Looking for new meaning and purpose in the third millennium
- Issue 3
Those good for nothing riff-raff
The Middle Ages was an interesting time wasn’t it? In part I find them interesting in that they were so explicitly Christian. In Europe in general there was a very distinct social structure that emerged from a shared cosmological worldview of a god on high conferred with by Kings and priest who in turn ruled over knights and lords who in turn ruled over naives, squires, peasants and other assorted riff raff scrambling at the bottom of the heap. Seems brutal now but I like to believe that there was at least one day—probably a Tuesday—when it all actually made perfect sense and really worked. The earth was at the centre of God’s cosmos and all was aligned to him as it should be. The world had a purpose, human life had a overarching unquestionable context of meaning, and there was a proper reason for the travails and suffering that was appointed your lot. Everyone knew their place and what they were, or what they were not, meant to be doing.
Now I’d be the first to agree that it wasn’t the best approach for several excellent reasons, but at the same time I can’t help but feel we miss that overarching sense of a deep meaning and purpose all that Middle Agedy riff-raff had—at least for one day. A sense that our lives are part of something bigger than all of us. Our modern philosophy and science have described a redacted material cosmos apparently devoid of meaning. This can result in a sense of alienation, a kind of disconnectedness from creation, a sense there is no meaning in existence. In that sense it’s tempting to say we threw a baby out with the bath water, but really, we hadn’t had the right baby yet. I mean, in terms of any up to date context, that baby was definitely climbing up the wrong tree—which is why it probably needed a bath in the first place.
In this article I would like to suggest a way of constructing a new context for meaningful and purposeful living in the third millennium. Not a worldview that puts us all in our place—but one that aligns with how the cosmos actually works, whilst leaving endless room for limitless and free emergence. A truly modern, or maybe more correctly post-post-modern (not a typo), post-scientific view of life the universe and everything that provides a meaningful background for human being and culture in the third millennium.
I started talking about the middle ages because religious contexts for meaning have always sort of had, and have definitely been able to maintain, a cosmological scope. The Christian church’s insistence the earth was at the centre of the solar system kind of deviated from that for a while, but they’ve since adjusted. More modern waves of values and contexts like nature religions such as Gaia are kind of lacking that cosmological inclusivity. And I think, if you want to create a robust sense of purpose, starting with cosmological rather than planetary or other current social contexts provides the robust foundations required for a scalable approach.
YOUR DOGMA PEED ON OUR SHUTZPAH
This is not the first attempt in modern times someone has tried to create a meaningful and cosmologically scoped context for the living of our lives. Over the last 40 years or so the Evolutionary Spirituality (ES) movement (of which I was a part for a while) has attempted to meld the world of science and religion together into a new modern perspective that includes a “spiritual” interpretation of everything without excluding a scientific one. The essential idea was to combine both sources of perspective as to what is true into one total and all encompassing view. In the context of an evolutionary worldview, Evolutionary spiritualists reframe spirituality as being about the evolution of consciousness, and the future evolution of consciousness.
Sounds theoretically promising, but unfortunately it hasn’t worked. ES views evolution as being the point and purpose of our cosmos. The ES view is that evolution has occurred because it is driven by an inherent “evolutionary impulse”. As I covered in the article Evolution’s Origin [Reference 1], there is no objective data supporting any such thing. In an attempt to combine science with spiritual perspective, I believe this movement has failed by not actually using real science to start with.
There is a second issue with the Evolutionary Spirituality approach that is quite concerning. After leaving this movement I heard on of my ex-colleagues say these exact words in a podcast: "In the name of Evolution, anything is reasonable" (my emphasis). Anything? Now, I happen to know the fellow who said it and he’s a great guy, and I know I have taken it out of the the context in which he was saying it. All the same, it captures the essence of the problem of centrifying evolution as the meaning, point and purpose of the cosmos. It creates the perfect conditions for traditional religious-like structure that has a central dogma that needs to be imposed. Because, of course, from that point of view, evolution is everything. If you’re not evolving, you’re not doing it right. From there it goes downhill, in my opinion, and in the wrong hands this kind of thinking can be quite dangerous.
As a further taster, here’s another example of this type of thinking from John Stewart in his book Evolution’s Arrow [Reference 2]:
“What contribution should I make to the progressive evolution of humanity? Now that I am aware of the direction of evolution, should I use this knowledge to do what I can to ensure humanity achieves future evolutionary success? Should I promote the formation of a cooperative and highly evolvable planetary organisation, and encourage the development in myself and others of a psychological capacity for evolutionary self management? Or should I choose not to direct any of my time and energy to pursuing evolutionary objectives?”[Note 1]
I think it’s clear here what’s expected of you. This, for me, rings alarms bells.
In our rapidly changing world, being prepared for, and helping others prepare for rapid (if not exponential) change within one’s lifetime isn’t a bad idea at all—I just don’t agree with making it a cultural directive in the name of some cosmic evolutionary imperative that in apparent fact, doesn’t actually exist. Any changes and adjustments we make can simply be those ones we directly perceive as necessary and adjacently required, rather because of some abstract dedication to the idea of evolution. I don’t think we need to worry about evolution, it will happen as a virtue of diligent probelm-solving—as it always has. If we simply worry about whatever we need to worry about, evolution will happen as a virtue, a natural side effect of intelligent innovations.
The reinvention of the sacred is our own choice of what we will hold sacred in an emergent universe exhibiting ceaseless creativity.
STUART A. KAUFFMAN, REINVENTING THE SACRED
Meaning and purpose: from the top
Starting from the top, I think a key mistake the ES movement has made is in not correctly identifying the reasons our cosmos evolved. If you’re in the business of architecting cosmological contexts for meaning and purpose in the third millennium I think it’s best to find an overarching universal or cosmic reality that is actually real. It should correlate with hard scientific data so it doesn’t re-enact “the earth was created 6000 years ago and we know that because it’s written in a book we have” scenario all over again.
In Evolution’s Origin I like to think I identify such a reality—the creative freedom that’s all around you right now. I claim that the main life of this cosmos is it’s ever present freedom for creative emergence that exists at every moment. It’s the reason there has been any evolution. Given enough time, Evolution is it’s natural side effect as the cosmos has slowly explored it’s emergent possibilities. In the context of this freedom that I think we can safely innovate a reliable and exciting new context for being.
We have a very bad habit of looking “out there” to identify some principle that we can follow and have instruct us in what we should be doing and how to be. But I think the most important thing to notice about our cosmos, is that it’s
That meaning, that purpose we are looking for is only ever going to be something that we create. I say we need to decide how we could come to have a meaningful relationship with this creative freedom. But it will have to be a meaningful relationship that we invent. We need to generate it. It won’t be found or come from anywhere else. Even if we realised there actually is some overriding purpose to the cosmos, and we knew about it—we would still have to decide where we stood in relationship to it. Nothing else is going to ever be able to do that for us.
To the best of our knowledge, we are the most complex thing in existence. We are the thinking part of our known cosmos—galactic stardust that has become self-aware. We are stardust that can decide what is meaningful and important, and then what to do about the meaning and purpose we discover. It seems this is the curse of radically mature, free autonomous self-reflectivity—the onus is on us, on you, on the individual, to decide (if one so chooses to engage in all this), as to what life should really be all about.
So where can we find this meaning? I think it’s literally staring us in the face. I think we can find meaning and purpose in reevaluating who and what we are.
Biological life is based upon and emergent from, chemistry—but is distinctly not just chemistry. It’s life. It has that extra thing about it that makes it distinctly not just chemical reactions. In the same way biology is post-chemical, we are post-biological. In the same way that life arose from chemistry, self-reflective culture has arisen from biology. For example, most organisms receive their information via DNA. Beyond our biology, we receive and constantly develop our information(s) via culture, language, and cultural memory. Our truly extraordinary and rapidly developing information handling capacities are what make us distinct from the biological world. In this way, we are the most extraordinary thing that has emerged from 4 billions years of life in our solar system.
I don’t think we think of ourselves, like this, as the phenomenon that we are—a new adventure for our cosmos. Something utterly new and unique in the history of creation. This is important because self-aware consciousness and culture adds to this universe. It adds perspective, awareness, love, care, morality, depth of understanding, deliberate informed interaction and intelligence to a degree thats unprecedented. Just as the advent of life was, we are another advent. I say we need to start thinking of our selves as this. Something completely new. Something to get deeply excited about. As something to take responsibility for. As something to maintain and care for—the same way we look after forests and ecosystems. We care for them because they are unique and precious. So are we.
The cosmos, I hope you would agree, is beautiful. But it doesn’t know it’s beautiful. It can’t care for itself or “do” anything. It’s wild. Presently, it seems our universe only knows it’s beauty through us. We add that capacity. We add that depth. We can see it’s beauty, we can decide that beauty is meaningful (if we so choose) and then act upon this understanding. It is the same for morality. It is something we add, we develop, we uniquely have (some) intelligence for. Caring technical civilisations can be that agent in the cosmos that cares for it, actively, in ways it otherwise can’t. We use these capacities almost exclusively for our own ends—but viewed in a cosmological context, we can find meaning in seeing them as something to be nurtured, developed and used in entirely new ways.
If we wish to meaningfully engage in this context, it seems to me we need to plum the extent to which we can develop, deepen, and mature as a species. Can we finally understand ourselves and what we are are. Can we innovate our motivations, replacing animalistic, mammalianistic motivations with new post-animalistic, post-survivalistic motivations? Can we develop the collective integrity that would be required for this possibility? It appears to mean crossing a threshold of values in what living and being is all about.
Auto-generating new meaning
So, in case it’s not clear: I’m suggesting we can discover a new pragmatic and exciting meaning and purpose in becoming passionate about the phenomenon of self-reflective, self-authoring, self-evolving, ‘being’ and the subsequent civilisation that would result.
In order to do that, and to arrive at the view I am suggesting in this article— I think there are two distinct steps:
a) The individual decides where they stand on the phenomenon of existence itself. For example: I think everything is better than nothing. I think it’s good thing the cosmos exists, and I’m glad it does. I think it’s beautiful and I think that the results of ~13.67 billion years of creative emergence are awe inspiring, exquisite and worthy of the attribution of great importance, value and meaning. Probably an agreeable position to most but—in order to prevent a built-in dogma up front—I don’t think it should be taken for granted. I do I think a general decision in this area is required for the development of any auto-generated meaning and purpose.
b) The individual comes to the independent conclusion that as a self-reflective entity, the highest possible thing one can possibly aspire to is the care of and development of human consciousness and culture. Human level self-reflective consciousness and information rich culture arguably being the most advanced local result of 13.67 billion years of what one has decided is meaningful universal emergence. I see this as entailing caring for the culture of self-reflective civilisation and the moral demands of self-reflective maturities, whatever they turn out to be. Because sophisticated moral concerns usually include looking after everything we impact (for example, our planetary biosphere), this seems a pretty safe bet. If our capacities are not sophisticated enough to act appropriately—then this seems a very worthy area of development! Just to repeat that—yes, that I’m suggesting there isn’t anything greater or more meaningful that a human being could aspire to.
Auto-generated meaning really is that—self-created. So it doesn’t have to be this particular approach. This is my invention and suggestion. I think it’s powerful and adoptable because it’s broad in scope and actually makes for a robust reference point. Simultaneously it must be a completely autonomous independent decision. What appears to be a directive or a dogma simply cannot be because it needs utterly independent assessment in order to become a real concern for that individual. Only then is it a meaningful pursuit for them. Because it requires an individuals total autonomous appraisal and willingness to act upon, it cannot be a dogma that’s imposed on others.
Expanding our personal concerns to include this vast context instantly impersonalises our lives. We can see our own life as part of a vast unfolding, a big multigenerational project. I find contemplating that—in the way other sources of meaning and purpose can also do — simplifies one’s existence somewhat. It provides a context to our lives that relieves some of the heat, distress and pain caused by what may otherwise be the much smaller world of endless self concern.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Because passionate self-reflectivity and its culture is ideally full of perspective, intelligence, morality, and hopefully, care—I’m calling it “hyperconscientious”. Hyperconscientious Self-reflectivity [Note 2] is a label that ideally represents the subsequent culture of a new wave of passion and values for the directed and deliberate use and development of human consciousness in a cosmological context. It’s creative living in the context of an auto/self generated moral obligation to live as conscientiously as possible. That’s the short version. The long version is “Hyperconscientious Self-reflective Creativity”—the “Creativity” part to represent a cosmological alignment with universal freedom, and distinctly post-dogmatic, post-traditional, post-fundamentalistic attitudes. Real creativity is unfettered, free, open, new, unprecedented. Traditional moral systems tend not to self-innovate. Here the idea is there is autonomous innovation of what the right thing is, out of a passion for hyperaware living. Again, this simply a label I’m giving to what is hopefully a new wave passion for self-reflective capacity and culture.
Human history can be seen as the slow but inexorable emergence and maturity of human values and culture—maturity distinctly equating to moral maturity, deeper self-awareness and greater understanding of others and the worlds around us. However this unfolding cannot continue beyond a certain point without our own active engagement it’s process.
Instigating our own development
We are evolving—but not physically/biologically—we’re evolving subjectively. It’s largely been that way for ~50,000 years.[Reference 3] Human history can be seen as the slow but inexorable emergence and maturity of human values and culture—maturity distinctly equating to moral maturity, deeper self-awareness and greater understanding of others and the worlds around us.
However this unfolding cannot continue beyond a certain point without our own active engagement it’s process. One of the most salient perspectives that comes from the philosophy of evolutionary spirituality is that—because the cutting edge of universal emergence is self-reflective consciousness—a consciousness that confers a relatively radical independence upon it’s agents (us)—and because we are now more free to dictate why and how we live than we’ve ever been—the most likely way our development can continue is through our deliberate engagement. We need to become agents for the evolution of consciousness.Because our consciousness is the most advanced known thing in creation, our participation is required in order for the evolution of the cosmos to proceed.[Note 3] How interesting is that?! We appear to be critical juncture where we need to start independently, deliberately participating in our own growth. How else can it happen?[Note 4]
How can we do this? Clearly a topic requiring extensive discussion. As I said earlier, I think it’s dangerous to become dogmatic and strict about everything in human life suddenly being only about evolution—but from this point of view there is a clear onus on us to become conscientiously engaged with the development of our capacities for human being.
It means becoming passionate about radical and mature understanding of who we are and how we work. As a mentor once pointed out, there are two great questions in human life that have permeated spirituality, religion politics, and philosophy down through the ages. They are Who are we? and How shall we live?
I think think the first question has more or less standard answers, as profound as they may be. It seems to me the deeper understanding of ourselves has a bottom to it. There only so much to understand. Great mystic and luminaries, modern and ancient, talk of the discovery of a universal self—the potential for the realignment of identity from animal/mammalian mind to a universal reference point of identity—some kind of “enlightenment” that finally releases our attention from the fears, desires, and lusts of animalian psychology. Separate awareness from these base motives has traditionally been the province of the pursuit of enlightenment. Because enlightenment has always been associated with religion and spirituality it’s been deemed flakey nonsense on the periphery of culture. Maybe it could be revived and renewed to be far more accessible, normalised and mainstream. This has already happened to a significant extent with the spread of meditation practices. Either way, reports hold promise of a way to percieve life beyond the lens and the contructs of the animalian minds we have inherited from our biological past.
The second question How shall we live? is going to be the ever present question of what to do next with our limitless options for conscientious creativity in limitless freedom. Human culture has always been emergent. That means standing on the shoulders of previous successes, building upon them, not wiping the floor and starting again. History has almost always proceeded in this way—keeping the good bits and moving on. That’s what I’m suggesting. Taking everything we have and have achieved and casting it into a new context of operations and innovations.
ISN’T THIS WHAT WE ARE DOING NOW?
Well, no, I don’t think so. We are creative and we are self-reflective, no doubt on both counts. We are also conscientious enough within our value spheres. But we’re using our energies for getting by. Hyperconscientious self-reflectivity is a different sphere of values, a different context of concern.
Presently so much of what we value is based around the economics of getting by, of survival, subsistence and personal success. For me, this is what pains me so much about the state of our “modern” cultures—species wide. We are all very self concerned. The entire structure and function of society is very inward focused and self absorbed. It’s understandable on so many levels so I generally don’t hold that against anyone, but simultaneously, so much of what we are preoccupied with is so banal.
So much of what fills our media and our collective thoughts is very simple to understand and solve and ideally shouldn’t be happening. We’re endlessly competing, struggling with and fighting each other just so we can all have what we need. Obviously when one is in the midst of important battles it really is very important and meaningful. However if you can cast your mind forward and envision the success you desire as manifest, one can afford to take a couple of steps away from the melee and look back at it all. Viewed from the far side—so much of what we’re worried about actually really very obvious and, well, not that interesting.
Simultaneously, we sort of hate ourselves. Post-modern environmentalists subliminally condemn us an unworthy species because we create environmental damage—despite clear capacity and ongoing attempts to resolve these issues. A way past this is to envision our radical success in dealing with these issues—something that is not that radical at all, and realistically obtainable. It’s possible to cast our minds beyond these concerns to the real challenges in the future of human being. Instead there’s more discussion about our expected and imminent extinction. From a systemic point of view, these are suicidal thoughts. There’s a collective malaise and depression.
Also, presently the largely reductionistic, materialistic and quantativistic values and interests in academia generally ignore subjectivity, subjective development and the majority of human subjective evolution. Hyperconscientious self-reflectivity puts it’s importance and development front and centre as essential to who we are and crucial to our ongoing success and development.
As opposed to the current status quo of human affairs, Hyperconscientious self-reflectivity is at least distinct in that it’s:
Passionate about the phenomenon of self-reflectivity: We are viewed as something to treasure care for and develop. The world’s problems are seen as the problems of growing up, rather than terminal and unsolvable, and reasons for our extinction.
Explicit: It’s not veganism or environmentalism, or about social justice or similar concerns—though these can be components of it. It’s an explicitly different sphere and reference point of concern. Individuals will think of what they are doing as distinct, and not only “of” any other movement or activity.
Cosmological in context: The context is unusual in that it ultimately thinks in terms of the largest context.
Auto-conscientious: An overriding or contextualising sense of obligation that’s auto-generated. Rather than traditional, societal or imposed it’s conscientiousness requires profound contemplation and decision making of the individual on their relationship and role with all existence. It’s an independently generated value system that contextualises or contains all other activities.
And as I mentioned above, I don’t think the goals of society in general are aligned in this way at all. Whilst some aspects of it definitely already exist, it’s definitely not remotely close to being our raison d’etre. I’m of the opinion this view fits in a new context of concern and wave of values that builds upon and leaves behind current preoccupations.
OK, SO WHAT NOW BRAINIAC?
So hopefully I’ve been impressive and convincing. In a minute you’ll stop reading this and probably go and do something exceptionally mundane and distinctly not at all hyper-anything. So will I. It might be at that point that you may well wonder if I’m out of my living mind—as will I. What can we actually do about this? Not my mental state, silly—hyperconscientious self-reflectivity.
As a concept it’s really a signpost as to a general direction we can take. It’s meant to contextualise how we can re-conceive meaningful living without providing any actual method. Even the “Total Art” which I talk about in a separate article isn’t really a method. As art, its utterly creative, so there is no real method. Total Art is really the description of a potentially meaningful field of endeavour that operates in the context of reflection upon self-reflective being in a free cosmos, and it’s creative paths are laid by the autonomous creativity of the practicing individuals.
However, the entire One Future brand is constructed of several categories of content dedicated to innovating the values, perspectives and culture of human being in the third millennium. Presented on page 43 of this issue is a brief description of each of these, some of which have been already developed in this and previous issues. The point of all these categories and the One Future brand is to re-conceive of how we can recalibrate life for a sustainable and bright future in our beautiful and emergent cosmos.
A DEVELOPMENTUAL TRIAD
This article forms a third article in the category “Developmentuality”, the other two being The Implicit Obligation to be Awesome (Issue 1) and Are you Kosmosian? (Issue 2). They are designed to supplement as concepts and form a robust, accessible and scalable foundation for meaning making and being in the third millennium.
CONTEXT FOR AUTONOMOUSLY GENERATING MEANING
Implicit Obligation to be Awesome
AUTONOMOUSLY GENERATING MEANING AND PURPOSE
AN APPROACH TO ETHICAL LIVING
- Note 1.
There is no “direction in evolution”, as covered in the previous article Evolution’s Origin.[REFERENCE 1] Go to reference in main text
- Note 2.
You may have noticed I use the term "self-reflectivity" a lot. I find it kind of lumpy and irritating and also a bit odd, so I’m expecting you do to. Sorry about that. The thing is, I can’t think of any other term in common parlance that does the same job. I might try inventing one at some point but in the meantime I’m open to suggestions! Go to reference in main text
- Note 3.
Evolutionary spiritualist Barbara Marx Hubbard was a keen proponent of this view. Go to reference in main text
- Note 4.
I think I have to say again—development does not necessarily or explicitly mean or have to be only about evolution. It can meaningfully and pragmatically just be about the adjacent perceived and understood need for development. Development can equate to a filling out or diversification of capacities. The reasons for any development should be our personal self-generated and authentic concern, need and interest. This saves us from the insanity of yet another systematic dogma. It’s likely some of this will result in evolution but it should not be the sole goal of development. Go to reference in main text
- Reference 1.
Evolution’s Origin: A reconfigured history of universal emergence
One Future journal, Issue 3 Go to reference in main text
- Reference 2.
Evolutions Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity, page 313
The Chapman Press, 2000 Go to reference in main text
- Reference 3.
https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/15/us/language-gene-is-traced-to-emergence-of-humans.html Go to reference in main text