Grand Diversifying Theory

by Ran Prieur

August 21, 2003

Creative Commons License
[Edited December 3, 2012. For a deeper exploration of some of these subjects, I recommend the book The Trickster and The Paranormal by George Hansen.]

In the Tower of Babel myth, humans become too proud and try to build a tower to heaven, and what stops them is they all start speaking different languages. The myth is a few thousand years old, but a few thousand years older still is the actual human behavior of becoming too proud and sticking ourselves into a social structure that seeks to dominate and destroy life on earth and crush autonomy under a rigid central order. As in the myth, we can stop this by diversifying, by breaking down our individual and collective single-mindedness.

Tightly ordered systems come apart in at least two ways, which are not just different but opposite. One way is that we all start fighting each other. This is both unpleasant and unsustainable, because the fight must have a winner, and then we're all standardized and controlled again under that winner. The other way is that we learn to love diversity, and the more we can love the more we can have.

This is not about "religion vs. science," because we are all religious and we are all scientific. That is, we all make fundamental assumptions that are not subject to proof or disproof, and we have all chosen specific ways of turning experience into mental models. That is my intentionally broad definition of a science: a style of filtering and arranging experience into mental models.

Any choice of such a style is loaded with values and motives. It's a dirty choice that must be made. I'm not suggesting that we avoid it, but that we notice it. I don't want us to destroy our religions and sciences, but to destroy their boundaries and learn to step outside them, to practice awareness of our assumptions and styles, so that we can become meta-religious, and multi-scientific.

Suppose I say that there are reports of living creatures found encased in rocks split open by miners. One was a toad that survived; another was a small pterodactyl-like creature that gasped a few breaths and died. Suppose I say that there are many reports, unknown to each other, of cities seen in the clouds, strange and fully detailed, or that there are tens of thousands of reports of strange lights in the sky.

I present no argument for the validity of these reports. My point is, when you read about them, what is your habitual reaction? Probably it's to think of explanations that protect your existing mental models: The toad was behind the rock, not inside it. The cloud cities are reflections from atmospheric temperature inversions. UFO's are the star Sirius, which twinkles in different colors when it's low in the sky. Rains of fishes were sucked up by a tornado over water, monster sightings are hallucinations, and so on. But we don't have to think this way.

When I read these reports, my reaction is "Cool! Where can I read more? How can I use this stuff to break out of my present reality and into new ones?" Imagine you're in a stone-walled structure and you hear a report of a crack in the wall. What do you do? If you feel you're besieged in a fortress, you will go try to seal it up. If you feel you're locked in a prison, you will go try to open it wider. If you feel you're a keeper of slaves, you'll go try to seal it up. These are emotional decisions, or political decisions.

What we call "science," I call one kind of science, one grounded in the emotion of fear, and the political need to maintain stability. To be fair, so was the science it replaced, medieval Christian theology. And that science was worse in that it was more resistant to direct sense experience overturning established mental models.

But in other ways, medieval Christian theology was not as bad. I call our present science Cartesian science, after one of its founders, Rene Descartes, who got the idea from a non-ordinary experience in which an "angel" told him that the way to conquer nature is through number and measure. This is no different from JHVH telling Moses that the way to conquer other religions is by prohibiting graven images: It's a suggestion, of esoteric origin, to arrange experience in a specific way to cause a specific deep change in human mental models and human behavior.

Our descendants will marvel, not that Descartes saw an angel, but that he was so twisted that he consciously wanted to conquer nature. And his idea worked: Cartesian science, by focusing strictly on the measurable and quantifiable, calls forth the enormous power of machines, while excluding emotions and values -- except the emotion of taking pleasure in turning things into numbers, and the value of wanting numbers to be better.

So if you "love" the forest, that's worth nothing compared to even one of the millions of board feet of lumber we can produce by cutting down that forest. And if I prefer a hand-driven tool to a motorized tool that applies 20 times as many angular foot-pounds per second, but I have trouble putting my preference into words, let alone into numbers, my sentiments are dismissed. And if you'd rather live in a world where people make things at home, by hand, at their own pace, than a world where factories full of numb micromanaged laborers crank out 100 times as many things, all identical and built to commanded written specifications, then you are romanticizing an impossible and inferior past -- if possibility and quality are defined in exclusively Cartesian terms. And if, after a few years of this, some people feel that the whole world is somehow terribly wrong, then they're being ungrateful and irrational, because the numbers just keep getting better.

The word "rational" is confusing. Sometimes it means careful precise thinking, and sometimes it means exclusively Cartesian thinking. The hidden message is that these two things are positively related, and they can be, but they don't have to be, and sometimes they are negatively related, as I'm showing here by using precise thinking to break down the Cartesian world view.

Fixation on number and measure is only the beginning. Cartesian science includes only experience that stays the same across place, time, culture, and perspective: If an experiment comes out differently in different places and times, or for different people, it is excluded; if an experience cannot be made uniform among observers, it is excluded. Cartesian science demands that experience be controllable and predictable, and that we, the experiencing perspectives, be perfectly interchangeable. So it focuses our attention in to the small part of our world where experience is controllable and predictable and uniform, and it builds technologies that create more such worlds, like a TV show that ten million people see all the same, instead of seeing their ten million varied lives.

Cartesian science is totalitarian: It commands that there be only one mental model, which all people must hold in their heads. It permits competing theories, but they are in a death match. They may not make peace and go on perpetually using different models. Sooner or later they must fight it out until there is only one theory, which everyone will then hold identically.

Cartesian science favors matter over mind. We're all so deep in this one that few of us have thought to question it. Even UFO enthusiasts, who like to think they're on the fringe, are always looking for "physical proof," because they take for granted the Cartesian doctrine that the material is worth more than the mental. This is related to the totalitarianism and uniformity: Mental experience, especially of something like the UFO phenomenon, varies widely, and cannot be produced at will in the laboratory or even in the field. But a physical artifact will stay the same through place, time, and culture. Every human being who looks at it and touches it will see and feel the same thing. So it is literally a blunt object to force everyone in the world to see it your way, to make your mental model the god-emperor.

Finally, Cartesian science is conservative, although, to its credit, it is less conservative than the sciences that came before it, just as it is more conservative than the sciences that might follow it. Conservative scientists feel disturbed by anomalies and fringe theories, because they have an emotional aversion to leaving multiple paths open, and a stark horror of permitting a non-dominant path to proceed and diverge. They love the feeling of closure, of a sealed-off world where everything is perfectly understood. The arch-exclusionist Carl Sagan expressed this attitude with the dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," a deceptive phrase because it slips between two meanings of "extraordinary": What he is saying is that claims that are not politically established require a greater quantity of evidence. It's like having an election where every vote for the incumbent counts twice.

All these customs are arbitrary, but not accidental. That is, they could all easily go other ways, but they go the way they do because of effects on human society that serve some deeper motivation. And the most obvious effect has been to turn us into a bunch of machine-like servants of an earth-paving beast.

But it's not over yet, and as they say, never show a fool a thing half-finished. Maybe we needed Cartesian science to break us out of sky father worship, and maybe we will continue to need it for that purpose in the more backward parts of civilization. And in the places where it has been most dominant, the desire to move beyond it has been strongest, so maybe it's not a trap but a painful step in the human journey. Even when we transcend it, I don't want to eliminate it. It's given us some wonderful things, like computer games and fuzz guitar and glow-in-the-dark stuff. And it's only beginning to play with creating new animals, and taking us to new states of consciousness. Maybe in the future it will drive an underground subculture of dangerous machines. We need a bit of the dark side. Let's keep it around.

But beside it, and beyond it, we can make a thousand other paths. So one feature of Cartesian science, its totalitarianism, I utterly reject. In our new meta-science, the first custom will be: multiple contradictory sciences all going at once, all at least tolerating each other and if possible collaborating. I'll get to the second custom at the end.

So if we have sciences that focus on the quantifiable, we can have others that exclude the quantifiable. We can have one that explores the subtlety of emotion the way physicists now explore the atom, so in addition to naming invisible particles, we will have many words for different kinds of wistfulness, or happiness, or consciousness.

If we have conservative sciences, we can have many more that are thirsting for newness, so that an established theory requires more evidence and a strange new theory requires less. And where we now feel the need for only one theory, we will feel the need for many. So in cosmology we can have not only the big bang theory and a few dynamic steady state theories, but the theory that stars are projections on a big shell, and the theory that the earth is flat and when you seem to circumnavigate it you are traveling on an infinite tiled surface of slightly different alternate earths, and the theory that what we see through telescopes is mostly determined by our beliefs. And all these theories will mingle happily, even within the same person, with no thought that they should "resolve" their differences any more than we now think the whole world should watch only one TV show.

We can have sciences that focus on the rarest and most variable mental experience, and reject physical "evidence" because of its homogenizing effect. If bigfoot hunters bring back a dead creature, we lose interest -- it's just another vulgar matter-animal. But as long as the phenomenon leaves only sightings and ambiguous footprints, it's fascinating! Where does this experience come from? Where does it lead? We don't lose interest but gain interest when we find out that lake creatures just like the Loch Ness monster have been sighted in bodies of water only a few feet deep: This is not just a surviving plesiosaur -- this is something good.

Telepathy, precognition, psychedelic trips, abduction experiences, astral projection, fairies -- bring them on! And if they can ever be controlled in the laboratory, or completely explained, we'll throw them in the dustbin to be scavenged by the matterheads. We will no longer seek to know our world like we know a fact, but to know it like we know a person, not to explain phenomena but to have relationships with them.

But if we have all these different visions, won't all but one of them be wrong, because there is only one true world, independent of our awareness, which our models seek to match ever more closely? That assumption is allied to totalitarian metaphysics, and I reject it. And secretly, so do the metaphysical totalitarians -- the self-declared "skeptics" who apply their skepticism only to non-dominant theories. If they really believed their models were being drawn by an unalterable end point, they would be confident that the false theories would come to nothing, and ignore them. Their powerful desire to attack competing belief systems proves their secret fear that beliefs create reality.

Now it starts to get tricky. What is this reality and how can beliefs create it? To go any further, I think we need to drop our concepts of "real" and "delusion" and "objective" and "subjective," to cast off that whole style of thinking and try putting everything in terms of experience and mental models. So if you see purple and I see blue, we no longer worry about what color it "is." You see purple and I see blue, and there you have it! You see the little gray gnomes and I don't. What a wonderful world!

When we talk about "real" we are confusing several different things. One of them, the will to feel the comfort of absolute, universal, closed mental models, is a mistake. But other meanings of "real" still need to be talked about, only more precisely.

One of them is potential experience, like what we will find inside the box if we open it, or especially what we will find outside the box. If I say that this world is an illusion, and in the real world we're in vats with computer cables feeding this vision to our brains, what I mean is that we have the potential experience of shifting our perspectives to a world that contains and fully explains this one.

Overlapping this is the idea of an experiential dead end. If I go see The Matrix, and I say it's a movie and not real, I mean that it is contained and fully explained by this world, but I also mean that I can come out of it only by the way I went in. I can't go see The Matrix in 2003 and come out of a different screening on Mars in 2035. Or if I'm playing a computer game, I can't break away permanently into a physical universe just like that game. The only experience available to me is what's programmed into the game, and to come to my senses sitting in a chair staring at a monitor.

So a stronger meaning of "real" is necessary experience: If we say this world is illusion and another world is real, we could mean that we have to pass through that world to get anywhere, that everything else is a dead end. (Not that dead ends are wrong. They can be fun and even valuable, like going into a cave to bring back a treasure, or like a book that leads you to transform or transcend the world that contains it.)

But why is certain experience necessary? Who decides? This leads to a more profound and difficult meaning of "real": shared. The subject of other beings and other perspectives is too deep for this essay, but it's right in my path, so I'm going to go down into it a little ways and try to pick my way across it.

You could believe that you alone are aware, and imagining the entire universe. But instead you choose to believe that others are aware in the same way you are, and are sharing roughly the same experience. We all need to share our experience with others. We can each have a good time veering off alone into our personal dream worlds, but sooner or later we must rejoin others, and we often choose a terrible shared world over a pleasant world that we experience alone.

But who are these "others"? They are not just other humans beside us. They are also inside us and around us. Your awareness of reading this essay is only a small part of your wider awareness of yourself as a human, with your name, living your life. Move your attention to your body... and now to your financial balance... and now back to intellectual awareness of these ideas: You have moved between different beings, or different aspects of a larger being. You're acknowledging this multiple self when you talk about what "a part of me wants" or "being nice to myself." And if you can forget a broader self in a narrower self, it's a good bet that the larger "you" is itself a small part of a still larger being of which "you" are scarcely aware.

This is important because of my core assumption that awareness is fundamental, that matter and space and time are epiphenomena of mind. It follows that mind can do anything it wants. The way I see it, which is hinted at by advanced physics, transcendent experience, and persistent investigation of the unexplained, is that a practically infinite variety of experience and modes of awareness are already there, always available; and our brains, our languages, our sciences, are merely filters, "creating" one reality by excluding all others.

But why create reality at all? If exclusiveness is bad, then let's take the filters off and merge with the infinite everything -- beyond identity, beyond perspective, beyond time!

I respect this position, but mine is more conservative. I'm looking for a mode of being much more rigid and narrow than dissolving in the universal, but much more slippery and trippy than just being more open-minded humans, and I think we can do it. I think we're already on our way. The New Age people are on the right track with their saying "You create your own reality," but they're using three confusing words: you, your, and own. Because "you" are merged with countless other you's, we have to agree on our reality, to the extent that we want to stay together.

This is why so many varieties of experience seem to actively, intelligently evade proof, because we are intelligent and only some of us have agreed to enter the worlds of these experiences. And an early step toward deeper diversity is to respectfully permit others to experience realities that you choose not to experience. You don't say their worlds are not real, and they don't try to force you to see what they see. Alternate-world peace!

But if we want to stay together, wouldn't this diversification of reality break us apart? Not necessarily. As I said at the beginning, there are at least two ways to diversify, or to reconcile our needs for complexity and change with our need to share experience; and they both begin with diverging paths of reality-filtering.

In one way, the person serves the path, and we each focus in to one view, and share experience only with others who see it exactly the same way. Factions of believers forget their wider selves, and see the survival and dominance of their one model as the meaning of life. Then all the models fight it out and destroy or consume each other until there is only one. Then this one will be broken by the need for complexity and change, and if it's broken in the same way, the awful cycle repeats.

In the other way, the many paths serve the person. So that's the second custom of our new meta-science: We each become a broader consciousness that can balance many models, or pass in and out of many worlds previously seen as absolute. As they say, if a fish described its environment, the last thing it would say would be water; but we can be like a water creature who becomes aware of water and not-water, and learns to move in land and air. Or we can be like an obsessed game-player who suddenly remembers the world outside the game, or like a prisoner in a one-windowed cell who breaks out into a mansion with many windows, or like someone in a dark room with a radio, who thought one station was the whole universe, but now learns to twist the dial.