Towards Something


Jørund Falkenberg Aase

[Published as part of the exhibition Portal, UKS 2010]

While a global breakdown is already on the radar screen, achieving a global breakthrough remains entirely possible. Seizing
this alternative calls for the kind of new thinking that could give
birth to a new civilization.
[i]Ervin László

It is becoming increasingly evident that the reductionistic materialistic worldview has serious limitations when it comes to explaining the world. Also, it is becoming clear that materialism is not functioning as a meaningful basis on which an advancing global culture can build a healthy society, neither physically, mentally nor spiritually. The limit of the potential of the material paradigm seems to have been reached.

Since the Renaissance laid the ground for a more open and less dogmatic thinking and study of nature, there has been a great development in technology, knowledge and living conditions. Over the last hundred years there has been a focus on controlling matter, theoretically and practically. In many ways this has been a very positive process, lifting people out of hunger and poverty, giving fundamental rights to human beings, freeing groups which formerly were suppressed; slaves, women, homosexuals etc. *

Capitalism is materialism’s successful economic ideology. Growth within this system gives meaning as long as there is a lack of basic material safety for people. Material development does not give any meaning in itself. In parts of the world which have a highly developed material standard of living, mental illness, like depression and mental exhaustion (and boredom), an increasing problem. There seems to be a collective existential crisis occuring. From the position in which well fed societies find themselves, it seems there is no road leading further, no goal, exept still greater material wealth. The global ecological crisis tells us that this cannot continue much longer. Human culture has to put the brakes on regarding some of  its natural tendencies; to multiply, to expand its habitats, to increase its use of material resources. We can not, as humans have done until recently, survive and develop mainly by hard labor along the material axis. This is what in its unrestricted form has led to the problem. It is not possible to walk the same road any further.

The Norwegian author Dag Andersen writes in his book The 5th Step[ii] about the different paradigms through which the human culture has developed. He builds in part on Thomas S. Kuhn’s classical paradigm theory which explains how science develops by leaping forward in small and large steps. This idea can also be used to understand biological evolution and cultural development. Building on the American philosopher Ken Wilber’s theories, Andersen divides human history into four major paradigms, from early tribal society characterized by a magical worldview, to agricultural society and mythical thinking, to the conventional religious orientation of the Middle Ages, to our rational materialistic period marked by industry, the nation state, democracy and the rights of the individual. Based on the characteristics of the development through the different stages and transitions, Andersen tries to foresee what the possible characteristics of the next – fifth – major paradigm could be.

Because a paradigm is strongly marked by tradition and what is generally accepted in the period, it is hard to see beyond its borders. One naturally looks towards the future from the point of view of the knowledge and experience one has from the present, extending the tendencies forward in time. People generally think the situation of their time is the ”rule”, that it will change a bit, for example when it comes to technology, but not fundamentally. This is generally true when we are looking at ”flat” periods, the stable time between two paradigm shifts. But if we in times of crisis, before a new paradigm is established, say that the world will go on as before, it is like predicting the road to continue straight when coming to a sharp curve. One does not foresee the radical shift of direction. If one is aware of the nature of paradigm shifts though, and studies how such shifts have occurred in the past, it might be possible to come up with some more plausible scenarios. The point is not trying to predict the future exactly, but to open up some possibilities, not to be enclosed and impeded by the past.

A shift to a new paradigm can be symbolized by the process of solving a jigsaw puzzle, where one, after some time, has to build in three dimensions instead of two to be able to fit in more pieces. One can not merely continue as before, filling in the two dimensional frame that was first established. When the accumulation of problematic pieces becomes too big to be ignored, a radical thought shift embodying a solution has to be adopted. Because the shift to a new paradigm requires a change of radical degree, the transition does not merely depend on knowledge. What is categorized as knowledge in a given period can hamper and prolong the transition, beause it is so much part and parcel of the old paradigm. Radical change seems to depend more on what the established body of knowledge lacks, excludes and resists than what it encompasses. Change therefore requires an external perspective on one’s culture and tradition, and consciousness of what is based on rationality and what is not. Postmodernism is surely part of such a process. The transition to a new paradigm is a broad collective transcendence of habituated mental and emotional patterns, categories and assumptions. Crisis does not, as a matter of course lead to solution and transcendence. Crisis can also lead to degeneration and extinction. As we know, in the course of biological evolution and the history of human cultures, this has happened many times.

The transition period between two paradigmes is often difficult for individuals and society, marked by fear of losing traditional values, insecurity about the future, and feelings of chaos. How worrying and hard it must have been at the end of the Middle Ages to go from a geocentric worldview to a universe where the Earth no longer was the center. Resisting the new is a strong tendency in such times. In the year 1600 the Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno was burnt on Campo dei Fiori in Roma for, among other views, his view of an endless universe. Once a new paradigm is established, it is hard to see why the new ideas were earlier seen to be problematic, now taken for granted and regarded as a natural and logical development. What before was a leap into the unknown, is now solid ground.

In many fields the global culture seems to be in fundamental crisis. In such circumstances, civilization can either break down or manage to settle and stabilize in a new form that is sustainable, not only ecologically, but also mentally and existentially. Human beings need a meaningful foundation for life and society. It is clear that we need to reduce our environmental footprint on the Earth, but radical ecological change is not sufficient, and probably not even possible without a change in our collective mental outlook. The sum total of our material standard of living probably needs to be reduced, so that everyone can have enough rather than a few enjoying an excess. This probably would be hard to do within a system where increased standard of living is the goal and free markets the law. Without a collective understanding of the necessity of reducing, it will be hard or impossible to solve the current ecological problems. But changing mentality solely on the basis of rational knowledge is easier said than done. Everyone is in theory in favour of a rational consistent development, but when it comes to practice, it is difficult for both individuals and states to implement. For radical, ecological responsible and effective global politics, with popular support, to be possible, it might be necessary to acknowledge higher human drives than the mental.

From a postmodern perspective, the spiritual is not real as anything other than subjective experience. This view might be changing. For many persons experiencing spirituality through spiritual practice, like meditation, it clearly has a transsubjective characteristics. Perhaps we here are getting close to the absolute, on rational terms, which is what is lacking to make it possible to build a new universal existencial framework. Many philosophers and writers are working in this emerging field of post-materialistic thinking, which perhaps can heal the gaping wounds of modern culture. If it is possible to combine rationality and a universal spirituality, it implies a transcendence all earlier cultural steps in the history of humans.

As the Enlightenment settled the material and rational paradigm, it logically repressed what was seen as irrational. Religion came to be seen as superstition from a modern point of view. This view has been a natural development with many positive consequences, for science, free thinking, liberation movements, etc. At the same time, it has eradicated the traditional frame of meaning. Pulling up weeds, human culture happened to cut its own deeper roots, existentially leaving itself floating in the air. Religion can be seen to be an interpretation of the spiritual through a ethnocentric culture. Spirituality is bound in a dogmatic and static form, easily leading to “them and us” thinking and cultural conflicts. Spirituality in itself does not contradict rationality. On the contrary, the spiritual experience frees from habitual and tradition-bound thinking and can therefore promote rationality. The modern culture’s ignorance of the spiritual left it unable to differentiate between the spiritual and the religious. It thereby eradicated both.

[C]an we not find a spiritual liberalism? a spiritual humanism? an orientation that sets the rights of the individual in deeper spiritual contexts that do not deny those rights but ground them? (…) It will be a spirituality that rests on, not denies, the Enlightenment. It will be, in other words, a postliberal Spirit, which transcends and includes both
liberalism and conservatism.
[iii] –Ken Wilber

Due to its materialistic heritage postmodernism can not acknowledge that there really is any development in the world. Here we come to the core problem in our time. There is no road to be walked, no direction towards anything of any real value or meaning. The reason why we are where we are, after biological evolution and cultural history, is coincidence. The world is ”flat”, meaning there is really no hierarchy of values. Nothing can really be said to be better or worse than anything else. Existential meaning has to be rejected. Principles of intrinsic human value and universal rights can only be based on belief. Development in an absolute sense is impossible because there is nothing absolute to compare with. Everything is relative. From the point of view of the dominant established conceptual categories spirituality, in the form refered to here, can not exist. What then can be said to argue for the existence of such a spirituality?

Spiritual states can be registered as changes in brainwaves in a person. This does not tell what spirituality really is or what it does to a person, but it means that spiritual experiences is a specific phenomenon which can actively be cultivated. For the subject experiencing spirituality, it is often so distinct that it can not be doubted any more than experiences in the physical world. Because spirituality is based on personal experience, it can not easily be conveyed to others through words, tables and graphs, as can studies of the material world. The problem of acknowledging spirituality as an intersubjective basis for existential meaning might actually be a problem of the natural limits of communication. Or it may be that due to awareness of spirituality not being prevalent in society, it is difficult for people who personally experience it to convey it to those who do not.

If the spiritual is accepted as a possibility and explored, a new reality might come to light. What this new really is, is uncertain as yet. But if a radical shift occurs, it will come as a solution to the fundamental problems of our times. If it does not happen, if we do not manage to move forward, we will have to move backwards. At best, this will probably mean degradation of culture and mass death. At worst, it will mean extinction of the species homo sapiens. In any case, it probably means that life on Earth again will flourish, there being no ecologically harmful civilization anymore, either humans develop a sustainable way of life or being so reduced in numbers and technologically degraded that they can not do much harm. From the dominant relativistic paradigm of today, it can not be said to have any real significance if humans disappears from the face of the Earth. One might naturally feel sad contemplating such a scenario, but the universe must be seen to be indifferent, extinction or not. In a possible next paradigm the universe might be seen to “care” – that it is not indifferent what happens inside it. Not based on religious dogmas as before. Based on empirical experience in the spiritual domain, the universe might be seen to have a direction, not developing in a totally random way, but moving towards something.

The strange place where we find ourselves, the world, is perhaps not as small as our small thoughts about it at this present moment in time. We can be sure that the world will be seen radically different in the future, as our worldview differs from that of the Middle Ages. What is possible today might have been impossible in the past, and what seems impossible in the present might become possible in the future.

It seems we now have two options. We can either choose to try to extend the “comfortable” old paradigm into the future, thereby putting everyone in danger. Or we can take the consequences of our current global situation and prepare to build a sustainable culture. The last option would mean being prepared to expand our view of everything. The world will seem to shake and tremble for a while before it finds its new position beyond the old exploded frame.

* It is worth mentioning a form of suppression that still lacks acknowledgment even in the most humanely developed nations: Speciesism** (from species), discrimination of non-human animals, leading humans to put non-human animals through suffering and to death. Acknowledgment of speciesism as a form of suppression is maybe not so far away though. An increasing awareness of non-human animals as sentient individuals is making it difficult to rationally state reasons for a continued exploitation of them. More and more people regard speciesism as a problematic ethical inconsistency in our culture, and for this reason choose to oppose it by adopting a vegan lifestyle.

[i] Ervin László: The Chaos Point: The World at The Crossroads, pp. 5, Hampton Roads Publishing Company 2006
[ii] Dag Andersen: The 5th step: The Way to a New Society, Kolofon 2007
[iii] Ken Wilber: The Eye of Spirit, pp. XX (A Note to the Reader), Shambhala Publications 2001
[iv] Ken Wilber, An Integral Theory of Consciousness, Link to full article

**About speciesism and animal rights:
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, 1975
Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 1983
Gary L. Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, 2000

Thanks to Josephine, John and Helle.