Towards a Metamodern Metanarrative
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:
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).
In the form of globalized Culture currently predominating on the planet, the complexity of cognitive/technological skillsets drastically overshadow all other forms of complexification, rendering us highly specialized in this one domain while remaining relatively stunted in others.
Today, for example, a typical American engineer or financial specialist or real estate developer or graphic designer (let’s call him Tim) might score exceedingly high in cognitive capacities, and yet lack any comparable range of skills when it comes to other forms of complexification, such as in the domains of ego awareness, ethical judgment, universal values, relationship to matters of ultimate concern, etc.:
This sort of disproportionate complexification growth plays out in extremely deleterious ways, thwarting holistic and well-integrated development for outsized performance in one narrow sector at the expense of the whole Spread.
Note: The panel on the left shows healthy, holistic growth across multiple lines; the panel on the right shows what happens when certain lines are over-emphasized at the others’ expense, producing stratification and the stunting of other areas.
Source: Fischer KW, Bidell TR (2006) Dynamic development of action, thought, and emotion. Theoretical Models of Human Development, Handbook of Child Psychology (Wiley, New York), pp. 361, 362.
Myopic egocentrics with devastating potential for kinetic destruction, a society of Tims cannot last long. A lopsided Spread causes disconnection from the Stack, leading to breakdown. “Things fall apart / The center cannot hold. / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Unfortunately, this is the prospect we are facing. Since the West proceeded through its version of modernization, a disastrous asymmetry has emerged in its skill complexification across the Spread. Conceptual complexity (and its applications to technological development) became untethered to other lines of development and privileged above the rest. Science and technology, thus decoupled from deeper values, are now complexifying exponentially faster and faster, but totally out of alignment with other human concerns and capacities: we are winding and winding, but increasingly incapable of wielding. The result is widescale destabilization, precariousness, and unsustainability at all levels.
To put a finer point on it, we have produced incomparable knowledge, but without the requisite wisdom to properly direct it. We have the most sophisticated and deadly weapons that have ever been devised under the control of people with rudimentary abilities to take other people’s perspectives. We use more energy than any other entity in the known universe, yet without the capacity to appreciate or even consider how this affects our broader ecology. In short, our capacity outweighs our insight. Or, as Edward O. Wilson brilliantly expressed it: “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”
This untethering of complex thought from other forms of complexification is, I would argue, the root cause of the meaning crisis (cf. the persistent tensions in modernity of “science vs. religion” and the cultural presumption that existence, understood “scientifically,” is meaningless/devoid of value). And this dynamic, along with the hopelessness it has engendered, has led to the so-called meta-crisis (environmental degradation, the increase in social inequality, the tragedy of the commons, etc.).
The only way to meet such crisis, it would seem, is to finally catch up to our godlike technology by becoming, well, more godlike. That is, our ethics, values, and reflection on matters of ultimate concern must be brought up to speed with our cognition and technical capacities. We need a metanarrative and set of values running on the same version of Reality as our best scientific models. For this, we will need an entirely updated version of religion, with a wisdom tradition every bit as probing as our electron microscopes, a cosmology as expansive as 13.7 billion light years, and an understanding of our inner worlds as vast and sublime as what we see around, above, and beyond us.
The narrative of complexification I have laid out here is a scientific one. The notion of order emerging out of chaos is not some religious myth, but the consensus understanding of mathematicians, physicists, and complexity scientists. The Stack of emergent complexification domains—Matter, Life, Culture—is not some metaphysical Great Chain of Being, but a sequence of quantifiably demonstrable levels (measured, e.g., by free energy rate density, Φm). The Spread of human developmental skillsets is not the invention of some New Age self-actualization guru, but a set of empirically-grounded lines of human intelligences metatheoretically mapped to mathematically-defined notions of hierarchical complexity. In short, this is a narrative well in accord with modernity’s demand for extreme cognitive and technological complexity if ever there was one.
But what if it were more than that? For, as we’ve seen, we will be needing much more than valueless, purely quantitative, cognitive/utilitarian-driven thinking if we’re to avoid everything literally falling apart. Could this narrative possibly form the basis of a collective story more like the sorts of meaningful “grand narratives” that motivate and valorize more holistic and balanced societies?