of solving all problems with reason, which will surely lead to more prosperity and technological wonder.
Reason as a Step, not the Summit
Again, the era knows as modernity, which continues to cast its long but receding shadow over today’s societal institutions, is arguably a manifestation of an advanced level of consciousness. The rational level is a more mature orientation than the concrete mental operations that leads to literalism, or black and white thinking, that underpins traditional beliefs.
The rational stage of consciousness can be associated with the adolescent level of human development. Whereas, rigid dogma is often assigned to development somewhere between ages eight and twelve. Formal operations, however, is still assigned to an egoic level of human consciousness. Traditional developmental psychology (e.g., Freud, Piaget), however, acknowledges no development beyond this mental or egoic level of rationality.
The superego, for example, was not necessarily assigned by Freud to individual identity. The superego was viewed as a moralistic influence governed by societal mores often at odds with or as means to control instinctual yearnings, subconscious agendas, and egoic functioning. Otherwise stated, traditional theorists do not acknowledge levels of development that can be reached later in the human odyssey, beyond individuation and on the path of greater integration. Progressive theorists challenge this assumption, as we shall revisit in this article’s second Part.
Theoretically, what we can call an adolescent worldview—materialism—is reached at the height of individuation. This level of thinking still tends to focus on reality and truth that is assumed to emanate from and exist outside of oneself. This level of perception is still limited in its ability to properly perceive its internal awareness and processing.
The common Westerner, therefore, has been conditioned to believe that anything of substance operates individually or in very separate relationships, which exist externally.
As a result, the West has operated mainly under paradigms of separation. We have propogated the view that we exist in isolation from one another, the planet, and the cosmos. Thus, we naturally conclude that such existence simply ends with death of our material bodies.
Institutionally, the fields of psychiatry and medicine still cater to these paradigms of separation. The pharmaceutical practice of manipulating isolated brain chemistry to suppress surface, or observable, levels of symptomatic pathology dominates psychiatric and medical care.
Limitations of Ego-Based Values and Civilizations
Importantly, moral development tied to egoic consciousness manifests primarily with values of competition, individualism, and externalized success (often at any cost). Politically and economically, these values stretch institutional ambition beyond traditional borders as empires. This was experienced in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States (and arguably now beginning in China, India and Brazil). These are values starkly different from those assigned to concrete operations, such as security, ritual, and safety, as well as cultural identity of family, tribe, or nation.
Arguably, the the West’s experience of its collective rational stage has been such that individualism and materialism has been grossly overemphasized and reinforced. Our financial institutions, of course, remain tied to our paradigms of separation and competition. The glorified values of competition and success are also expressed in the West’s common-denominator slogan for evolution: survival of the fittest.
The collective rational stage, however, is coming to an end as modern scientific assumptions have been successfully challenged (and explained more fully in Part II). Unfortunately, collective stages tend to lead to significant pathology near their completion due to inability to solve the problems they create. While we may wish to celebrate the end of modernity, we are left with our postmodern hands full of modernity’s negative consequences.
As examples, the following negative outcomes have manifested from ego-level ideologies and values: (a) over-rationalization of the right to build industry at the expense of the earth, (b) imperial-like growth that benefits small interests at the expense of its citizenry and that of other nations, (c) the implementation of powerfully suppressive pharmaceutical drugs (that too often operate at the expense of the body), (d) the genetic manipulation of food, and (4) heightened political competition for natural resources across boundaries with little tolerance for open and cooperative dialogue.
Again, pathologies of modernity do not require us to devalue the advancements and the contributions of the rational era. It is safe to say, however, that in terms of social and philosophical progress, the modern view is no longer progressive and is incapable of solving today’s global pathologies that require moving beyond competition and separation. Similarly, many thinkers concede that modern institutions, influenced by the Descartesian-Newtonian worldview, are disintegrating due to rigid inflexibility.
The solving of engrained, institutionalized problems typically requires a more evolved perspective and a more mature set of values than those responsible for their creation. As we will see, advanced perspectives (beyond ego) tend to incorporate notions of interconnectedness and values of cooperation. If changing values and paradigms of understanding precede the societal institutions to which they support and give rise (i.e. economics, politics, social service, education, medicine, etc.), then we need to look at such trends to best glimpse at adapting and/or futuristic institutions. This will be the focus of this discussion’s second Part, as will be the path of the truth seeker frustrated with limited, superficial, ego-based, and outdated perspectives.