[ISF] The Jewel and the Lotus

The following post is from the Institute for Social Futurism (ISF). Although its concerns are essentially philosophical, they inform many practical realities for organisations in our network over the coming year and beyond.

If you’re looking for a quick punchline, this is perhaps not the article for you, but you could try skipping to section 1: The Jewel and the Lotus.

0. The Desert of the Real

Over the last few years, we have been developing a network of organisations which share a positive attitude toward technological change while being mindful of the serious challenges the world faces today. The idea is for that network to develop connections with like-minded others who wish to usher in a new paradigm for our society, based on a combination of science, technology, positive values and principles. During that time there has been a natural process of weaving together the ideas and views of many people, and that process has been driving the emergence of a worldview which we call Social Futurism.

Aside from the usual logistical issues of a growing movement, I have become aware of a strong need to reach beyond the complicated tangle of inspirations and concerns which have brought us together, and clearly articulate a single core idea underlying this nascent movement. To momentarily put aside our many assumptions and preconceptions, and examine the deepest ideological nexus which ties them all together. Having done that, we will be able to move forward sure in the knowledge that we are all working toward a common goal, no matter any differences in our philosophies, affiliations, or methods. In short, I have recently felt the need to cast a radically skeptical eye over everything we collectively believe and are committed to, throwing out all unnecessary assumptions in the hope of discerning a single common axiom. It seems to me that any such axiom must be extremely simple and incisive, akin to Descartes‘ “Cogito Ergo Sum“.

The key to this inquiry is to put aside every claim or belief which may not be true, or which can in any conceivable way be countered or argued against. We are of course very much in support of science and greatly value its utility, but no scientific fact can ever be our central axiom, as scientific facts must by definition be potentially disprovable by new evidence. Our common focus must be more akin to a steadfast attitude or conviction than a mere observation that could change at any time. Chinese and Indian philosophy traditionally saw the observed world as composed of myriad relative “facts”, apparent phenomena and distinctions which could change just as easily as a viewer’s perspective, and such schools of thought (particularly Taoism and Buddhism) consistently warned against identifying too closely with ephemera. The traditional Eastern view is that all identification with any apparent fact (perspective, observation, expectation, philosophy or ideal) would cast a “shadow” consisting of everything contrary to that position. Like Descartes, initiates of these religions were urged to let go of every conviction that could be doubted (both the Buddhists’ and Descartes’ conclusion was that everything could be doubted except the existence of Mind), and simply live in the world as they found it. We could learn a lot from the minimalism of this stance, encouraging activists to use the myriad facts of science and the world as necessary, but to embrace a common identity rooted only in a single, fundamental, undeniable axiom. That kind of strong shared identity would enable us to rest assured that we are all “on the same team”, no matter what disagreements we may have over any details, which would be a thing of great practical and strategic value to the movement as a whole.

A recent Western echo of these ancient Eastern ideas is particularly relevant to techno-social concerns in the early 21st Century, and to the future of our movement. In 1999, The Matrix presented such philosophical concerns about the nature of reality, along with issues involving technology and social control, in a very popular action-adventure entertainment format. The movie drew not only upon traditional Eastern thought, but among a great many other things the writings of French Postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard said that we are surrounded by simulacra or simulations which no longer refer to any underlying reality, such as news stories which reflect consumer demand and media manipulation rather than any deep truth. He further claimed that in this ultra-mediated environment, actual reality (i.e. unmediated, unmanipulated things-as-they-actually-are) is now extremely hard to find. We see things almost entirely through the lens of culture and technology, now. This notion of reality as an increasingly hidden, deserted place was summed up in Baudrillard’s phrase “the desert of the real”. The idea that we live in some kind of mediated bubble of false reality while an authentic reality exists “outside” is the central theme of Gnosticism, found today in the work of people such as Science Fiction writer Philip K Dick (both Gnosticism and Dick’s ideas were also prominent in The Matrix).

At this point you may well be asking what all these wild and wonderful ideas have to do with advancing technology, social progress, or indeed the real world. It all boils down to the intrinsic nature of the Transhumanist urge; to go beyond all that we have known in order to become more than human. To transcend the traditional limitations of the human condition. It is no accident that Transhumanists are regularly accused of being “neo-Gnostics”, because the idea of extending human life and health beyond current limitations is indeed reminiscent of the ancient heresy, albeit expressed in a very new way. This is a touchy issue, as Transhumanists are generally at pains to distinguish their technological hopes from ancient religious dreams, despite their clear common origin in simple human yearnings for a greater or happier existence. We should note that it is not as simple a matter as some people calling Transhumanists ‘Gnostics’ and Transhumanists themselves uniformly rejecting the idea. Not only are many Transhumanists open to spirituality of various types, even including nuanced (usually secular) interpretations of Gnosticism, but the “accusers” are often sympathetic to both (neo-)Gnosticism and Transhumanism (and therefore presumably trying to draw attention to what they see as a good thing). Perhaps the best example of this is Erik Davis, in his 1998 book “TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information” (to show the close interrelatedness of all these ideas, we may note that Davis is a scholar professionally interested in the works of Philip K Dick).

The thing that Transhumanists, Gnostics, and the heroes of The Matrix have in common is a pointed and total disrespect for the limitations of a world which pretends to be the whole of reality, but which is in fact only a subset of all that is truly possible. In other words, we Transhumanists are inherently driven to reject any convention or ideology that tells us to be content within our limits, to know our place. Instead, we seek to venture beyond those limits into the “desert of the real”, and in doing so take responsibility for directing our own evolution. I must stress that this need not imply a hedonistic, individualistic flight from communitarian responsibilities, when the very act of transcending limits makes it possible for others to follow our example; and for the whole of society to thus evolve and progress beyond its former limits.

In short, we feel that we could be more, that we could help others in the process, and that no-one has the right to impose their arbitrary limitations upon us. We would explore beyond the safe havens of the world as we know it, and out into the desert of the real… into the darkness of possibilities. This rejection of the world’s distinctions and limitations is the one and only thing that can unite our diverse movement. That movement already includes many people who do not consider themselves to be Transhumanists, and that will only become more true over time, but the common impulse that unites us is clear: To sweep away the old world that stands between us and a much better future. A person might oppose this impulse for whatever reason, but they cannot argue it to be false in any way. It simply is.

1. The Jewel and the Lotus

We have discerned the idea that lies at the heart of our movement’s many manifestations (i.e. not just Transhumanism and other forms of Futurism but all truly modern and progressive activism, and any number of related philosophies, arts, and sciences): That our salvation lies beyond the limits of the world as we currently understand it… and that by transforming ourselves we can transcend those limits. In short, that we can and should remake the world and our place within it. Paradoxically, this idea is truly ancient, and yet its combination with technology makes a powerful new revolution in human affairs possible.

At this point, we should take a moment to note a parallel between the advice offered for individual living by religions such as Taoism and Buddhism on the one hand, and the necessary way forward for any modern activist movement on the other. Followers of the ancient Eastern ways are encouraged to live in the present moment, rather than dwelling unduly on the past or future. This reduces identification with transient things, and thus reduces the suffering caused by regret over the past or anxiety over the future. Interestingly, any truly revolutionary movement would do well to heed the same advice, since the act of relinquishing the past and future (i.e. memories and expectations) is tantamount to rejecting limitation by those things. In other words, to focus on the present and to reject all unnecessary limitations are two sides of the same coin.

Having identified this central idea, our next question is of course how to simplify and condense its expression, to maintain its clarity for ourselves and communicate it easily to others. Traditionally this is the realm of symbols, or simple signs that stand for (and easily summon) complex sets of ideas. In keeping with the ancient Eastern philosophies mentioned earlier, I have settled upon two key symbols with a somewhat oriental flavour: The Jewel and the Lotus. In this section I will explain these two symbols, and their potential value.

It is common to depict an incisive axiom as a blade or sword, as in the cases of Occam’s Razor or Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot (indeed the very word “incisive” implies both clear, rational analysis and the act of cutting). In ancient Indian writings there is mention of a sword known as the Jewel of the Desert, and that strikes me as a particularly apt name for an axiom which refers to the Desert of the Real. This “Jewel” is our central idea – an article of faith which unites our emerging movement – and it can be expressed as follows:

Act Now and Be Free

(Nunc Agere et Liberi)

The only reality is action in the moment, and the bonds of the unreal demand to be cut. In other words, the individual and any movement for positive change must always focus on what they can be or do now, and all apparent limitations conjured by tradition, convention, history, hope or expectation with no solid basis in the reality of the present must be cast aside without hesitation. If an obstacle can be overcome, it should be. If a limitation can be transcended, then transcend it. This is a point of view which should come naturally to Transhumanists, Gnostics, all opponents of arbitrary and unwanted limitation, and all those who would sweep away the old to make way for a better future. It is often said that you can best know a thing by looking at what it opposes, and in this case we are utterly opposed to entrenched limitations which only exist out of a sense of history, social convention, or “natural order” rather than having something clearly positive to contribute to the future of humanity. We must tear down all such false limitations in our bid to remake civilization.

Beyond this central philosophical matter, as mentioned earlier I have become acutely aware of logistical issues that naturally arise with the growth of any movement. I won’t go into the details of these issues, except to say that they boil down to a question of resources: How to get the resources we need, and how to use the ones we have well. Perhaps the most pressing resource issue has been the question of time and communications. A lot of people have something to say or ask, but we simply cannot respond to every such contact in a centralised way. Instead, the network must scale up in such a way that local groups can handle initial contact in most cases, and important messages can be passed through the network as appropriate, meaning that no single part of the network is overloaded with messages from everybody. In order to make my own part of the network more manageable and to set an example, I will be restricting my personal engagement to the activity in eight official channels. I can no longer guarantee any response to any communication outside those channels, which are outlined briefly below.

If every part of the network were to operate in a similar manner, maintaining a small number of recognised and well-maintained collaboration/communication channels, then the result would be something like a mosaic of decentralised activity, a fractal heterarchy or holarchy. A symbol for the network (and any given node within it) which I find to be appropriate and appealing is the lotus flower. The lotus is essentially a memorable image which represents a centre connecting multiple channels or aspects. The lotus is also a symbol common to the various Eastern philosophies mentioned earlier, although a rose would be the equally appropriate counterpart traditional in the West.

Others are free to organise themselves as they see fit, of course, but the specific eight channels which I will personally be focussed upon, going forward, are as listed below. In each case I will only be working with a relatively small core team, rather than attempting to manage all functions of these wider organisations directly. Such functions represent my “close neighbours” within the network, that I collaborate with but am not directly responsible for. If we all operate in this way – with clear cooperative links but limited personal workloads – then we will be maximally effective as a network.

I am currently in the process of reorganising the core teams and preferred communications channels for these groups, and will link to further information and full contact details for all eight channels from here on Friday January 22nd, 2016. In the meantime you can still contact these groups as before.

This post has covered a number of complex and subtle ideas with an unfortunate but necessary brevity, where any of these could be the departure point for long conversations in and of themselves. My objective will have been met, however, if you remember the symbols of the Jewel and the Lotus. That the Jewel of the Desert is simply a determination to stand squarely in the reality of the moment and cut through the proliferation of illusions, distractions, and false limitations which we are constantly told to embrace and respect (or at least take seriously). And that the Lotus is merely a reminder that while remaining focussed and effective, you always have the option of being connected with others in a movement toward something greater.


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