A New Science of Mind and Society?

By | June 6, 2023

A New Science of Mind and Society-Part One

The reader will not here meet with any of those bold flights which seem to characterize the works of the present age… these generally arise from the mind’s collecting all its powers to view only one side of the subject, while it leaves the other unobserved.

Charles De Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (1748)


This article proposes a restructuring of science in a manner that would enhance human health, happiness, and evolution toward a more intelligently adaptive and creative global society. A method of reuniting scientific and spiritual values is described, and a general plan is suggested for making the transition to a syntropic science that would avert the crises anticipated to occur in the 21st century as a result of both technological evolution and the impact of human civilization on the Earth’s biosphere.

In the December 2011 Scientific American, “Ten World Changing Ideas” were featured. The tenth idea was described and discussed by David Weinberger in an article entitled “The Machine That Would Predict the Future.” Weinberger is a Senior Research Scientist at the Harvard Berkman Center and a Co-Director of the Harvard Library Lab. He is also the author of Too Big to Know (2012).

“The Machine” in question is actually a computing system being developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich under the leadership of Dirk Helbing. Several universities and research institutions around the world support the project, and it was once considered the top choice to receive a €1 billion research grant from the European Union. Weinberger’s article, however, was subtly critical and may have influenced the EU’s ultimate decision to give the award instead to two other projects, one of them being the Human Brain Project (EU) which is designed to reverse engineer the entire human brain. Henry Markham leads this project in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Scientific American’s own brief synopsis of the Weinberger article reads as follows:

  1. “Researchers plan to build a computing system that would model the entire world to predict the future.
  2. The project would be powered by the enormous data streams now available to researchers.
  3. Yet models are not perfect: many researchers think they will never be able to capture the world’s complexities.
  4. A better knowledge machine may arise out of Web-like principles such as interconnection and argument.”

Weinberger’s article is an excellent discussion of the problems associated with understanding and modeling large complex systems, and I am using it here as starting point from which to present a proposal for a New Science.

Weinberger asserts, correctly I believe, that we don’t have (a) a coherent theory of social behavior upon which to build a coherent social science. I will suggest one. He refers to (b) an exponential rise in difficulties when trying to understand all the layers in a complex system. I will suggest a basis for triage. He mentions (c) natural limits to models of complexity imposed by “two hallmarks of unpredictability: black swans and chaos theory.” I offer an approach to working with unpredictability. He describes (d) a tension between “a central organization taking charge” and “‘a data commons’ that anyone can make use of.” This is a well-known and resolvable system problem. Weinberger poses issues with regard to (e) a definition of knowledge. I have an opinion here, too. Lastly, he points to (f) a version of the uncertainty principle in social models that alter the behavior of the system as it’s being modeled. I love the challenge.

Why a New Science?

Science can be an expensive activity, and scientists are sometimes accused of wasting money on trivial pursuits. Perhaps there are better ways to organize our quest for knowledge.

Science has long been put into service to defend particular political entities and their sometimes aggressive campaigns. It may be time to evolve past that.

When not put to use in support of religious organizations and movements, science is a fundamentally secular activity that is agnostic with regard to religious beliefs. Science, we should remember, was once a captivating new method of exploring and understanding the nature of reality.

As such, it was regarded with great suspicion by religious authorities. Following the trials of Galileo and Bruno, the French philosopher, René Descartes, rescued both science and religion by establishing the theoretical basis for a territorial divide: the Church would rule over the domain of the soul. Science would be free to explore the body, and by extension, the material Universe. It would surrender Universal Purpose, leaving that to the gods.

This artificial distinction worked for a long time, but like many compromises that satisfy temporal interests, it led eventually to some unhealthy situations. Most organized, monotheistic religions became increasingly dependent on a totalizing revealed truth and faith. The strength of faith-based religions lies ultimately in their unifying Absolute Value, i.e., God, an unchangeable value that is held to be more important than life itself and yet, it promises eternal life. If you doubt this, how would you explain the behavior of the Mayor of Greencastle, Indiana, in 1972, when he stormed out of a Sunday school class saying, “I would rather see my son die than have him treated by a doctor who is a Communist.” Was this not Abraham proving to us that one’s belief in God is more important than life itself?

Science, on the other hand, deprives us of dedication to such a value. It seems to be saying to us that truth is the ultimate value, yet it denies saying so, asserting that human values are outside the purview of science, and the truth is never fully known. To the extent that human values are studied by science, it is done from a position of neutrality.

In consequence, science became dominated by a variety of paradigms of analytic reductionism, narrowly-focused experimentation, null hypotheses; double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over studies; a Big Bang leading to Universal Entropy, classical Newtonian theory, Einsteinian Relativity, quantum mechanics, scientific modeling (always incomplete), and the concept of evolution by natural selection which led at times to popular fixations on “selfish genes,” “social Darwinism,” and eugenics. In the modern, secular world, we are bereft of the soothing attachment to an Absolute Value that includes the oxymoronic promise of “life after death,” a charismatic promise that survives by stilling the rational mind.

Yet in the faith-based societies, for example in the Republic of Maldives, everything seems clear, and the goal seems worthy of total dedication. In secular societies, it seems everything is tinged with skepticism, doubt, instability, and the potential for fragmentation. Secular societies, in particular, tend toward changing polarities of central vs. peripheral control, inequalities of wealth, and nationalism vs. either irredentism or globalism. Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of a civilization based on democratic freedoms, an openness to all ideas on the one hand, and on the other, to its corresponding struggles, especially, the various emulations of authoritarianism and libertarianism springing from within the undecided, the quasi-democratic context.

The ideology of science, still the best method for ascertaining truth within a limited domain, plays no small role in creating the alleged clash of civilizations that now distracts humanity from its core values relating to and derived from survival.

The need for a re-orientation of science, political economy, and secular education is clear and urgent.

We can preserve the best in science, philosophy, and faith-based spirituality by showing how they converge in a manner analogous to the concept, not surprisingly, of convergent evolution. They converge, because their underlying logic takes them step-by-step, via natural selection, toward a more adaptively and creatively form of intelligent organization.

Fundamental to this convergence is the concept of the Absolute Value. There has always been an unspoken Absolute Value, we will argue, that is intrinsic to both science and secular philosophy. It is this: The survival of human life and its ongoing evolution toward greater levels of adaptive and creative intelligence-made necessary by a constantly changing Universe-is an Absolute Value to humans-and to all living and lifelike systems.

OK, we already know this. We know we want to live, to breathe, feel, be healthy and happy. It’s so simple, and it’s not news to say we want to survive. Yet we are not-as individuals, large groups, or as a species-acting as though we were fully conscious of the fact that being alive, loving and being loved, experiencing well-being, and enjoying happiness is what is most important to us. We have become distracted from our central purpose, our primary organizing principle.

Every complex, lifelike system is organized around an Absolute Value, a Universal Goal: X is Absolute if no-X equals no other values. Thus if X equals Life, the absence of X means no-Life, and if there is no Life there are no values held by Life. Likewise, if there are no human lives, there are no human values. The same logic applies to faith in God. If there is no God, there are no God-based values. If there is no God but a belief in God there will be beliefs and values attributed to a God that doesn’t exist.

We can prove that human lives exist, but there is no proof that God exists except alleged proofs from human assertions that have not stood the test of logic. The point here, however, is that the evidence from the evolution of the concept of God and that from the evolution of Life itself is that both are evolving toward an Ideal that is a fundamental and natural organizing principle in all intelligent, complex, and adaptive information-processing systems.

The faith-based Ideal and the secular Ideal are essentially identical but for one major difference: the faith-based, “revealed” Ideal is believed to exist in a timeless spiritual realm whereas the secular Ideal is projected into a future material realm that can be approached but never fully realized. The difference between a spiritual realm and a never realized material realm? They are both an Ideal. The difference lies in the method of reaching for the Ideal.

Neither the faith-based nor the secular community should be criticized for their choice. The secular Ideal is just an extension of the spiritual ideal. The spiritual Ideal came first-when life was simpler and the material extensions of human abilities were limited. The least expensive way to bring people into a community with a better chance of surviving was to spread a belief system. Nothing but shared faith was needed to pursue its development and protect it.

Now we have many material extensions of our knowledge and abilities that can make us feel invulnerable behind the curtains that we draw between us. Only relatively recently, and perhaps too late, have we discovered the forces that make us all equally vulnerable and subject to dissolution by the material means we thought would save ourselves from each other.

But we’re not sure that it’s too late, and we can’t take the chance of giving up. The important thing now is to recognize that having an Absolute Value as a conscious goal changes everything. It is an evolutionary necessity that can potentially bring enough of us together in time to save all of us.

Adherents to both the spiritual and secular Ideals should be commended for their choice, so long as their attachment to their values promotes an ongoing evolution toward ever greater adaptive and creative intelligence. That has been the obvious choice, up to now, of the creator God, the reincarnation-based religions and philosophies, and the secular approach to living longer in state of well-being and happiness.

There are such minor differences as cancer cures, organ transplants, treatments that stop epidemics, and longevity extended to a much greater degree than existed before the rise to global acceptance of scientifically-based preventive and curative medicine, but for the faithful these are also the ways of God. And just as God’s existence can’t be proved, so too we cannot prove God’s inexistence.

Belief in God remains a powerful force in human affairs, and many human problems cannot be resolved without the support and cooperation of both faith-based and secular communities. The New Science, if it is to be based on the consciously promoted goal of survival and the healthy evolution of Life, must promote respect and cooperation between the two types of community by pointing out that, ultimately, our two types of Absolute Value are structured as nearly identical Ideals.

Even the methods of secular and faith-based decision-making on a daily basis are converging over time with both methods being increasingly employed and reinforcing one another. From a religious perspective, it can be argued that if a creator God created Life and us in particular then we ought to respect God’s decisions-insofar as they are actually “known” and understood.

The Value of a Consciously Selected Secular Absolute

What might be the benefit to humans of having a secular [Absolute] Value? For one thing, it can be a unifying force in relation to conflicting streams of history and culture. An Absolute Value provides a unifying compass in Life, something that gives direction and the perception of a deep meaning to individuals, societies, cultures, and civilizations.

The West and its Enlightenment values are currently seen from the perspective of some cultures as void of any sense of an ultimate purpose in Life. This is threatening to those civilizations that base themselves on service to an all-defining Absolute Value.

The West has also been criticized, not without some justification, for veering toward a mindless consumerism and an existential ennui that derives from it’s having an anti-teleological stance in relation to human and spiritual values.

This materialist focus is seen as destroying the Earth’s natural environment for future generations as well as leading to an aggressive expansionism that in the past heartlessly disrupted the lives and cultures of more traditional peoples. The balance among peoples, nature, and meaningfulness is thus seen as seriously disturbed even as the wonders of science and technology amaze and seduce the human personality, drawing us out of our environment of natural selection into a strange new world that seems to have lost its bearings. We are seen within our own technological communities as an evolution toward a “singularity” beyond which we will neither understand the decisions of cyborgs nor those of AI machines nor the relevance of any human future. Is this the end result of Enlightenment thinking?

We don’t think it is. So let us very briefly outline the history and future of the human race as we envision it from the syntropic perspective. The evidence indicates we came into being in Africa, migrated in waves out into the rest of the world, evolved different races and cultures in relatively isolated ecosystems, flourished and expanded. The human family is now growing back together. However, at the present stage we are still engaged in tribal-like divisions, mutual misunderstandings, and violent conflicts that debilitate and actually make us an endangered species despite the obvious successes and present vitality of modern human societies. The conditions that now threaten all of us require that we begin to think in new ways, but we’ve been slow to let go of the old ways.

Thus two of the reasons for proposing a New Science are (1) to further the establishment of peaceful connections among the peoples of the world, and (2) re-establish an ongoing balance between our whole species and the natural environment that sustains us.

Thirdly, we are too slowly waking up to the issue of a human trend toward extinction via an unintended self-destruction by those very means that are lifting us further up and away from our early Garden of Eden, an environment that has been characterized as paradisical but may have actually been filled with lives that were poor, nasty, brutal, and short.

A fourth justification for establishing a New Science is that numerous studies have shown that humans are healthier and happier when we have a sense of purpose, when our lives are meaningful in relation to something larger than ourselves, when we share values with others, and when we stimulate, challenge, and are eventually rewarded by success at what we do.

Fifth, a branch of science devoted primarily to military defense and offense in the modern world is more than just wasteful. It is necessary as long as we are divided into sovereign nation-states, but it is based on a logic whose end result is genocide or self-extinction-the ultimate bad ideas.

Sixth, the technology that now exists, or that will very soon exist, enables a new science of complex systems.

Simultaneously, the Internet, together with increasing inequalities, racism, and ethnocentrism, is producing a regressive, retribalization of the “forgotten people” that need jobs and a sense of purpose. Currently we are fostering isolated, sometimes vastly overcrowded communities based on values and misrepresentations of facts that keep Special Interests happy-while the overall trend is antithetical to authentic democracy.

We need new methods for re-integration of isolated belief systems within carefully authenticated democratic decision-making processes that the vast majority of peoples can believe in and support. New ideas and technologies can not only help with that, they can transform the game, but the ultimate solution-for machines as well as for people-is faith in a Universal Value that encourages an ever greater adaptive and creative intelligence.

End of Part One.