The Conferring of a Degree at the University of Leiden about 1650, Hendrick van der Burch, c. 1650 – c. 1660. Courtesy, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
By John B. Cobb, Jr.
We live in what some people would call a connected age, and yet it stems from a worldview of radically disconnected individuals. We probably think of ourselves as highly informed, and yet our culture is almost certainly uniquely un-intellectual and even anti-intellectual. We believe ourselves to be cutting-edge, and yet we organize our lives on the basis of outdated ideas formulated four hundred years ago.
In response, Pando questions fundamental assumptions of culture, proposes alternatives, and does what it can to foster intellectual life. We want to overcome the fragmentation that is the hallmark of our age and foster a more relational way of understanding the world and living within it. But why are big ideas, and the intellectual life that surrounds them, so important? Why not simply be “practical?”
The problem of siloization and NGOs
Suppose someone named James is devoting himself to saving coral reefs in the South Pacific, another person named John is seeking to help homeless people in St. Louis, and, say, Martha is working on developing a community bank in Atlanta. If, by an unlikely chance, they hear about one another, they may feel positive about what the others are doing. But they are not likely to pay serious attention to the others’ work or give it political or financial support. Many good things can happen, but each tends to have a different constituency. Few of these constituencies have much political clout; so most of them find that the situation they are addressing is worsening.
Imagine an alternative. Imagine that Pope Francis’ call for an integral ecology were fully fleshed out and that James and John and Martha all saw themselves as contributing to the realization of what Francis envisions. Let us suppose that each also recognizes the others as co-workers for a common cause. Then, movements to save the coral reef, to house the homeless, and to develop the financial wherewithal to act for the good of communities independently of Wall Street would all be seen as part of a fabric needing support, because none could be divided from the whole. Each cause would succeed only as other changes in society also occur. James, John, and Martha would understand their varied but crucial tasks as directed toward a common end.
Sadly, this vaguely recognized reality of the interconnectedness of things is blocked from being effectively seen and acted on by deep-seated social structures. To whatever extent anything relevant to any one of our NGO participants is taught in the modern university, in the name of disciplinary rigor it is sharply separated from teaching that’s relevant to the others.
Government bureaucracies also segregate these topics. Very rarely does the discussion of any one of them say anything about the others. The goals of each are described in equally segmented and segregated ways. We are encouraged to focus on one fragment or another.
In our society, this fragmentation is thought to be a practical necessity. Even those who oppose it because of the practical problems it creates think of solutions in practical terms. Universities occasionally have interdisciplinary courses, and bureaucracies sometimes have committees made up of members of different departments. These are worthy efforts, but the results are mostly disappointing. Putting several fragments together typically leads to little more than a collection of fragments.
But is anything else possible? Unless we change assumptions, I doubt it. The assumptions I refer to are the really big ideas of our culture that are rarely recognized. Changing them is not a simple matter, but it must be done.
Challenge assumptions on behalf of the whole
The most important assumptions that underlie our contemporary practices have been in place since the seventeenth century. These ideas have generated, among other things, a prejudice against asking questions about assumptions. The modern university does not encourage discussion of assumptions, or even the consideration that there are assumptions that might be considered. What it actually teaches is that one should select a topic of research that is formulated on the basis of these unexamined assumptions and learn more about that specific topic without attending to its wider context. Even teachers of philosophy, what once constituted the study of the biggest of big ideas, rarely interest themselves in basic assumptions any more. In this, the university can be considered as anti-intellectual.
Many people in and outside the university suppose that digging deeper would lead to extremely obscure and difficult questions with no possibility of arriving at a usable consensus. In fact, however, it is quite possible, even easy, to identify and question the assumptions that are built into our culture. And given that the culture shaped by present assumptions is globally suicidal, there are urgent reasons for identifying the ones that have led to this result. We can then criticize and attempt to replace them.
Assumptions about the fundamental units of reality
Let me explain more of what I mean by questioning commonplace assumptions. Because they are assumptions, most people, including scholars, do not think about them or even acknowledge that they exist.
The current assumptions of modern culture take, as the most real entities, tiny bits of matter. We used to think that these fundamental things were atoms, that is, entities that cannot be divided; but then it turned out that what we had called “atoms” broke up into sub-atomic particles. In any case, we moderns assume that the bits of matter that the world is thought to be composed of are self-contained entities, being what they are in and of themselves. That is, modern people tend to think that the relationships these entities have with other bits of matter are secondary and do not affect the nature of the bits themselves. An atom is an atom is an atom, regardless of its environment.
This view logically leads to thinking of a world composed of individual things that can and should be studied apart from their relations with one another. This is, of course, a picture of a material world that operates in deterministic and mechanistic ways. It’s the world as a machine, operating as clockwork.
Actually, many people do not accept these assumptions when they consciously reflect about them and their implications. It is self-evident that our experience at any moment is the most basic unit of reality we can know, and that any moment of experience is radically interconnected with everything else that is, including the past; it is impossible to think of a moment of one’s experience apart from its relation to its past.
Many, however, may not appreciate the extent to which their habits of mind are shaped by assumptions that they would reject if they thought about them. Since few are willing to articulate their assumptions and study how a culture’s big ideas lead to beliefs and actions, it’s easy not to be aware of the inconsistencies in one’s thought. Often we do not recognize the implicit siloization that artificially separates our thinking in one field from our thinking in another.
We are more likely to recognize the importance of challenging the assumptions that we as a culture have held for the past four hundred years when we consider the problems these assumptions have caused. It is not surprising, for instance, that we treat the Earth as a collection of machine parts if we think that mechanics is all that lies at the heart of reality. But this leads us regard all values, such as truth, goodness, and beauty as simply a matter of taste and to be cynical about even the value of human life. We can also notice that, although the assumptions we educate ourselves into and live by arose in the study of nature, they are now incompatible with what we have now learned in the scientific study of nature. The incoherence of contemporary thought is becoming so glaring, that the chance to overturn it is growing.
But what is the alternative to an individualistic and mechanistic way of understanding the world? How is it possible to think about reality as being anything other than just a collection of bits of “matter?” Can we think of meaning and value and purpose as being “really real” in the nature of things without going back to pre-modern ideas and abandoning valuable insights of science?
The approach I advocate is to challenge assumptions that go all the way back—even to the very idea that particles are the most fundamental units of reality. I think “events” are more fundamental than “things.” The event of me typing any of the characters in this sentence now is more fundamental a fact than one of the letters in the sentence. It is the event that is the unit of reality that is irreducible.
Of course, anything can be abstracted in isolation from everything else, and thought about separately: a chair, for instance, can be thought about and analyzed as a thing on its own. We can also think about its arms, legs, and seat separately if we want. We can even go further and think about pegs and screws, molecules and atoms. But at the end of the day the only things we ever really can say we know are events and experiences, not any of these isolated things. A chair has never, by anyone at any time, been experienced on its own as separate from everything else; neither has any of its isolated parts. Thinking of isolated things is an abstract exercise—useful at times, distorting at others, but things themselves as abstracted from everything else are not found in reality.
To make it personal, reflect for a moment about your own conscious experience. No one really doubts the occurrence of such events. But this kind of event cannot be imagined apart from the relationship to the world of which it is aware. The event is relational through and through. A conscious experience apart from relationships is nothing at all.
So I start with events as being the most basic unit for telling me about the way reality is. When I think about simple events, I realize they are momentary expressions of energy. In physics, we know that energy is more fundamental than matter (all forms of matter can be converted into energy, but not all forms of energy can be converted into matter). When we think of the quanta of which the world is composed, they are better understood as “quantum events” than as bits of matter.
Why do really big ideas matter?
What I am writing may seem very remote and abstract. However, it has one implication that can be sensed right away. If we talk about energy as being the most fundamental thing there is, and events as being the only units of reality we ultimately can know, we are immediately describing a world in which everything is related—even, we can say, a world which consists of relationships.
Energy is measured by the effect of one event on other events. Energy cannot exist apart from its relations with other energy events. In fact physics does not deal much, any more, with tiny bits of matter that are unaffected by their environments, as it once did. Physics largely focuses on energy events and fields of activity, with relativity (which is radical relationality), and with quantum events—none of which fit the models arising from the individualistic and materialistic assumptions of the past four hundred years. To understand that we live in a world in which relationships are more fundamental than tiny, individual bits of matter is revolutionary in its implications.
On a personal level, it means that I as an individual don’t enter into relationships; I am constituted by my relations. On a social and political level, it means that all the parts of a society participate in constituting all the other parts. For our understanding of the Earth, it means that “ecology” doesn’t exist in abstraction from human history or civilization. What happens at any moment in time is part of an interconnected fabric of existence—ecological and civilizational. There is no unit of reality that can be pulled out and isolated. As James and John and Martha, above, know, their NGO work is set in the context of a larger whole.
The time has come to recognize that we need intellectual models that ultimately connect everything in order to have a more adequate understanding of any bit of the world and how to work within it. The fact that a hyper-individualistic and mechanistic way of understanding reality has helped lead to catastrophic consequences makes the task urgent.
This thinking requires the recasting of the physical sciences, but in fact physics is already ahead of most other fields, as older models have broken down. Economists, unfortunately, lag behind the physical scientists and still build on the notion of isolated individuals (homo economicus) as the fundamental economic drivers in society as opposed to focusing on the relationships among economic actors and of all of them to the larger society and the natural world. Education and religion must be rethought, too. In fact, everything must be rethought in relational terms. As our colleague, John Bielenberg, puts it, this sort of radical rethinking means nothing less than “thinking wrong” when the “right” assumptions inherited from the seventeenth century have proven so disastrous.
The task is enormous. But rethinking their roots is something that cultures have done for millennia—it’s just difficult to be aware of this happening when change occurs over great periods of time. Our culture is particularly disadvantaged (and probably uniquely so historically) by being so condescending toward the intellectual life. But when roots are reconsidered and changes are made, the humanities (including the values that are foundational to them) can recover their distinctive contribution without losing contact with the sciences.
Further, the structure of the university itself will change as assumptions of culture shift. The current assumption is that the only task of the university is to do narrowly focused research on topics assigned by those who pay for them. If the university were reoriented to broad intellectual life and aimed to prepare individuals to live well in an increasingly difficult context, the results would be quite different.
Also, if the university were to place its vast resources in scholarship and mental capacity in the service of a needy world, we would have a different relationship to the problems we face—and discover different solutions. But this cannot be done with the current organization of the university into value-free academic disciplines. Once we replace the idea of the world as being made up of self-contained and ultimately valueless individual entities with the understanding of a world of radically interconnected events, we can prepare new generations to think in integrated ways about the most urgent questions faced by humanity.
Fortunately, there is already much that many are doing. Organizations that work for better things in society and in the natural world, for example, are changing along these very lines. They know the importance of relations and of overcoming fragmentation and siloization. This gives them a wisdom that “experts” lack. They can trust their knowledge and move forward. They can then support one another in a shared venture of realizing the integral ecology that Pope Francis talks about. Many times, they will have to do without much help from universities and bureaucracies, given their focus on fragmented thought, but we can hope that eventually they will come around.
For our very survival, we need to overcome the silence about the four hundred year-old ideas whose effects we’re unwittingly living out. We must challenge the assumptions that lie behind our individualized and mechanized culture. We must increase our intellectual efforts to move beyond it.
Ideas matter. The basic assumptions on which a society establishes itself make all the difference. The intellectual life, in all its diversity, is truly important. Given that humans are now able to affect the Earth to such an enormous extent, the ideas that humans hold are critical.
John B. Cobb, Jr. is chair of Pando Populus and Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.