Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. I've decided to start using Salon discussions as the subject of some LJ posts, as a way to propagate and record the ideas. I make no claims to these ideas-- they arose out of the dialogue-- nor do I claim that they're an accurate reflection of the dialogue. A good Salon discussion is like a rich tapestry: you can tell many different stories by following different threads. This is just a smattering of what came up.
Society is currently undergoing a vast "exploding out" of ideas, cultures, and technologies. This isn't new-- it's characteristic of modern society, maybe even reaching back to the Renaissance. But it is pervasive and getting faster by the year. It's even built our notions of progress and creativity. If creativity ever meant simply the creative process, it's long since come to mean the inventive process. Progress in art, science, and philosophy is understood as the creation of new, previously unknown constructs.
As society spirals out, specializing and extremifying, and its various branches create language and cultures of their own, it seems inevitable that the common bonds that hold society together will become more tenuous and strained. These branches release new technologies and ideas into the world at a future-shocking speed, changing the ways we live, work, and think, and leaving us forever reeling from the effects. One has to worry if this ever-quickening explosion will end in an enormous catastrophe, or a singularity of multiplicity and change.
But maybe this chaos reflects a necessary and temporary process as civilization adjusts to recent changes in technology. We are in the midst of a society-wide paradigm shift. Like the big-bang-bust cosmological question, the exploding out could tear society apart, or it could just rip out some old stitching allowing society to fall into a new configuration. Western civilization is searching for a new foundation: a societal world view or foundational paradigm or Weltanschauung that we've been missing since the fall of Newtonian mechanics.
We now know that the world, of which we are part, is a dizzying mesh of complex and chaotic mutually-causal systems and based on inherent uncertainty and unknowability. There is no room for personal free will (unless it's to be found in quantum probability functions) or a soul that exists outside natural laws (unless it is a powerless observer). If there are gods, our best chance to meet them is heavy drug use. Our senses and psychology are so self-absorbed that we can only guess at the nature of reality. Purpose, morality, and meaning are only possible as a personal temporary suspension of disbelief. These are difficult (and disputed) ideas that we have yet to come to terms with.
The past hundred years hasn't managed to find a way out by exploring any of the hallways of the mansion of Western civilization through the project of post-modernism in art, literature, philosophy, and science. But recent world developments might soon force us to confront other civilizations fundamental paradigms. Western civilization can no longer act like the only kid in the world's playground, and that might save us from our own failings.
Traditional eastern philosophy holds a very different conception of the universe, and one that might handle the paradoxless dilemmas of contemporary thought better. At the discussion, we might have pulled out a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, but we like to find our own way, especially if its an opportunity to create a new paradigm for use by the whole of civilization. We tried to resolve the paradox in eastern philosophy that individuals should escape the misery of life by realizing that both they and the world they live in don't exist, and came up with a few interesting possibilities.
What if individuals are distinct from collective reality in the way that waves are distinct from the ocean? We experience life as individuals because we are bundled knots in a collective experiencer, like eddy currents that divide themselves off from a large river. We are unruly collections of neurons in a Great Mind. Enlightenment is a kind of merging back into the collective consciousness.
Specifically, paradigms-- the structures that allow us to understand our universe-- are the walls that bind off these individual knots. The Salon ended with a long discussion about the mindsets instilled in the business world, the paradigms of economics and corporations, and how they could be re-written to better suit concerned individuals.