One of the things that has always bothered me about any developmental theory is that inevitably, it gets coopted by the status-conscious as a way of justifying their ostensible superiority. What happens next is an outflowing of the usual bile from those claiming the mantle of enlightenment — “those people” don’t love, they don’t care, or have feelings. And THEN the next action, at times in history, has been to kill them. Any theory of the übermensch has the dark problem of highlighting human superiority turning into a tool for psychopaths. It’s no surprise to me that Crazy Uncle Friedrich (Nietzsche) would wax operatically about the Spartans, whom I’ve written about before. It makes my mind reel to think people would wax heroic about a nation based on pederasty. Sorry.
I’ve told amalgamated friend Hanzi Freinacht that what we need to do is move to a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.
The Zen Buddhist monks got all these concepts in spades. One of my favorite stories, from Paul Reps’ curated 101 Zen Stories is below, that captures this sentiment.
Soldiers of Humanity
Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.
Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”
This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”
Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”
The bottom line of all this is that all people (at least those without broken brain circuits) feel things like love and attachment, or sorrow in loss of love. It is unfair to say that a poor person, or a person from a different culture, doesn’t feel some version of love. But the way, and the triggers for that emotion, naturally vary wildly dependent on that person’s background culture, as well as stage of development. I remember reading an account of the Coptic Christian massacre by Daesh/Islamic State in 2015, where IS killed 21 construction workers in the name of revenge for an alleged failed conversion of a Copt woman to Islam. A reporter had traveled to the town in Egypt, where many of the workers were from. Expecting to find a devastated community, instead they found families honored by their sons’ martyred sacrifice. So there is indeed range in human response — but it’s important to understand that the joy and pride were a response to their love. Not an abnegation of it.
Another great example I’ve used to build my empathy, that maps really well to the development of humanity, is understanding the characters in the documentary about the construction and filling behind the Three Gorges Dam — Up the Yangtze , by director Yung Chung. Chung covers the plight of the poorest of the poor — a farmer and his wife living along the banks of the river, and soon to be displaced by the rising flood waters backing up behind the dam. Their material condition is extremely poor — you have to watch the documentary to appreciate it, and I was raised in the hills of Appalachia. Yet there is an obvious bond between the old farmer and his wife. I find myself working to understand their bond — what constitutes, to the wife, the idea that she married well, and as such, serves as a devoted partner to her husband. Instead of doubting that those different from us feel emotion, it’s a useful point of growth.
But back to the main question. If we’re fundamentally all the same, yet different through some lens of personal development, why do the gods only talk to some of us? They certainly don’t talk to me. Is there an evolutionary reason that we can understand why the gods don’t talk to me, but do talk to others, that’s explainable in the four dimensions we have in the here and now?
With a tip of the hat to Carlos Perez, who writes extensively on AI, and recently covered my concept of Structural Memetics as a route toward understanding AI development, I’m obviously not the first person to consider this question. What I’m going to discuss is Julian Jayne’s Theory of the Bicameral Mind. Written in 1978, Jaynes argued that consciousness is a learned behavior, and in the long context of human history, relatively recent. Ulysses of the Odyssey really WAS told what to do by the gods — in particular, the goddess Athena, who was said to resemble him the most in that she was also the goddess prone to tricks.
We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks.1
Ulysses is not the only mythic, or semi-mythic figure trotted out with a thin version of a conscience. He did end up in Dante’s lowest level of the Inferno for a reason. For those of Abrahamic religious persuasion, it’s worthwhile to note that Abraham himself was told to sacrifice his oldest son, Isaac. He was just about to do it until Yahweh issued a stay of execution. In lots of places in the Bible, especially when the Hebrew pastoralists were cruising around in the wilderness, Yahweh does some serious talking. As well as producing some artifacts that have large-scale consequences, like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It is both metaphorically, and oddly enough, v-Memetically fitting that in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, after the Nazis are melted by opening the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to access magic they had no deeper birthright to, the whole Ark is then buried deep in a bureaucratic nightmare of government storehouse. The Legalistic v-Meme can even suffocate the power of Magical Divine Authority.
But back to development. Unlike others, like Kegan and Piaget, I’ve posited two axes for increase of neural complexity — either complicatedness/sophistication, and complexity/evolution.
And here’s the key. In order to evolve, one must develop enough agency through self-examination and development of empathy to self-separate from other’s imposed reality. That means you recognize that other’s interpretations of reality is outside your noggin.
And you then cross-reference your own neural inputs and sensations through your experiences to spin all those parts through a reflecting hippocampus to create autobiographical narratives. That little hippocampus spinning wheel in your limbic system seems to be key in creating those narratives that are assembled from lots of different parts floating around our brain — but most importantly, in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). And certainly one of the threads that gets woven into all this, IF you have this self-separation from other’s emotional reality, is the idea that you have a unique voice in all this — that your free will and agency actually matters, at least a little bit.
So as you go through life, this grounding wire through your PFC feeds important information back into your system as far as both paying attention to your world, as well as the people in your world, realizing they have an important role in creating your own narratives. And as you add people to your world, your grounding feed grows, and grows — through developed empathy.
But what happens if you don’t have that grounding wire through other people, and your PFC? What happens if you don’t have that large network of others’ realizations, as well as a conscience and the time to know yourself?
It IS possible that your brain might get frozen in time, and you just stop growing. But now it’s informative to return to the notion of how other emotions might grow in lieu of an experientially-based relationship. Just like the farmer’s wife, other modes of developed attachment from cultural and other symbolic vocabularies might reinforce your experience. In short, that little voice in your head just might be your God talking to you. With some serious external, cultural reinforcement — like sacrificing your favorite pet goat.
But here’s the key thought. That grounding wire, instead of reaching out into a data-driven world, instead remains locked, self-referentially, through your limbic system. It keeps feeding back the same beliefs over and over into your stories, reinforcing whatever fixed mental models you have. No wonder its turtles all the way down. All you’ve got are those damn turtles.
And as you turn more and more cycles in the old CPU, those thoughts become part of the larger, threaded narrative of your life. And your view of the world becomes a more magical place. Coherence is generated through more and more complicated connections, flowing from the same iconic symbol set. Ravens show up and get hooked to everything. Or owls. Or crosses.
What’s interesting is that the larger irrational perspective might have, historically, fueled innovation and global change, before we were all actually connected with any real information. All you have to do is read a couple of conquistadors’ stories, and you might just start believing that God wanted you to show up on Atahualpa’s (the Incan leader at the time of collapse) doorstep after a major military defeat. Stranger things have been perceived.
And now we can loop back around to some things I’ve said about how social structures low on the empathy scale also are pretty poor in metacognition as well. You don’t get to be a leader of the faith by saying “I don’t know.”
But all of it is one crazy way to innovate — by sailing off across the ocean convinced everything’s just going to be alright. A little blind faith might not be a bad strategy for the holiday football pool – or sailing to the New World in 1492. But it’s a concept worth reconsidering and re-evaluating when it comes to tipping points for global warming.
For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.
What’s the takeaway? At some level, other people in our life help figure out which pathway we’re going to use. If they’re all like us, with the same belief sets and mental models, all we need is that warm fuzzy feeling to feel safe, and our PFC remains relatively dormant. The world doesn’t change much, there isn’t much reckoning for getting stuck, and we also get to tell people that over time, we’re closer to whatever god we’re granted by our church, our family, or NASCAR racing team. And the devil literally take the hindmost if someone attempts to change our mind. A self-referential limbic loop makes that basically impossible, though our thinking will lead to a more sophisticated view of our deity. It becomes our touchstone.
But if folks are different, we have to start paying attention — with cognitive empathy. Which then rakes our PFC into the brouhaha, which gets us wondering, maybe a little, whether we heard them right, or something, so we can connect to them. And so, as we march through our lives, building both consciousness, an independent conscience, and a larger, diverse social network, our PFC gets one helluva workout. And then it has to reckon with all the empty space in there. Which leads to wisdom.
As we relate, so we think. Who woulda thunk?