Thursday, November 5, 2015

Inner spiritual work vs systemic solutions

The world is composed of systems. In the natural world, organic molecules assemble themselves into cells, cells assemble themselves into colonies, organs and organisms, and sometimes organisms assemble themselves into super-organisms, also known as hives, colonies, flocks. Species assemble themselves into the ecosystem we call the earth and some call Gaia to emphasize its systemic nature.

In the social human world, humans have cultures, which consist of the following parts, each one a system in its own right: economic systems, political systems, religious systems and technological systems.

What makes these systems more than the sum or their parts? It isn't just interactions. There are many non-living physical systems of interacting parts such as crystals, fluids, gases, sand dunes, etc. Living systems are special because they try to maintain and perpetuate themselves. There is not necessarily a consciousness of this goal from the parts. In living systems, the kinds of interactions, and the sheer number of them produce negative feedbacks, whose effect is system maintenance, or positive feedbacks whose effect is system collapse. Most of the time only negative feedbacks operate. Not only are these feedbacks operating within a specific system, but there are feedbacks between the system and the environment, which is itself a larger system. Negative feedbacks discourage certain part behaviors that lead away from system stability, and encourage part behaviors that lead toward system stability. These can be codified into laws, but also internalized into cultural norms and biological instincts, that are upheld by other both internal and external feedbacks. People who talk about humans destroying the earth or Near Term Extinction fail to take Gaia's negative feedbacks into account.

Social systems also are holographic because inside each individual part is a map of the whole system. This map may not be accurate, but the external system tries, through feedbacks to correct the map of individuals, not just their actions.

Though historically systems emerge from parts in a way that enhances the stability, happiness or fitness of the parts, the situation can change to one in which some or many of the parts are not stable, happy or fit. The needs of the system and parts, though they may have been aligned at one point, are no longer so. There are then 3 choices if the parts want to be happier: change the parts (inner system), change the outer system, or construct an alternative outer and inner system. Let's discuss each of these in turn.

The first option of changing the inner system comes in two variants. The first one is a belief that changing the inner system to one that is more resonant with the needs of the individual will magically lead to actions by individuals which will change the outer system. Despite historical data to the contrary, the belief is that the "good/enlightened" landlord, slaveowner or money lender will somehow lead to rent, slavery or usury becoming human-happiness-enhancing institutions that encourage altruism, generosity and reciprocity. This belief is shared among many self-labeled spiritual people who believe that the problems of humanity can all be solved by "inner work". This is mostly prevalent with Christianity, Buddhism and the New Age movement. Neither Jesus nor Buddha believed in inner spiritual work as a panacea. Jesus advocated a gift economy, an alternative to Empire* which he called "The Kingdom of God", and opposed usury. Buddha opposed the caste system and initiated a social system without caste. Most new age leaders do however believe that the outer system either will magically change due to inner work, or that it doesn't need to. The latter view is also shared by many psychologists, therapists and social workers who are an example of the second variant of the "inner work is sufficient" viewpoint. The idea is to conform, in Borg-like fashion, but this ignores the fact that the individual system has its own needs and no pretending or behavioral conformity will change those needs.

From a systems theory viewpoint, there is SOME usefulness to inner work, due to the holographic nature of human social systems. Changing the inner map is a motivator to aligning the outer system with the inner map, but oftentimes the alignment happens in the direction of the outer system, not the inner map. The outer system is bigger and more powerful than the inner, individual one. The parts are made to conform to the design of the outer system, not the other way around. Jesus got killed and Christianity adapted itself to Empire, and Buddhism has spawned oppressive institutions as well as being oppressed itself in places like Tibet.

If changing the inner system is not sufficient in changing the outer one, it seems reasonable to attempt to change the outer one to conform better to the needs of some or most of the individual parts. This is what policy makers, economists and some social scientists have tried to do. But this does not work either. The study of speciation in biology and the emergence of new cultures in social systems shows that the kinds of changes of old systems of sufficient size that are possible over several human lifetimes are not the kind that lead to more resonance with individual needs. Those kinds of changes either take very long times or else the old system collapses due to positive feedbacks, and there is nothing better to fill the vacuum. Barring these, creating a new system with a large measure of isolation from the old is the only strategy that has both an empirical and theoretical basis to succeed. One way to create isolation is to simply isolate a group and let evolution proceed. But again, this can be a lengthy process. A quicker strategy is to create the isolation not geographically but through changing a few so-called master genes or memes that isolate the new species in gene and/or meme fitness space. The need to create a new system rather than changing the old one was recognized by Mahatma Gandhi and Bucky Fuller. Karl Popper criticized a straw man of this approach, that of trying to naively change all the genes or memes of the system, instead of the key, regulatory "master" ones.

What master memes do I think have a chance of success in creating a new system that works better for most people? Here are 3:
Personalism, discussed in the previous entry of this blog:

Greenbeard social technology, which I will discuss next time.

And Ostrom Principles, which I will discuss after that.

I propose to start a research and development institute to research how to implement these memes, and also how they have been implemented in the past.

* Empire with a capital E, is used here to mean the master meme which puts domination and control at the top of a values hierarchy. The Roman empire, the British empire and the American empire are but instantiations of Empire, opposed respectively by Jesus, Gandhi and MLK, who were all Personalists. World domination requires complex burocratic, economic and political systems, with lots of middlemen to collect fees, money and centralized means of production as a tool of control, and draconian governments as a backup. Apologists for Empire say they want to promote peace, trade and the public good. It is not a small elite that has internalized this meme. Everyone participating in the current system has internalized it to various degrees, and the feedbacks for conformity are not just internal, but prevalent in every part of the meme network, including economics, politics, technology, social interaction, architecture, art and academia.


  1. Okay, I really dig your definition of Empire and the article itself.

    Let's still attempt to answer my inquiry about the "failures" of Jesus and Ghandi and MLK, and have you explain to me what makes your approach any different.

    My sense is that Empire(itself a meme?) is a fitness valley for rulers, even when it isn't for the community as a whole. That is to say, it is an evolutionarily stable strategy in maintaining the system against internal positive feedback to change the system. That doesn't mean it does the best job of maintaining the constituent parts, because it will maintain the whole at the expense of nearly any of the parts.

    How can you have an emergent system that identifies and acts as a whole that doesn't subsume the needs and wants of its parts? I think this is a central question of concern, and in our case its answer has to be mapped in the evolution of human behavior or else it will fail to avoid the fitness valley of Empire(m). What are the memes that provide this Janus-like concern for the whole and each individual part? Can they be formed into part of a master meme that can stand up to Might Makes Right(m)? In the most simple form that I can muster, are there memes that don't inevitably lead to Empire(m)?

    1. I am not sure, but it seems like humans are the only animals who have the capaity to be parts of a system they don't resonate with. Ants and bees don't seem to complain about the Empiric nature of their colonies. Also some cultures seem to have not so much dissonance between the needs of the individuals and the needs of the culture. Is this idea that individuals need some artistic freedom, some edifying, creative work, and other needs such as loving, reciprocal relationships just a western idea? Or is this part of human nature?

      There are lots of master memes that don't lead to Empire (such as Love, Mindfulness, Personalism, Trust). The Might Makes Right problem is something different though. That is a problem of whether other meme networks are stable once they come into contact with the Empire meme network (and perhaps it should be defined as a meme network rather than just a master meme that is at the top of the hierarchy). That is the question I had about the Communities of Work, that started with another meme network than Empire, but ultimately succumbed to Empire, it looks like because they did not achieve enough isolation from Empire.

      The problem could be broken down further into achieving initial stability in relative isolation, and then whether this stability can continue once contact with Empire is re-established. I think I have a solution to the first problem, but not the second, yet.

      At this point some anarchists will chime in and say that hierarchy itself leads to Empire, but hierarchy in a meme network is not the same as hierarchy in social roles and decision making. I am not sure, but I think hierarchy in a meme network is important for being able to have both stability and the possibility for quick change. Perhaps this last paragraph was a tangent.

  2. To clarify: my approach is different in two ways. First I propose a large amount of explicit isolation in the initial stages, which can dwindle and become more implicit later, once stability has been achieved. Second I propose constant monitoring and ability to change master memes, in an evolutionary manner.

    Jesus advocated isolation, but the early Christians unfortunately adopted Paul's call for blending with the Roman Empire. Their isolation would have worked because the empire was on the decline part of the universal trajectory. Some monastic orders kept the isolation (it is almost never total) and did much better.

    Gandhi advocated ashrams, but unfortunately after his death the ashrams became dependent on government funding, which was cut at some point and killed the ashrams. Clearly a failure to establish sufficient isolation.

    MLK didn't understand the importance of isolation and his movement suffered as a result.

    The isolation of Tibet worked for a while to create an alternative to Empire, but it may not have been stable enough to resist it when China invaded.