Wonder vs the Wonder-Killers: two related thought experiments

I was thinking about two issues tonight. Both of them were thought experiments.

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The first issue is about sociopaths.

I guess I was thinking about it because I just posted a blog where I mentioned Max Weber’s Iron Cage (Self & Other in the Movies: Redemption or Destruction?). Weber was theorizing about how bureaucracy and hierarchy increases. In that post, I mentioned I learned of Weber’s ideas from George P. Hansen’s book The Trickster and the Paranormal. Hansen points out research that shows a certain type of person (Hartmann’s thick boundary type) tends to be promoted in hierarchical organizations (which would include most major organizations: government institutions, universities, corporations, etc). I was thinking about this in terms of other research that shows that sociopaths are disproportionately found in positions of power. So, I assume that extreme thick boundary types and sociopaths are essentially the same general categories. A thick boundary type would have a stronger sense of individuality and a stronger sense of disconnection from others. Basically, thick boundary types have less empathy and hence less sympathy, less compassion and concern for others. Taken to the extreme, this would manifest as sociopathic behavior.

The thought experiment was: What would happen if sociopaths were removed and excluded from positions of  power and authority? What would happen if sociopaths were separated from normal society? As it is at present, we reward sociopaths and give them immense wealth and power. All of civilization seems built on this worshipping of sociopathy. I’m willing to bet that psychopathic genetics are found most often in those of royal descent and those of old money. My theory is that it’s not just wealth and power that gets passed on from generation to generation. The genetic predispositions that lead to concentration of wealth and power also gets passed on. The question is: Are these the people we really want to be ruling us?

There has been plenty of research done on psychopathy and sociopathy. We know how to test for certain genetics. We know how to test for empathy and moral development. I think it’s only fair that all citizens in positions of power and authority should be forced to have these tests administered. If they test positive for psychopathy and sociopathy, they would be required to seek rehabilitation through medication and therapy. They would be monitored for improvement. Those who couldn’t be rehabilitated would be put into psychiatric institutions or halfway houses. If we learned how to clearly identify psychopathic genetics, those who tested positive would be forcibly sterilized.

Just imagine that. A world where only people with strong empathy and compassion were allowed to be in positions of leadership and management. This would change everything. Our entire society, at present, is designed to benefit sociopaths. If they were excluded from all important positions, all of society would restructure itself. I don’t know if it would be a better world, but it probably wouldn’t be worse than a world ruled by sociopaths. Still, I have reservations. It’s possible that sociopathic behavior (at least in its milder forms) has some benefits for society. It’s possible that modern civilization wouldn’t function (certainly not as we know it) if sociopathy was entirely eliminated.

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The second issue is about our experience of reality.

I just started Philip K. Dick’s novel Eye in the Sky. There was no particular reason I chose this book to read. I just semi-randomly grabbed a PKD book I hadn’t read. I haven’t been in a great mood for fiction in recent months, but I think my mind might be shifting back in the direction of fiction and PKD is my favorite fiction writer. I’ve read about equal amounts of PKD’s fiction and non-fiction. It was only when I started reading PKD’s non-fiction that I came to understand PKD’s fiction. PKD, of course, obsessively speculated about reality.

Eye in the Sky is a typical PKD story. A group of people become isolated in a separate reality that functions according to religious principles: magic, prayer, grace, merit and whatever else. PKD puts this all into the context of the modern world. Basically, this is a version of PKD’s idea that the Empire Never Ended. In one of PKD’s visions, he saw the Roman world during Jesus life overlaid on the modern world of California. It’s like the Kabbalah theology which interprets Biblical stories as on-going events in the world. So, the flood never ended and those who oblivious to this spiritual reality are drowning. The Roman Empire and the Nixon administration are just two manifestations of the same Black Iron Prison that we are trapped within.

In the blog I linked to above, I connected PKD’s Black Iron Prison to Max Weber’s Iron Cage. Weber theorizes that bureaucracy functions specifically by undermining the traditional religious authority. The old religious world operated according to kinship (between individuals and communities, between mortals and gods, between humans and nature). Such a society would favor thin boundary types or at least would give such people prominent positions of authority and respect (priests, shamans, healers, etc).

Thinking along these lines, I took the first thought experiment a step further. Our idealizing and rewarding sociopathic behavior has created modern bureaucratic civilization. Maybe this alters our very experience of reality. In terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels, maybe we get trapped in a specific worldview. It could be the world isn’t as we think it is or rather that the world becomes as we think it is. The Iron Cage not only destroys the ancient societies of superstition but also destroys the very experience of the supernatural. Research shows that thin boundary types claim to have more supernatural experiences. Research also shows that most people in general have supernatural experiences. The Iron Cage not only disconnects us from a larger context of the supernatural. It disconnects our personal experience from society and often disconnects the individual from their own experience. Maybe there is some truth to the supernatural worldview, but we simply can’t see it because we are trapped in a reality tunnel, trapped in the Iron Cage, in the Black Iron Prison.

This subject is discussed in immense detail in Hansen’s book (The Trickster and the Paranormal). Hansen explains why science has such difficulty grappling with the fundamental issues of our experience of reality. I should point out that neither Hansen nor PKD perceives science as the enemy. However, science is just one viewpoint and when we hold too tightly to one model of reality we become blind to other perspectives, other experiences. The challenge I see is that those prone to sociopathic behavior (and those prone to the thick boundary experience of the world) have personal interest in defending the Iron Cage bureaucracy that benefits them. Bureaucracy is a self-perpetuating system in that those who are promoted to the top are very motivated in defending the system and very talented in manipulating those below them. There is no doubt that sociopaths are very good at maintaining their power.

The question arises again: Is a different world, a different society possible?
And another question follows: How would our very experience of reality change if society changed?

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May the power of wonder always be greater than the power of the wonder-killers.

New Age: Part 5

New Age: Part 5

Posted on Jul 26th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade

I’m reading a very interesting book right now: The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen.  Its not directly about the New Age, but covers similar territory and mentions the New Age in a couple of places.  The author explains the socio-cultural dynamics of the paranormal within non-mainstream groups, scientific research, debunker organizations, and our society in general.  He uses concepts such as communitas, liminal, anti-structure, reflexivity, and totemism.  Here are some quotes that are relevant:
 
p. 171
In our culture, psychic phenomena are hospitably received in Spiritualism, the New Age movement, and modern-day witchcraft.  The three movements share common elements, and in a variety of fashions, they are at odds with the establishment.  None of them have institutionalized in the manner of government, industry, academe, or mainline religion.  few of the groups within these movements have buildings or permanent paid staffs, and if they do manage to instituiionalize, it is usually only briefly.  None of the movements acknowledge any central authority; control is local.  The movements are marginal and anti-structural in many ways, but it is within them that one can find discussion of, training in, and use of psychic abilities.
 
p. 174
Marilyn Ferguson, one of the most articulate persons expressing the ideas of the New Age, noted that there is no central authority defining the movement.  In her book The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), she emphasized its informal, fluid networks, decentralization of power, and lack of structured hierarchies.  New Age concerns typically include feminism, the environment, and alternative healing, and women play major roles.  In addition, it is open to astrology and other forms of divination.  All of this is a bit subersive to the establishment.  Overall, its properties define it as anti-structural.
 
pp. 176-177
All three of these movements have loose boundaries.  It is often difficult to tell if someone is part of them or not.  Many who attend Spiritualist services are also members of established religions; New Age followers are drawn from all faiths.  Witchcraft and neo-pagan groups are perhaps more distinct, but ambiguity reigns there as well with vast differences among them.  Within covens, beliefs and rituals can change with the whim of the high priestess or priest.  There is no higher ecclesiastical authority or common text that solidifies dogma or mandates what, how, or when rituals must be performed.
 
These three movements have striking similarities.  In all alltered (i.e., estructured) states of consciousness play a major role.  Women are prominent, as are the issues of feminism, the environment and healing.  None recognize a central authority for their movement, and they engage in virtually no instituion bulding.  All of the movements are considered subversive by the establishment; they court direct involvement with paranormal and supernatural phenomena, and all display elements of the trickster constellation.
 
The most vocal opposition to these movements come from two sources: establishment scientists (exemplified by CSICOP) and conservative and fundamentalist religious groups.  Both of these antagonists are typified by large, male-dominated, status conscious, hierarchical institutions—the antithesis of the targets of their scorn.  Both have produced massive amounts of literature denouncing the New Age proponents and modern pagans and similar attacks were directed at the Spiritualists of the nineteenth century.  While some of the political and social goals advocated by the”deviants” have been partially incoporated into science and mainstream churches (e.g., feminism, ecology, alternative healing), the establishments’ most vehement attacks remain directed at paranormal and supernatural practices.

 
Hansen has a section about psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann who wrote the book Boundaries in the Mind:

pp. 48-49
Thick-boundary people strike one as solid, well organized, well defended, and even rigid and armored.  Thin-boundary types tend to be open, unguarded, and undefended in several psychological senses.  Women tend to have thinner boundaries than men, and children thinner than adults.  People with thin boundaries tend to have higher hypnotic ability, greater dream recall, and are more lkely to have lucid dreams.  People with thick boundaries stay with one thought until its completion; whereas those with thin boundaries show greater fluidity, and their thoughts branch from one to another.  People with very thin boundaries report more symptoms of illness; however, compared with thick-boundary types, they are able to exert more control over the autonomic nervous system and can produe greater changes in skin temperature when thinking of hot or cold situations.  Thin-boundary persons are more prone to synesthesia, blending of the senses (e.g., seeing colors when certain sounds are heard).  Differences are found in occupations as well.  Middle managers in large corporations tend to have thick boundaries, and artists, writers and musicians tend to have thinner ones.  People with thick boundaries tend to be in stable , long-term marriages; whereas thin types are more likely to be, or have been, divorced or separated.
The author goes on to say that thin-boundary types tend to report more unusual experiences including psychic experiences.  He then lists the correlations between thin-boundary types and the traits of the Trickster archetype (as described in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book Gods in Everyman).

Obviously, many New Agers are thin-boundary types.  The beliefs of the New Ager make no sense to the more skeptically-minded because skeptics are probably most often thick-boundary types.  Skeptics don’t realize that its not just an issue of belief vs rationality but an issue of experience.  Both the skeptic and the new ager trust their experience, but they simply have different kinds of experience.

This blog is posted in the God Pod.

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Marmalade : Gaia Child

6 days later

Marmalade said

pp. 203-204
The cultural tenor of the 1980s was decidedly different than that of the 1970s, and parapsychology felt it.  In society, business success become more highly valued among the middle class baby-boomers.  Less idealism was evident, and corporate and individual greed were frequent topics of pundits.  The baby-boomers were sometimes referred to as the “Me Generation.”  The number of volunteer workers at parapsychology laborotories dwindled rapidly.

The 1980s saw a move away from the popular interest in the paranormal in the larger society, and that was accompanied by a decided change within the New Age and psychic subcultures.  Those who had previously been interested in psychic matters shifted their atention to more “spiritual” concerns that might be characterized as “a search for meaning.”  This was subtly foreshadowed when California-based Psychic magazine changed its name to New Realities in 1977.  Channeling came in to vogue, but unlike spiritualism, there was little emphasis on verifiable information or physical phenomena.  Channelers spouted “philosophy,” made dire predictions of earth changes, and gave general advice, but that was about all.  The number of books published on paranormal topics dropped precipitously betwen 1980 and 1982.  With the general shift away from psychism and toward the search for meaning, the books of Joseph Campbell became popular.  There were new magazines, printed on high quality paper, catering to that general trend.