Towards a Metamodern Metanarrative

Winding Up

Everything in existence is some form of energy, and energy is neither created nor destroyed. So says the First Law of Thermodynamics.

But energy has a direction: towards dissipation, equilibrium, homogeneity. This is the Second Law. Pour a drop of dye into a glass of water and the dye will diffuse throughout the container until it attains this equilibrium. The once highly-ordered and compact drop of dye “falls apart,” moving from order to disorder as it disperses, losing its organization as it descends ineluctably into chaos. We call this process entropy, and entropy (the Second Law shows us) is the very nature of the universe. “Things fall apart / The center cannot hold.” So might the mantra of the cosmos go.

And yet, as if by some beautiful and ancient magic, the world we see around us is not all entropy and chaos, but actually highly ordered—and increasingly so. How can this be?

As it happens, a complementary process is also at work in the cosmos, one of complexification.

For still-unknown reasons, the Universe is expanding (and at an accelerating rate); this expansion creates gradients, and gradients disrupt equilibria. When systems are far enough out of equilibrium, entirely new and unpredictable “islands of order” can emerge, and these pockets of stability can build on one another in turn. Disequilibrated order builds on disequilibrated order, emergent complexity on emergent complexity, pushing back ever stronger against entropy—though never conquering it (localized order is always achieved by a proportionate level of disordering done to the external environment elsewhere). In this way, the universe is not only “winding down” (entropic), but also, simultaneously, in some areas, very much winding up (complexifying).

But the universe’s winding up has not been linear. It is instead punctuated by distinct leaps into novel, higher-order domains of complexity/complexification, each emerging within and dependent upon the last. The material, the genetic, and the symbolic domains all appear as quantum leaps in the order and kind of potential complexity, and thus as distinctly significant categories in a taxonomy of entropy-fighting phenomena. They evolved in sequence. Physical matter complexified to allow biological life and life complexified to allow human culture—with each one rooted in and thus dependent upon the previous domains.

The first sort of “winding up” that occurs in the “physiosphere” (the domain of Matter) happens by means of patterns inherent to energy formulations themselves, and exhibits a spectrum of complexification ranging from atoms to complex molecules.

The higher-order wind up, in the “biosphere” (Life) occurs by means of genetic information; phenomena in this spectrum of complexity range from single-celled organisms to complex multicellular animals.

Finally, with linguistically-communicated signifiers in the “noosphere” (Culture), we get the distinctly anthropological complexification through symbolic information.

These tiers—Matter, Life, and Culture—represent a Stack of complexity domains, reaching from our self-conscious psyche all the way down to the very fundaments of our material existence: from self to atom.

As humans, operating at the level of Culture, we participate in all three bands of complexity, since the language-mediated identities of Culture require the biochemical processes of Life which in turn require the physical relationships of Matter. As for the distinctly human tier of complexification, Culture, it unfolds within the symbolic constructs of the human psyche, whose unique characteristics come largely from it being enculturated through linguistically-mediated symbols and ideas used to justify behavior.

The taxonomy range for this band of complexity is to be sought in the human mind itself. Specifically insightful in this regard has been the field of human psychological development, which covers a wide Spread of holistic human skillset ranges (e.g., cognition, values, ethics, etc.) that can all be meaningfully mapped within a common complexification field. Metapsychologists all draw similar maps of this terrain. Here’s one by Zak Stein:

Source: Adapted from Zak Stein, Education in a Time Between Worlds (Bright Alliance), p. 41.

Here some lines of noosphere complexification (the Spread) are presented (along with their associated researcher) across the top of the chart (cognition, ethics, faith), with complexity increasing as one progresses down the columns. A balanced complexification across the Spread keeps the human being grounded in the Stack—which is to say, appropriately attuned to the demands of the physiosphere and the biosphere. This is important, because for any winding up to be sustainable, it requires the whole Stack to be working in concert.

The Lopsided Spring

But here is the problem, and, in fact, the very existential challenge of our era: things are not in balance. Quite the contrary. The winding up occurring in the domain of Culture is dangerously fractured and increasingly out-of-joint. Our complexification is horribly lopsided, proceeding at radically different rates for certain lines in the Spread versus others. The spring of civilization is winding more and more, but not altogether evenly, and as the war against entropy condenses increasing amounts of energy through complexification, the system is strained to the breaking by its own internal tensions, threatening rupture back to much earlier, regressive forms: i.e., civilization breakdown (regression from high complexity Culture to low complexity Culture), extinction of humanity (regression from Culture to Life), or even the destruction of the biosphere and the extinction of all life on Earth (regression from Culture to Matter).