The dizzying rate of change today is bringing a focus on fundamental values that is bypassing the traditional concerns of epistemology within philosophy and the historical and political issue of the religious/secular divide. This focus points to an emerging view of social evolution driven by a transcendent view of individual identity.
The nature of social evolution
If there is one universal truth it is that we do not see or experience the world as it is, but only as we believe it to be on the basis of the ideas and values we have accepted. While this is true of the physical ‘world’ (universe) in which we live, it is true in a qualitatively different and more meaningful sense of the social ‘world’ (society) that we inhabit, in that we are not merely interpreters of social reality but, equally, creators of it.
Today it is commonplace to argue from a perspective of cultural relativism that the social form prevalent in the West – variously characterised as ‘open’ (Popper, 1945), ‘secular’ or ‘liberal democratic’ – is merely one form of society emerging in the world, neither intrinsically better or worse than others such as Islamic theocratic, Chinese Confucian/Communist or Russian authoritarian. While the geographical labelling of this form of society is linked to its historical origins in Western Europe and the pre-eminence of the United States as an economic, military and cultural power during most of the past 100 years, not only is it not limited to those ‘European’ cultures, but it contains the essential ingredients of a universal social form, that for convenience can be termed modernity.
I would like to burnish a perspective on modernity, first broached by Hegel, but popularised by Francis Fukuyama (1992), that the prominence of rationalism and emergence of liberal democracy in the eighteenth century represented the beginning of a new stage in history. Perhaps prematurely, Fukuyama announced the fall of communism as the ‘End of History’, a judgement that has not fared well in the ensuing years of resurgent nationalism, socialism and Islamism. In this period the pessimistic realpolitik of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ (1993) has held sway and postmodernism has come to dominate intellectual discourse in many fields. From the broader sweep of history the emergence of modernity goes back further than the eighteenth century, back in fact to the Renaissance of the fourteenth century. In the Renaissance a social and cultural paradigm was set in motion that has endured for six centuries and has transformed the life of humans beyond recognition. Some of the characteristics of this paradigm are:
- The development of personal freedoms and rights
- The development of scientific knowledge, scientific methodology and critical tradition
- The dissolution of traditional power structures and the emancipation of millions of humans from a life of slavery or serfdom
- Technological advancement and progress towards ending the great scourges of mankind: poverty, disease and famine
- Wealth creation through density and complexity of economic activity
- Universal education and social welfare
Some or all of these appeared in pre-modern societies, but never all together and never integrated so systemically that they constitute a type of ‘universal replicator’ (von Neumann, 1966; Dawkins, 1989; Deutsch, 2010). If modernity is considered as a project, it is an as yet unfinished project. Despite the immense progress, problems of great magnitude remain to be solved; moreover problems yet to be imagined or discovered wait in the future. The nature of modernity is not that it finally resolves all problems, but that it contains the mechanism by which all problems are in principle solvable. While the prospect of unending social evolution through problem solving may not be how we imagine the future, nor chime with the widespread pessimism about mankind’s future from many quarters today, imagine what a society in which such progress had come to a halt would entail, as the interlinking of all the aspects of modernity described above started to unravel.
One persistent critique of the West – and by implication of modernity – from its external socio-political competitors and from its internal critics, particularly religious groups, is that it permits and even encourages deviant morality and anti-social lifestyles. This criticism comes from an older and simpler paradigm of human sociality that is gradually being replaced.
While the cultures of the West are characterised as individual-based, its critics typically come from politically or religiously collective cultures. However, collective cultures are an integral part of modernity also, but the relationship between the individual and the collective is different in a number of important aspects. All collectives are characterised by adherence to a set of common ideas and common values – what we could call common beliefs. As a result all members of a collective tend to share a similar worldview, a common moral outlook, communal practices, a social interaction, and so on. Such a collective experience can be represented abstractly and very simply by a closed circle, delineating the world ‘inside’ from the world ‘outside’. In pre-modern, anti-modern and closed collective forms, the life of the individual, and even the society, tend to be subsumed within a single such boundary. What characterises the life in modernity is not the absence of these collective forms, but their multiplicity in our social institutions and our simultaneous and rather more tentative belonging, which mitigates both the naturally closed nature of such institutions and the exclusivity of belonging. While closed societies are marked by stasis – the desire to remain unchanging – a state of dynamic equilibrium between the collective and the individual is a feature of open societies.
The closed nature of such value-worlds is not something that has generally been recognised in enlightenment thinking, with its emphasis on freedom, the individual and rationality. Values, though, exist in shared experience and therefore have an emotive and collective dimension as well as a rational and individual dimension. It is impossible for an individual to live in any society and not be subsumed into a value-world; the difference in an open society is the multiple belonging, freedom of association, and (depending on the individual) degree of reflexivity of the belonging. In a real sense individual construct their own value-world – or value matrix – through such multiple belonging.
There seems to be a paradox, though, in claiming that such closed value-worlds exist in an open society. The answer to this can be illustrated by looking in particular at the relationship between the ideas of religion and secularity and our assumption of their conflicting nature.
Throughout history – or to be precise religious history, for it is only an intellectual issue for religion – religion has been seen in opposition to the secular realm. Without delving into the detail of this, the divide has had more to do with the struggle for political power in society than competing paradigms of reality, which is religion’s theological interpretation. Following Jesus’ ruling on the ownership of the denarius, the terms ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’ have come to imply a sharp distinction between two ways of seeing the world, at least equal in status. However, this is not true: there is actually no such a thing as secularity. The opposition is a false one. Kant referred to such oppositions as ‘antinomies’ and considered them as arising as artefacts from the process of conceptualising reality. There is, in fact, in the West at least, only modernity, and from the perspective of modernity there is a multiplicity of value-worlds. In the pre-modern paradigm there is only the perspective of each closed worldview; there is for each collective only one inner and one outer world. In the midst of modernity this must result in a form of cultural schizophrenia, kept at bay by self-deception or (in extreme cases) acts of violence. In reality, even the most devout must eventually acknowledge the multiplicity of power centres and value-worlds. They rely on modernity for their medicine, their transport, the technology they use to broadcast their message, and, in most cases, their jobs and their education, and at some point must accept the dissonance between their ideology and reality.
Religions are already mostly integrated into modernity and this process will continue, embracing even those parts of the world where religious institutions still hold sway. There are, though, two important riders to this statement: the first is that although religions will continue to appear, grow, decline and disappear, religion itself will never disappear because it is fundamental to some aspects of human nature, something that even evolutionary psychology recognises, and it will adapt to individual and collective needs of every age; secondly, religion would only ever come to dominate human culture again though the catastrophic failure of the project of modernity and the collapse of civilisation as we know it.
There will always be those who are strongly committed to a religious view and who populate religious institutions. Likewise there will always be some who are indifferent or even hostile to religion. But most people lie along a spectrum, and the life of these individuals will be marked by phases of spirituality and worldly concerns. Some of the factors affecting people’s attitudes and their location along the spectrum include genetic traits, family upbringing, peer group, specific historical and events, personal circumstances and stage of life.
If the world contains a multiplicity of worldviews all justified in their own terms and co-existing within society, is it possible – and if so, how is it possible – to discriminate between truth and falsity, between the morally good and the morally evil and between the coarse and the refined?
There are two possible answers to that, one of which – a Spenserian form of social evolution, that is, ‘the survival of the fittest’ – is the less palatable option. In the first place there is no indication that social evolution takes place in this manner at all. Evolution in the Darwinian sense (rather than as a type of guided or teleological evolution) guarantees no favourable outcomes. History teaches that in fact many good things have disappeared beyond human reach. Secondly, such a view provides no guidance as to the intrinsic qualities sought in the present among the myriad competing claims of the contemporary world.
The second solution, though, points to more promising resolution of the dilemma. The view of modernity outlines above is most compatible with a view of human nature that I term transcendent individualism (1). If the history of modernity up to the present has been to validate the individual beyond the collective, the future will validate the individual who is in the process of self-transcendence. That does not mean reabsorbing the individual into the collective; it means that on the basis of individual freedom, the individual will enter into a process of self-improvement socially, morally, spiritually, physically and intellectually. Like many aspects of modernity, this idea is gradually taking shape but is not yet fully formed. Nor, I suspect, will it ever be, because like modernity itself human nature can only truly emerge in the process of meeting and overcoming challenges, of which there will be no end.
1. The term ‘transcendent individualism’ is not original, although I have interpreted it in my own way. It reflects some of the concerns of the transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, such as Emerson and Thoreau, although they saw it predominantly in aesthetic and mystical terms, whereas I would include aspects of physical self-improvement and social transcendence that counter the tendencies towards self-indulgence and inconsiderate behaviour that blight highly individualistic cultures.
Richard Dawkins (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David Deutsch (2010). The Beginning of Infinity: explanations that transform the world. London: Allen Lane.
Francis Fukuyama (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin.
Samuel Huntington (1993). The Clash of Civilisations. Foreign Affairs; Summer 1993; 72, 3.
John von Neumann (1966). The Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. A.W. Burks (ed.). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Karl Popper (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies. London: Routledge.