Participatory Ontological Emergence: Questioning Some Foundational Assumptions of our Current Reality
It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious. – Alfred North Whitehead
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that asks the question “What is Reality?” This is a profound question, perhaps the most profound you can ask. The question, “What is Real?” is also deep, but even this question assumes that we already know what reality itself is and already have the ability to recognize it when we see it. The question, what is reality, is awkward even to ask because even to ask it appears to undercut the existence of existence.
We live inside a definition of reality. We hold a set of assumed parameters about a category we label ‘the real’ and everything that comfortably fits in this box we place inside it. What makes this most interesting is that the activity of determining what goes in the box and what does not is unconsciousness. We are only consciously aware of things once they end up in the box, so we assume that what is in the box is all there is. Seldom do we question the box itself partly because we are generally unaware of it, and if we do become aware of it we avoid exploring too deeply into it because that of inquiry is so disruptive to… well, reality.
The paradigm that we in the Western world live inside of today was established during the age of Enlightenment and it rests on two fundamental pillars of assumption.
We will start by exploring the first assumption of the current paradigm. There is only one reality. If two scientists come up with different results to the same experiment, or if two people believe different things that oppose one another, then one of them, or both of them must be wrong. The relativistic version of this worldview would say that both are holding relative truths, but this is just a more polite way of saying that neither is completely correct, which is a variation on both are wrong.
In our current paradigm there is no robust way to imagine that both people could be actually and absolutely seeing reality accurately – not just accurately for them, but accurately to how it is. There is no way in our culture to take a vigorous stand for two opposing truths at once where neither is diminished. Those of us who feel compelled to play a part in seeding the emergence of a new paradigm must find an authentic way to embrace paradox. We must be able to hold and live in a reality that is multiple, where ‘what is real’ changes from instant to instant and place to place ‘.
Reality is not steady and unchanging, it is in constant flux, shifting and morphing right under our feet. The reality of this moment is not the reality of the moment before. The reality of the coffee shop that I am writing in is not the same as the reality in the home or apartment where you currently sit not knowing yet that this essay will arrive in your inbox.
Every word I type, every fleeting mental and emotional impulse that inspires every next sentence changes reality here and now, but also there and then. You have probably heard about the Butterfly Effect, usually illustrated by a story of a butterfly’s flapping wings causing a hurricane. This is a conception of Chaos Theory that dramatically illustrates interdependence, but to me doesn’t quite manage to express the new paradigm as I see it.
Even the Butterfly Effect is still imagined to occur within the bounds of cause and effect. This weds the idea with the current paradigm. I want to take a view that is more radical. I would want to say that the instant the butterfly flapped its wings the world was transformed into a world where the hurricane was inevitable, unless of course some other action, perhaps the wagging of some dog’s tail, recreates the world yet again and removes the hurricane.
In this view, which is reminiscent of the philosophies of William James and Alfred North Whitehead, every occurrence in the world recreates the world. Every instant there are countless simultaneously occurring events each of which gives birth to a new world. And where do these worlds exist? They exist in experience. They are experiential worlds which means they exist in relationship. Experience is the ‘stuff’ of relationship, and it is the ‘stuff’ of the world.
Each instant an infinite number of worlds are created, so which of them do we all live in together? You can look at it two ways. Either we all live in the infinite totality of unlimited creation, or we all live in our own world, which is the one we experience and is completely unique to us – or of course, both.
Please don’t be overly literal in the way you read this. I am trying to use words to express an incomprehensible vision that I have experienced to be true. Just let yourself explore these conceptions with your being. Don’t just sit and think about them, live into them in your imagination. See if you can ‘feel’ that possibility.
The infinite multiple worlds view is not the current paradigm. In fact it is far from it. We have been trained to see reality as a single stage that we all live on. We are emotionally comfortable in this view because we are used to it. As long as we can maintain the stability of the stage of reality we are very willing to embrace the fact that everything on the stage is in a state of constant flux. Emotionally it is very challenging to imagine a reality that fluctuates as wildly as the atmosphere during a storm.
This brings us to the second foundational assumption of our current paradigm. The nature of reality is unaffected by us. We affect everything in reality, but reality itself we cannot touch. Reality itself just is. Most of the early Enlightenment thinkers were Deists who rejected the idea that god was actively controlling everything, but retained the idea that god had set up the laws of nature at the inception of the universe before stepping aside and giving us the means of control over them. We retain the legacy of this belief to the extent that we assume that there is a level of being that we cannot influence, namely that we live inside laws of nature that define a reality that is beyond our influence.
The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce articulated an astounding thought in his contemplations of the then recently published Origin of Species. If we live in an evolving universe, he postulated, then everything must evolve including the laws of nature. We don’t live in an unwavering universe. We live in an evolving one where nothing is constant and fixed.
One of the great thought experiments of Peirce was his explanation of errors in measurement. As a scientist he knew that every time you make a measurement you get a slightly different value. The more precisely you try to measure the more this is true. In the scientific community it was and is generally accepted that this is due to errors in measurement. Peirce had a different thought. He thought that it was due to the fact that reality is not stable. What we think of as errors in measurement are actually measurements of the constant subtle fluctuations of reality.
The paradigm that was established in the West during the Age of Enlightenment rests on an assumption that we live in a single reality that we cannot influence. We can affect the things in reality, but not the parameters of reality itself. The new paradigm that we are living toward will recognize that reality is multiple and in a constant state of creation that happens in relationship and engagement with it.
In the Western world some of the broad strokes of this new paradigm were introduced as the Romantic challenge to the Enlightenment. The philosophers, poets, artists and performers who called themselves the Romantics forwarded an alternative view of reality based on a participatory view of creation. In all of their art and literature they articulated this view and those of us who are pursuing a new paradigm today are continuing that legacy and bringing that vision closer to completion.
Historically, the success of science in transforming human life in the centuries after the Enlightenment ensured its dominance over the psyche of the western mind. The ease of life that so many of us currently enjoy are a tribute to the power and brilliance of that way of being, and at the same time the challenges that currently threaten our very existence dramatically expose its limitations.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection envisioned a form of cosmic creativity that was palatable to the scientific mind. His magnificent ideas were eventually incorporated into the scientific paradigm, but along the way they were transformed into a form that supported the current paradigm, solidifying it rather than subverting it.
The modern conception of evolution is most often cast in a strictly mechanical framework that is seen as occurring through random mutations that are either accepted or rejected by circumstance. There is no role for intentional deliberation in this view and no function for human consciousness in the creation of reality is recognized.
This mechanistic and blind view of evolution was not the only possible interpretation of Darwin’s theory. In fact, Alfred Wallace’s theory of natural selection, which he developed simultaneously with and independently from Darwin’s theory, advocates a view of evolution that includes a strong central role for intelligence and conscious choice.
This interpretation of evolution has developed over the past century and has most recently been popularized as Evolutionary Spirituality. Unfortunately the subtle, sophisticated and ingenious evolutionary conceptions of thinkers such as Charles Sanders Peirce, Henri Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo, and Alfred North Whitehead, most often don’t survive in their more widely disseminated forms.
Current forms of Evolutionary Spirituality are often forced into an overly linear optimism that assumes the inevitable perfection of the universe. Even if it were true that the universe itself was undergoing a process of optimization the direction of that optimization is likely to lie completely outside of human comprehension. The vision of perfection in many popular systems of spiritual evolution is often suspiciously favorable to human sensibilities.
It is natural for us to want to embrace a view of evolution that feels linear, progressive, manageable, and tending toward the ultimate good, but I believe the creative process is much more complicated, vast and unpredictable than that.
Now I want to take you on a journey into what I see as some of the demands that a new paradigm will make on us.
I believe that in order to enter into a new paradigm of being we will need to become comfortable with a degree of chaos that now feels terrifying to most of us. We will need to embrace a universe that exists in many dimensions all but a small handful of which are currently invisible to us. These dimensions pass through, cross over, and affect each other in ways that we cannot imagine. (Next month when we read Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the impossible we will speak more directly to the multi-dimensional nature of reality, so I will give myself room to introduce the idea here without much explanation or justification.)
In Radical Inclusivity I acknowledged my belief that our being is not limited to only the dimensions that we are able to perceive. We exist in all dimensions of reality already and each of our actions is having effects in other dimensions that we cannot see, and the effects occurring in those dimensions are simultaneously affecting reality as we experience it. We are part of an unending multi-dimensional feedback loop of simultaneous affection. Reality is relentlessly shifting and fluctuating in more dimensions than we can imagine and those fluctuations are affecting the reality of all other dimensions.
So inside this reality of massive relational affection what are we?
In the midst of all this interactivity there emerged a limited convergence of perceptual awareness that solidified into a self-determined identity calling itself human. This locus of identification has attached itself to a biological organism with profoundly minimal capacities for awareness.
As I read the last two sentences I wonder if anyone will be able to understand what I am trying to say, and even more I wonder if what I am trying to say makes any sense. Regardless, it is what I believe and it is the vision that drives my existence.
We are a multi-dimensional ‘beingness’ that is identifiable even though it has no edges or limits. Our existence extends infinitely in all directions of space and time and through all dimensions of being. We have become temporarily identified with a small bubble of self-awareness that has generated a story about itself being an organism called human that evolved into self-conscious awareness while living on the surface of a planet called Earth.
Ultimately none of our stories about ourselves will allow us to pass beyond the edges of the current paradigm into the true infinite nature of reality. I believe that we are being asked to let go of any sense of limitation so that the immense truth of reality can be liberated from our stories about it.
We live in an Ontological Collaborative where all aspects of every dimension are in a constant state of related creative emergence. What is reality? Reality is relational creative emergence. Reality is a constant process of what Teilhard de Chardin called creative union, a mass of infinite yet identifiable aspects of eternity that create more reality by coming into contact with each other.
Our minds in their current form, limited as they are by our current perceptional capacities, are hopelessly ill-equipped to grasp the truth of reality. Yet here we are aspiring to do just that. It is our noble charge to rise up beyond the paradigm of our birth and become heralds of a new paradigm. To achieve our goal we must embrace the incalculable vastness and incomprehensive complexity of being part of a multi-dimensional indivisible unity of relatedness.
We are called to relax into our true multi-dimensional being and accept responsibility for the invisible affects we have in all dimensions. I believe that it is within our nature to live into the fullness of who we are. We are moving through a localized constraint of identity that has captivated our attention temporarily. Our effort to embrace a new paradigm of being is not just our effort. It is our perception of a convergence of influences simultaneously occurring in many dimensions at once. The desire to move past the current constriction is coming from the whole of reality not just a few organisms, of a single species, on one planet. It is an act of cosmic accident that the energy of consciousness that is currently caught in a story about being members of a self-aware species on a planet called Earth, have the monumental opportunity to release reality from a limited vantage point. This is our opportunity to embrace.
We are already infinite beings having multi-dimensional effects. The choices we make in what seems like a self-contained and bounded reality are not limited to what we can perceive or imagine. Our choices, thoughts, feelings and actions are rippling out into the vast expanse of a multi-dimensional indivisible unity of relatedness of which we are both a single aspect and the wholeness of.