If our stories make a difference in the way we live, our collective choice of the big story by which societies define the nature of reality and their relationship to it makes a very big difference in how societies organize themselves and define their goals. The difference between the machine metaphor and the organism metaphor gives a key to sorting out the difference between the society we are and the society we have the potential to become.
For nearly three hundred years Western societies, and increasingly societies the world over, have been living out a deadly tale inspired by the basic precepts of Newtonian physics. According to this tale,
The universe resembles a giant clockwork set in motion by a master clock maker at the beginning of creation and left to run down with time as its spring unwinds.ln short, we live in a dead and wasting universe. Matter is the only reality, and the whole is no more nor less than the aggregation of its parts. By advancing our understanding of the parts through the reductionist processes of science, we gain dominion over the whole and the power to bend nature to our ends.
Consciousness is an illusion; life is only an accidental outcome of material complexity. We evolved through a combination of chance genetic mutations and a competitive struggle in which those more fit survived and flourished as the weaker and less worthy perished. Neither consciousness nor life have meaning or purpose. People are just extremely complicated machines, whose behavior is dictated by knowable natural laws.
Competition for territory and survival is the basic law of nature. We cannot expect humans to be or become more than brutish beasts driven by basic instincts to survive, reproduce, seek distraction from existential loneliness through the pursuit of material gratification. A primary function of the institutions of civilized societies is to use the institutional control structures of hierarchy and markets to channel our dark human instincts toward economically productive ends.
A cosmic story that restores sacred meaning to life and draws us to explore life's still-unrealized potentials is taking shape and drawing inspiration from many sources, including findings from the modern physical and life sciences and the world's richly varied spiritual traditions. Though it remains both partial and speculative, the new story goes something like this:
The universe is a self-organizing system engaged in the discovery and realization of its possibilities through a continuing process of transcendence toward ever higher levels of order and self-definition. Modern science has confirmed the ancient Hindu belief that all matter exists as a continuing dance of flowing energies. Yet matter is somehow able to maintain the integrity of its boundaries and internal structures in the midst of apparent disorder.To the extent that these premises are true, they suggest we have scarcely begun to imagine, much less experience, the possibilities of our own capacity for intelligent, self-aware living. Nor have we tested our potentials for self-directed cooperation as a foundation of modern social organization. Evolution, although it involves competitive struggles, violence, and death, also involves love, nurturance, rebirth. and regeneration--and is a fundamentally cooperative and intelligent enterprise.
Similarly, the cells of a living organism, which are in a constant state of energy flux, maintain their individual integrity while functioning coherently as parts of larger wholes. This ability implies some form of self-knowledge in both "inert" matter and living organisms at each level of organization. Intelligence and consciousness may take many forms and are in some way pervasive even in matter. What we know as life may not be an accident of creation but rather integral to it, an attractor that shapes the creative unfolding of the cosmos.
There is substantial evidence that it is entirely natural for healthy humans to live fully and mindfully in service to the unfolding capacities of self, community, and the planet. Yet in our forgetfulness we have come to doubt this aspect of our own being. Nurturing the creative development of our capacities for mindful living should be a primary function of the institutions of civilized societies. It is time that we awaken from our forgetfulness and assume conscious responsibility for reshaping our institutions to this end.
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