On Purpose(ness)

Connecting Partial Truths

What if the way you view the world is only a partial truth? What if the very best understanding of reality is still an approximation which consists of a collection of mental models, or premises, used to interpret our unique experience on Earth. What are the benefits of constructing a more accurate or useful approximation of reality and how do we do it?

These are the kinds of questions I have been asking myself since reading “The Dynamics of Transformation”, a book by Grant Maxwell. This book challenged my mind in many ways, forcing me to reconsider, or consider for the first time, the makeup of the universe — its essence.

Reading above your level

This all started a few months back after finding some wise advice Ryan Holiday wrote in an article in which he boldly states that the act of reading alone isn’t enough. He says we strengthen our mind by “reading above our level… lifting the subjects with the most tension and weight”. When Maxwell’s book arrived it was clear to me that his writing was, well, clearly “above my level”. So I dove in with my intentions set on learning and used Holiday’s post as a guide (as it also provides helpful advice on how to read the tough stuff).

First off, just a few pages into the Dynamics of Transformation it became clear to me that Grant Maxwell is clearly a seeker who has authentic curiosity and deep philosophical roots. This translates into a provocative book constructed as a synthesis of complex ideas across many different disciplines from thinkers such as: Hegel, William James, Carl Jung, Benoit Mandelbrot, Alfred North Whitehead, Jean Gebser, Richard Tarnas, Terence McKenna, and Henri Bergson.

a vast symphonic crescendo

Maxwell mentions an influential book by Richard Tarnas in his epilogue which he says builds “like a vast symphonic crescendo”. It seems clear to me that Maxwell was so inspired by the work of Tarnas that he designed a similar “crescendo” quality in his own book — first by outlining 12 succinct summaries of the big ideas in almost tweet-sized paragraphs and then progressing in context, depth, and breadth in a second summary and then in full chapter elaboration. This brilliant structure allows the reader the freedom to wander through the different ideas at varying levels of complexity which is a fitting approach considering Maxwell’s ambitious goal of introducing a:

“radically novel theory with the potential to transform the reader’s view of the world.”

I found myself hopping all around, making notes, researching topics that were new to me, and revisiting ideas that overlapped with what I’ve been studying over the past few years and I decided to share what I learned. If you enjoy the topic I strongly encourage you to buy Maxwell’s book. Even the Epilogue (which I will not get into in this post) on its own is a fascinating subject to ponder on.

An Emerging World View

Maxwell’s book, aptly subtitled “Tracing an Emerging World View”, traces a pattern of transformation from the cosmic to the microscopic, from the consciousness of an individual to the collective shaping-shifting of societies and global cultures.

These transformations seem to occur naturally but are often accompanied by a “courageous few” who believe in an idea so strongly they are willing to press forward against the opposing, dominant viewpoint of the masses. This battle for mindshare may continue for generations but, if this idea does gain enough traction, the “…new mode of consciousness is concretized in institutions and in networks of discourse…” further solidifying a new collective perspective — an emerging worldview.

Those who cling to the old worldview will fall further out of touch as the world morphs into a new form. “Our world view”, as Maxwell’s mentor Richard Tarnas wrote, “is not simply the way we look at the world… our world view — our beliefs and theories, our maps, our metaphors, our myths, our interpretive assumptions — constellates our outer reality… World views create worlds.

As this new worldview takes hold, the once revolutionary idea will become rigid over time as it protects its own views, turning a blind eye to anything that conflicts with its beliefs, leaving itself vulnerable to yet another, less rigid, more comprehensive, worldview to take root.

This might seem like a generalization, but this is a process that generally occurs and seemingly goes on and on, in faster and faster cycles with no signs of slowing down.

In his book, Maxwell outlines one of these transformations which was triggered by Copernicus in the early 16th Century and led to many unforeseen advances in virtually every branch of science. But as Maxwell points out,“revolutions in thought… by their very nature… define themselves against the mode that precedes them” which, in this case, led to a collective, materialistic mindset and an outright rejection of idealism, or any causality that exceeds materiality.

Maxwell’s aim is not to say that one way of thinking is necessarily right or wrong, in fact, he explicitly states that “it seems clear that there is no definitive evidence to settle this controversy one way or another.”

No, Maxwell has a different aim. He views these propositions as complementary and not mutually exclusive. He believes that, despite these seemingly opposing worldviews, we are currently living in a time which is ripe for transformation — for an emerging mode of thought.

He calls upon his readers to seek out the validity in both materialism and idealism — to uncover their partial truths — and form a broader perspective of reality. Maxwell calls this process the “integrative method” which attempts to find a new way of combining ideas that were seemingly irreconcilable. He is also clear in his message that this participation will take courage, as you will undoubtedly experience internal and/or external strife in the process of considering new ideas and challenging your own beliefs. But you wouldn’t be alone. Maxwell believes this integration between materialism and idealism has already begun.

What are these two seemingly opposing modes of thinking?

A cause that pulls you

The idealism Maxwell is speaking of can more specifically be called teleology which at its root is the greek word “telos”, an ultimate aim or purpose. Aristotle believed that everything had a telos.

Teleology is an ancient idea of final causation which implies that time is not merely quantitative but rather has “shades of significance” — a formal causation — and nature is “constantly pulled toward the future by some final goal of wholeness…”. It can be viewed as an impulse toward novelty and order which is “endemic to the fabric of the cosmos… leading to ever more comprehensive forms of consciousness.”

Terence McKenna spoke of this notion as processes that are not pushed by causal necessity from behind but are pulled to a point in the future. There’s an aphorism that says “nature abhors a vacuum”, well, McKenna says “nature abhors habit”, that all nature aspires to a state of perfect novelty.

This does not mean we should stand idly by. Maxwell explains that each moment has a quality particular to it — not a predetermined fate, but a potentiality to it. Maxwell warns his reader stating,

“One must employ rigorous discernment to determine if one is reading and enacting the quality of a moment in the most efficacious manner, or if one is falling into delusion or projection, using the archetypal perspective as an excuse for choices motivated by fear or selfishness rather than as a tool for more profound self-knowledge.”

He also makes it clear that it is “possible for an individual or culture to avoid reaching its teleological destination…”. So, from this point of view, if we are to rule out a purpose-based existence, we might just miss out on a truly great potentiality.

Science as a Revolution

But then there are bold claims on the other side of this debate. Take, for instance, Lawrence Krauss who explicitly states on Joe Rogan’s podcast that there is a reason the universe is the way it is but there’s no significance to it. He says, “It’s okay to live in a purposeless universe.”

This viewpoint is not all that surprising when taking into account Maxwell’s claim that “modernity has often defined itself by a rejection of teleology”. This rejection seemingly began as a reaction to the suppression of knowledge by medieval Christianity and promises of other dimensional doom for those who stray from the ideas of the Church.

This process began centuries ago when the Scientific Revolution was kicked off by Nicolaus Copernicus. He was born in the Kingdom of Poland about 20 years before Columbus would make his trek across the Atlantic in search for a new route to India. The world view was radically different at this time largely because of the dominant view expressed by the Church that God created the Earth as the center of the universe.

Kepler would later discover the elliptical orbit of the plants.

This was contrary to Copernicus’ life work in which he attempted to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun. He was not the first to claim this heliocentric idea, but he was the first to put in the persistent and exhaustive work to more accurately describe our amazing universe. He was exceptionally inspired by his work while also cognizant of the risks associated with sharing knowledge that conflicts with the beliefs of the Church.

For this reason, Copernicus released his work with great caution writing in Latin which limited his audience to scholarly folk. For years he resisted publishing “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and died the same day he first held a printed copy of his own work in 1543.

The Holy Resistance

Copernicus would never see the impact he had on how we, as a species, view our place in the Universe. But his work could now be studied and tested.

When Copernicus was alive, he was unable to make precise observations to backup his theories. This changed when Galileo made his own telescope after hearing of its invention in 1608. Galileo’s newfound telescope precision coupled with Kepler’s observation that planets go around the Sun in an elliptical orbit rather than a perfect circle confirmed Copernicus’ hypothesis of a heliocentric solar system.

This worldview was spreading but was also met with great resistance from the Church. Galileo, for example, was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forbidden to publish any of his works from the past or future, and was banished, confined to house arrest outside of Florence for the rest of his life. The church would not officially recognize the validity of this Copernican work until 450 years after its publication.

These worldviews die hard. We can still see remnants of the old worldview in the way we talk about sunsets and sunrises when in actuality the sun does not set, per se, but rather the Earth rolls away from the Sun.

Unmatched Precision

The Copernican discovery is the prime example of a revolutionary shift in a worldview. Nothing about the worldly movements had changed, yet everything was different. As the Scientific Revolution continued on, advancements were made in physics, astronomy, and mathematics by a string of influential thinkers such as Descartes, Bacon, and Newton. Civilization was propelled forward and we, enamored by the unmatched precision science provided, dove deeper into evolutionary thought, cell theory, embryology, microbiology, and genetics, to name a few.

While these were great thinkers who helped to move society forward, improving our lives by leaps and bounds, something was left behind. Maxwell argues that we stripped away any trace of quality from the practice of science. In fact, Fritjof Capra writes that Galileo “banned quality from science, restricting it to the study of phenomena that could be measured and quantified.”

This is the kind of thing former Navy Seal and all around badass, Jocko Willink might call a “classic over correction”.

Capra goes on describing an encounter he had with R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist, at a conference back in 1980 called “The Psychotherapy of the Future”. Laing’s argument was that “Galileo’s program offers us a dead world: Out go sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, and along with them have since gone esthetic and ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness, spirit. Experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse. Hardly anything has changed our world more during the past four hundred years than Galileo’s audacious program…

We had to destroy the world in theory before we could destroy it in practice.”

World views create worlds

Again, Maxwell does not argue that either idealism or materialism is correct or incorrect. His aim is to allow the reader to view the world in a new way. He says, “if one decides to believe that both of these views, roughly the materialist and the idealist, express partial truths, that each has heuristic value for illuminating certain domains of process and not others, then one lives in a world in which every point of view with some value for lived experience is available for employment, which vastly expands the possibilities for action and understanding.”

The beauty of Maxwell’s book is that it allows the reader to ponder on a very deep level about the true essence of reality. It also allows us to understand the value of holding different ideas in our heads, individually or collectively, at various levels of scale. This can become a healthy, natural process of building new ways of viewing reality by combining partial truths from different ideas and discarding that which is no longer useful.

Thank you for reading.

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In part 2 of this post, I will write more about partial truths, opposing ideas, Maxwell’s “integrative method”, and some ideas from a maverick air force pilot.