The philosopher Ken Wilber has a model consisting of four quadrants. Wilber posits that reality as experienced by human beings can be framed holistically using his four-quadrant model. The right side of the model has two quads that relate to exteriority and is considered the home of objective things. The left side of the model also has two quads that relate to interiority and is considered the home of subjective phenomena. This post will focus on the left side of the quad. Further, I will focus on the role of narratives or stories, if you prefer, in the two left side quads.
The upper left quad is about individuals and their subjective reality or I perspectives (personal worldview), and the lower left quad is about collections of individuals or We perspectives (cultural worldviews or consensus worldviews). There exists a dynamic interplay between these two quads. While each of us develops a personal worldview (PW), this does not happen in isolation. As each individual develops and matures, s/he is exposed to the cultural worldview (CW) of parents, relatives, community members (such as teachers, religious leaders and politicians), siblings and peers (whose PW is in process like their own), and many others. Each of these adult PWs is relatively stable and maps onto the cultural worldview (CW) to one degree or another. The implied variability in this mapping is due to a variety of things but I’ll sum it under the idea of variations in personal experience.
Thus, CW provides the context in which PW develops, and PW reflects to one degree or another CW along with the impact of variable personal experiences on PW. The people that we interact with, especially during development but also as adults, provide exposure to both CWs and PWs that influence our PW and our understanding of CW. Further, narratives or stories that we are exposed to serve to represent, reinforce, dismiss and modify our worldviews and thus our conception of reality, both on a personal and cultural level.
It should be kept in mind that Wilber’s model is a cognitive developmental model. Each of us start at ground zero and then progress through different patterns of cognition. These patterns are laid down as neurological pathways in our brains. These pathways are subject to growth and restructuring until our brains mature and no longer have the neural plasticity necessary for easily restructuring neural pathways. Brain maturation usually ends between 18 and 25 years of age and so does easily accomplished neural restructuring. Interestingly, recent research suggests that psychedelic substances are able to restore neural plasticity at least for short periods of time. This may hold some promise for acquiring further cognitive development after reaching maturity.
Wilber has identified about eight different cognitive patterns most of which he associates with worldviews at both the personal and cultural level. At present he thinks that there is a state of conflict between patterns 4, 5 and 6, with 6 being a smaller cohort of individuals than either of the other two. He thinks this conflict will not be resolved until the highest pattern becomes larger than the other two. He also thinks that a full resolution will require yet a higher pattern, which will be integral in nature and will fully integrate all of the prior patterns within itself and thus become a true holon; i.e., a pattern that has transcended its predecessors and fully included them in an integration. Thus, another consideration in the development of personal worldviews is the typical level of development being achieved by individuals in a given culture. The typical level of cognitive development found in the members of a culture therefore function as a limit on the cultural worldview that can gain dominance and guide the culture.
Coming back to narratives or stories, we might ask where do cultural narratives or stories come from? They are the products of novelists, playwrites, script writers, poets, song writers, politicians, philosophers, scientists, economists, historians, theologians and so on. For example, when you read a novel there are certain cultural themes implicit in the novel. How can you know this? Because you understand the story. CW is the context for meaning in any society. If you read a novel written by an author who comes from a society that has a CW that is highly divergent from your own, you will certainly not fully understand the story that the novel is communicating, or if there is sufficient discontinuity between the writer’s CW and your own CW, you may not understand the story at all.
It should be pretty clear how the producers of stories that we consume, as entertainment, are purveyors of stories that must to a large degree reflect the CW that the producer of the story is embedded in. However, you should be able to see how this doesn’t have to be a mirror reflection but can introduce new themes, discount existing themes, relate themes in new ways and so on. You may be less clear about how people like scientists or politicians are contributing stories to the CW. Science is a producer of narratives or stories. At their broadest they are called paradigms. Within paradigms there are narratives called theories or models that tend to be limited to particular lines of investigation, e.g., physics or biology. Albert Einstein once remarked that a trap many scientists fall into is to confuse their theory or model with physical reality. Politicians also have narratives or stories that they are purveyors of that are broadly referred to as ideologies. Depending on the ideology, they will have stories described as democratic, socialist or communist among others. As you may have recognized, this post is itself being generated by Wilber’s theoretical model or narrative about reality as experienced by humanity.
There are individuals within societies that are out-of-step, to one degree or another, with the CW of a given society. A mild misalignment may be considered eccentric while a significant misalignment may be considered pathological. It should be recognized that individuals from this continuum can be the source of creative innovation or disorder to the CW. To be influential for good or ill, they probably will need to be charismatic, persuasive and have access to a public platform, e.g., political office or influential role in entertainment or high position in business or high military position. There are other sources of narrative that can be the impetus for change in CW. These might include things like climate change or a change in population dynamics or significant immigration of peoples from a different CW. None of these are necessarily either good or bad influences on the CW of the society experiencing them. It depends upon the extent of their effect and the change produced. Change is always accompanied by an increase in disorder. If it is positive change, it will result in an advantageous disordering and reordering of the society’s CW. If is negative change, it will result in destructive disorder and possible social collapse.
In my view, contemporary American society is experiencing a significant amount of disorder. The cultural worldview seems to be fracturing. Some attribute this to such things as immigration, progressive politics, alt-right politics, corporate power, global trade, skewed distribution of wealth, loss of purpose and meaning, monolithic government, or social media. You can perhaps think of some others. The very list of attributed causes and the range of groups positing them is evidence in itself of a slide into disorder. One point that I would make here is that the range of voices bemoaning various influences and their volume is probably due to social media. Social media provides a public platform that requires very little to gain access. It fosters the democratization and amplification of PWs, which can create conflict and disorder on a large scale. However, I would suggest that social media simply makes more visible discord that already exists and amplifies it, rather than being the cause of it.
How can we respond constructively to this disorder? I have no simple or pat answer to this question. One thing I am pretty sure of is that imposed order is not the solution, short of a chaotic situation. Even then it is a stop-gap measure, which doesn’t mean it can’t have significant duration. In the end, imposed order will fail, if it hasn’t been used to create a self-sustaining, participatory order. Without a self-sustaining order, the underlying disorder will soon assert itself when the imposed order fails. To illustrate this you need look no further than the ethnic conflicts that broke out in eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I am pretty sure that a negative strategy will not solve the problem. Should an autocratic politician gain power and suppress disorder, the appearance of order that follows will eventually crumble and disorder will once again gain expression. I am also of the opinion that preventing any of the various “problems” considered causes of disorder will not lead to a solution. Creating fortress America where rigid control is imposed on who gets into the country or who can sell goods in the country is unlikely to eliminate the disorder. Clamping down on social media by oppressive monitoring and suppression of free speech won’t end the problem either.
One suggestion that has been put forward that has some merit ,though it would not be easy to implement, is to create a new core narrative for the CW. This would have to be a narrative or story that is inclusive and integrated and widely acceptable within the society. The story may arise from any number of potential sources. The critical step would be for it to be adopted by and promoted by people in public leadership positions. In all likelihood, this would be politicians running for office, especially at the state and national levels. Such a group might even constitute a new political party or the transformation of an existing organization. Merely squeaking out a victory at the polls would not be sufficient endorsement of the narrative to begin the process of creating a self-sustaining order. There must be overwhelming support or a super majority for those advocating a narrative, if it is to have a chance to change the cultural context.
Do you doubt that narrative has the power to make significant changes in cultural and personal worldviews? Consider then the story of politics and governance told by John Stuart Mill. The story of economics and markets told by Adam Smith. The story of evolution and adaptation told by Charles Darwin. The story of revolution and labor told by Karl Marx. The story of physics and relativity told by Albert Einstein. Or, consider the story of race and destiny told by Adolf Hitler. Impactful narratives abound in history for those willing to see them and recognize their role in revising worldviews. Where shall the next revision come from and how will it alter the worldviews that it impacts?