We have the ability to apply intention and control in wide-spread, pervasive ways. But to what end?

Some things are so ingrained in our experience of the world that they become--like the hum of the air-conditioner--virtually imperceptible.

Control is one such thing.

The term paradigm is often used (perhaps over-used), but in the case of control, it is an apt description. The history of the human endeavor is one of increasing attempts at control: control of ourselves; control of others; control of the environment. Everything we come in contact with, from people to "natural resources," is seen as the grist for the mill of civilization. Everything is valued according to what can be done with it, how it can be bent to our will, what can be produced with it.

Control is not unique to the human species. All animals and plants exert some level of control, at least of their local environment. Animals build nests and burrows, and they live in social structures that define the behaviors of the group, at times precisely. The roots of plants exude chemicals that affect the growing of other, nearby plants. Many commentators portray humankind as a fallen species, the lone outcast from natural harmony. But such portrayals are a simplification; if one looks carefully at the evolution of the natural environment one sees a history of increasing control. The process began long before our advent, and will perhaps continue after our twilight.

If one looks closely one also sees that the very distinction between us and our environment is a false dualism born of this very attempt at control: to exert control one must at first distinguish between Self and Other. Even when the control we try exert is on ourselves, there is a bifurcation of our sense of self, drawing a distinction between the "good me" and the "bad me," or perhaps between "spirit" and "ego."

The roots and manifestation of control runs deeply within human society. In many of our dominant religions we are seen as holding dominion over the earth, kings and queens endowed with divine right to rule. The technological agenda is born of a belief of monotonic progress, in which perfection will be achieved once control is complete. Of course, to hold to these beliefs one must ignore much contrary evidence. Surely technology has brought many wonderful things and alleviated some forms of human suffering, but there is no evidence that this will lead to any form of perfection. There is no evidence that control ever can be complete. Attempts at control are inherently reductionist--placing parts of systems at odds with other parts--and as such are born of a limited view. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the history of technology is, among other things, a history of unintended consequences. How could it be otherwise, when it comes from such a simplified view of causality?

 

The Natural Environment

If control is endemic to the natural environment, if we see it at all levels and scales, why should we bother to comment on it at all? What can be said and gained? Does anything distinguish mankind's relationship to control from other parts of nature, and if so, is it a distinction of kind or of extent?

If one looks closely at the natural environment, it becomes clear that all healthy systems and ecosystems exhibit balance between their comprising parts. Any given species has its own intentions, agendas, and methods of control, but these have arisen in an interdependent and co-evolutionary way. At any given interface "conflicts" may spring up, but overall things exist within a stable balance. And when things depart from this equilibrium (perhaps from an outside influence or perhaps from a changing environment), the system will change rapidly (perhaps degrading from the perspective of its current inhabitants) until a new point of equilibrium is reached.

We are good at control, wildly successful even. We have the technological means to create large-scale restructuring of our entire environment--intentionally and unintentionally. And this ability removes from us the co-evolutionary constraints found elsewhere in nature. Removed of these constraints we are "free" to enact our will as we see fit. And we have done so, sometimes to disastrous ends. Removed from external constraints through force and strength and lacking the ability to see the entire picture, the human endeavor has run amok and is wreaking havoc upon everything we touch.

What's more, our inability to see the bigger picture is not a coincidental weakness that can be overcome and corrected with time: it is fundamentally impossible to exist otherwise. To see the entire picture--inclusive of every component and consequence--would require perfect knowledge. To consider everything, one must know everything.

The Universe as a High-fidelity Simulation of Itself

We are a model-making species. We examine what is around us, consider the most salient features to the question at hand, and manipulate simplified models, models which are intended to capture and consider these salient features. This strategy has served us well. This is perhaps the main strategy upon which we have hung our agenda of technology, and one cannot deny that in many ways this has led to many successes.

If we are to argue that we are out of balance and in ways harmful to the larger environment--arguments that can be strongly, and (in my opinion) decisively made--it is perhaps owing to nothing more than a failure of our models, or perhaps on over-reliance on them.

Models are, by definition, limited simplifications. But there is one system that considers everything, and that is the system that is everything: the world and the universe itself. When we give preference to our simplifications over that which those simplifications are intended to describe, we give preference to our beliefs over the reality that surrounds us.

We will continue to make and use our models. But if we can align ourselves more closely to what is, we have a possibility of edging a little more towards balance and wholeness.

One of the ways we can do this is to be more attentive to the process of emergence. Emergence didn't come from our models. It is not something which arose from our predictions about the world. The universe is a crucible of emergence, and by paying close attention to that which emerges from the environment infused with our intentions and attempts at control--as opposed to relying upon our predictions of what "should" happen--we are paying attention to an object which can (and does) account for all components, interactions, and consequences. When awareness is coupled with the active principle of intention, we at least have the possibility of an alchemy which can help lead us to a more stable, healthy, and--ultimately--happier existence. There are no panaceas and guarantees, but perhaps this is all we can do. And we can hope for the best.

Equilibrium

One thing that complicates this analysis is the concept of equilibrium. Above I have portrayed healthy natural environments as those which exist in stable, co-evolutionary equilibrium. And there is ample evidence to support this view.

But what of disequilibrium?

In our study of spontaneous order, self-organization, and emergent phenomena, much attention has been focused on the so-called dissipative systems, open systems in a state of energetic disequilibrium. New orders of complexity and organization arise precisely when a system is in a states of disequilibrium. What's more, this disequilibrium is a necessary condition for the arising of complexity. Life itself could not arise without the energy gradient between a hot star and a cold planet.

And so it appears that the history of the universe of a dialectic conversation carried out between states of stability and states of arising complexity.

The unfolding of the universe, from as far back as we can see (and speculate) to today, is a never-ending process in which new orders of complexity, subtlety, and nuance arise. Equilibriums exist, but they are temporary things, created in our perception by the time-scales we examine. But ultimately, as the Buddhists attest, nothing exists as a stable entity of itself. Everything exists in relationship to everything else in a process of change and flow.

Does this tell us anything important, anything that can guide us?

The process will continue: it can be no other way. New levels of subtlety and complexity will arise. New ordering principles will come into being, and new pockets of temporary equilibrium will coalesce. If one examines things at the appropriate scale of time, there is not a shred of evidence that it can be any other way. But: new orders of complexity and emergence pay no heed to that which came before them. The universe displays little nostalgia.

If we (perhaps selfishly) value our lives, we would do well to keep these things in mind. Change and process are inevitable, and we need to accept this on a deep level. On the other hand, an unconscious rush towards some imagined future could create too great of a state of disequilibrium and bring the human experiment to (what would seem to us to be) a premature end. Order and life emerge from disequilibrium states, but it is not the case that the greater the disequilibrium, the greater the emergence! There must be balance, even in disequilibrium.

We have the power and knowledge to disturb the equilibrium sufficiently to bring tragedy to all. The question is: do we have the knowledge and awareness not to? From the largest perspective it doesn't matter: the universe will continue without us. But from a human perspective, the answer to this question makes all the difference in the world.

Ethical Action

On this site I provide a body of musical work. In other essays I describe the theory that gave rise to this work, and--more deeply--I also address some of the underlying philosophy. But even more deeply, hopefully this essay examines the work's ethical underpinnings. As humans shouldn't all of our actions spring from some sense of ethics?

To say so may sound stuffy and may conflict with the nihilism which is so de rigueur today--a nihilism which I even I find myself falling into more often than I would like. But we do what we can do. We try to speak the truth as we see it, and when we have the energy and spirit we act upon it. And hopefully, eventually, we can inch back towards wholeness and balance, and not through the misguided actions that have led to our present, untenable situation.

Further Information

When analysis is conducted, the people conducting it will often go deeper and deeper until a pet theory is uncovered, at which point they exclaim that they have uncovered a deep truth. Many commentators have examined our agenda of control and its relationship to our environment, and they have often stopped at such a point. Some event or situation--the discovery and development of agriculture, the arising of a certain religion, the changing of societal gender roles, etc.--is seen as the point of our fall from grace.

The deepest analysis of these issues of which I am aware is in Charles Eisenstein's book The Ascent of Humanity. Charles peels back the layers of the existential onion very deeply, forgoing simple, surface explanations in an attempt to get to the core. The book is insightful and eye-opening, and I heartily recommend it to those who are interested in the subject. The book is available for free reading at his site, but it is also available in hard-copy. I would encourage those who appreciate his work to support his work through a donation or purchase if they are able.