In this post I would like to answer to Carter Phipps‘s recent book Evolutionaries which I recently read. Please read this post as an open letter to the author, which is intended to induce a fruitful dialog with anyone interested.
Carter, the topic is great, it is maybe one of the most fascinating topics at hand at the moment : how does evolution work and, what are the characteristics of the people who have lived or are living as the integral seeds for the Evolutionary process ? You have made a very nice summary of Evolutionary spirituality, with a wide and fair coverage, and with maybe only one big omission in the person of Rudolf Steiner, which to my dismay is always forgotten in Intregral Evolutionary circles (God knows why, since he was the first to advance most of the post modern ideas and his influence and heritage in European culture is tremendous). As a French , I am very grateful of the prominent position you gave to two of the greatest geniuses that emerged from our culture : Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin. I was deeply touched by your obvious love for them, by the deep knowledge of their work that you show in your book, and by the delicacy and deep respect you showed in giving them their prominent place as the leaders of their time for evolutionary spirituality. The French culture is going through an identity crisis since WWII, fighting with the fate of not being understood, except by two or three other european cultures. For a culture like ours, with a striving at excellency in all possible fields, from the material side (food, wine) to math and philosophy, “not to be understood by others” and not to be able to communicate, is maybe the worst omen that we face since a very long time. So thanks, Carter, for the all inclusive contemplation that you offer in your book.
In this post I would like to have a serious discussion with you on your definition of what is an Evolutionary. You give a definition (in a very Voltairian way indeed !), in Chapter 3, where you differentiate cleverly Evolutionaries and Evolutionists. An evolutionist – paraphrasing you- is a person which adheres to the theory of evolution. It doesn’t say which theory it is, whether it is the Neo -Darwinian one where the three main drivers are randomness (in mutations for example), adaptability to the context and selection of the fittest, or another evolutionary theory, but in any case an evolutionist is simply someone who believes that we are in movement and going somewhere but who is more of a bystander, not directly implicated at a visceral level in being a catalyst for the emergence of New Forms. An Evolutionary, on the contrary is a person who has understood that his or her own radical implication in the evolutionary process is a direct result of the right understanding of the meaning of evolution. You then give the three characteristics of what is an Evolutionary, which I summarize below as
1- an Evolutionary is a generalist
2- an Evolutionary sees through “Deep Time”
3- an Evolutionary is an optimist
When I read your definition of an Evolutionary I was left with very mixed feelings. On one side I loved it very much, it looked perfectly coherent and very nice to read. But deep down I was dissatisfied, I didn’t know why and, when I found out why, a bit later, I decided to write this post to discuss it with you.
In point 1- you defend the worldview of the Generalist with respect to the worldview of the Expert. The generalist, you say, has the characteristic to be open on many fields and be able to re -contextualize any topic he or she is talking about in order to highlight the parallels between the ideas and intuitions of each topic. By contrast an expert is, in your vision, quite narrow minded, and by the very fact that he or she is an expert, the context or worldview in which he or she operates is necessarily restricted by the depth of his or her expertise in one field.
In point 2- you define in a quite remarkable way (to my humble judgement) the notion of Deep Time. Seeing through Deep Time is to be able to foresee the deep patterns of Emergence and Evolution, it require the development of an inner Intuition, of spiritual and philosophical kind, a sort of Inner eye which enables us to see where the Edge is, and to be able to make a difference by applying pressure precisely at the critical point which can make a culture swing and suddenly change.
In point 3- you outline that optimism is an essential requirement to provoke a real change in any type of domain. Deep, hard core optimism, is necessary.
OK, since you know me a little bit, you maybe see me coming; out of those three points, the one which is causing me trouble is the first one, your defense of the generalist in contrast to the expert. I want to argue with you that reality is much more non dual and my main claim for this post is that:
in order to be an Evolutionary, one needs to be both at the same time a Generalist and an Expert.
Maybe it looks contradictory at the first sight but I will argue that it is not, and that short of maintaining those two characteristics simultanously ( to be a generalist and an expert) at their highest degree, one misses Greatness altogether. I am actually arguing that Greatness is a kind of quantum superposition of General worldview and Expertise, and that any theory which privileges one with respect to the other misses Greatness altogether and thus is doomed to make an apology of mediocrity.
I hope to convince you that Greatness is an essential ingredient to be an Evolutionary; it is essential (necessary) but it is also almost sufficient. Hence it will be my very simple requirement : to be an evolutionary you have to be Great. I leave you some space to argue with me that Greatness is sufficient. For the moment I maintain the claim, with a little caution in front of it :“ it is almost sufficient”; if one is Great, one day or another one will take the lead and change the world. Simple. If one is not Great, no matter how much one wants to change the world, it will not work. Simple as well, but… oops, quite scary… “ Am I great, immediately reacts my Ego in despair !?” – I will come back to the Ego issue later. For the moment let me defend my definition of Greatness.
I gave the following definition : one is Great if one is at the same time an Expert and and Generalist. One needs both. In a sense I go back here to Blaise Pascal, which to me and many of my compatriots is “The Greatest French of all times”, and who was one of my first intellectual passions. Blaise Pascal, in 1658, wrote a wonderful paper about Esprit de Geometry and Esprit de Finesse. It was called “ De l’esprit de géométrie et de l’art de persuader”. The “Esprit de Geometrie” (geometrical mind) is the ability to see the big picture, it relies for him (and I feel this is deeply true) to our human ability to deal with geometrical forms. In your wording, it encompasses parts of your both points 1- and 2- ( it is the Generalist of your point 1- and it this ability requires the inner eye, or a very special intuition which is also, but not completely your point 2-). “Esprit de finesse”(mind of finesse) is the ability to see the details; it is indeed the definition of expertise ; you can see the details if you are an expert in a field. Pascal, already at his time said that he met many men with quite a lot of Esprit de finesse but very few with Esprit de Geometrie and even fewer with both. He argues that both are needed for true “modern” thinking (“modern” is the term he used).
I concord entirely with his analysis and will now try to convince you with your own arguments. My first point is this : in all of the Evolutionaries that you have cited in your book, is there any one of them who is not an expert, as well as a generalist ? is there a single one for whom you can say that he doesn’t have at least one area of expertise on top of being a generalist, with a great interest and open mind in all the other areas ? I don’t find any. We could multiply the examples, starting with Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin or Ken Wilber. Some even have two areas of expertise like Whitehead who was a distinguished mathematician on top of a distinguished philosopher on top of a generalist with an incredible vision and vista… ( how does that feel for our petty Egos ?)
My second point is stronger I believe, I am arguing that to be a very good generalist is already to be an expert- an expert in re-contextualization. To illustrate this point, here is a small story that you will enjoy very much. I was discussing at the coffee room recently with one of my physicist colleagues. He is enquiring about what I am reading at the moment aside from physics. To give you the context, this guy is really a fantastic mathematical physicist and what he does, maybe only five people in the world can probably do as well. A very very impressive expert. It turned out that I was reading Ken Wilber at the moment of his question; so I answer to him : “ Look I am reading this Integral american philosopher Ken Wilber”. The dialogue then turns like this :
Him: -“ You are reading an american philosopher…!! ? So tell me, what is Integral Philosophy ?”
Me: – “ It is a philosophy that wants to encompass all the fields of knowledge, and all the other philosophies as well, viewed from different angles. It is a bit like the impressionists in painting, you don’t focus on the details anymore but you get many impressions by re-contextualizing all the ideas. Is is a kind of impressionist painting of concepts”. My colleague looks a bit puzzled and asks:
Him:-“ So your american philosopher, Ken Wilber, he is an expert in what ? he talks about everything but knows really nothing ?”
Me:- “ Well, one can say that he is an expert in re-contextualization; he does this extremely well, he is probably the best in the world to do this, and certainly the founder of this new field”.
There was a silence and then my colleague agrees:
-“ Indeed, you are right, one can say that there is such a thing as being an expert of re-contextualization, an expert in General, Big Vision”.
The point is, as you already guessed, that my colleague, besides being one of the most incredible world experts in mathematical physics, is also…simply great, so it was quite easy to convince him. As a great guy, in this discussion with me, he simply wanted to see what I found so great in a guy like Ken, who presents himself as a generalist. We converged extremely easily because I simply explained that re-contextualization itself, as a human capacity, qualifies for a ranking in expertise. Hence Ken is Great ( at least my colleague has my word for it and can check by himself which he will do as a scientist) . Simply being a generalist would have been for my colleague a synonymous of a bleak and weak intellect who wants its claim at greatness without having proven itself in any field.
So that’s my main point : in order to be great, one cannot make the economy of expertise, and expertise in any field will necessarily imply a hierarchy. Expertise by definition implies such statements as “ it was Good, it was Bad, it could be Better, it could be Worse”. Generalities don’t imply theses statement, and hence generalities without expertise, is one of the two roads to mediocrity.
I like very much to tight Expertise with hierarchy because it is one way to create non coercive hierarchies. You are an expert in this field, I am also an expert, in that other field, and if, but only if, we are open enough, we can have the vista and breadth of view of the generalist while still being experts in our fields, and this is what will enable us to collaborate together. Collaborations at a deep level require expertise and openness, or expertise and breadth of vision at the same time.
I have a last argument in favor of the Expert. As anyone who has ever tried to master a field knows very well, there is at some point a threshold, there is a point where you become so good in your field, that it kind of starts to flow through you, it becomes alive,it become as second nature, a second skin. A bit like a superfluid flow. Your expertise, instead of being born out of a narrow worldview, and instead of putting you out of the world, your expertise is becoming transparent, it doesn’t create limitations anymore, it is so good and so internalized that it becomes a simple force of Life, a force of Evolution. Your expertise in one field then becomes a template on which you can base your desire for understanding all the other fields. Said in a spiritual context, if you go deep enough in any field at all, at some point you meet the One, your field becomes like a Kosmic Yoga that you can directly transpose to other fields. At the end of the day, from one field of expertise you can go all the way and get this all encompassing vision, this Spirit of Geometry, that Pascal first ever talked about.
So… I will now assume at this point, that you are convinced that Greatness requires both a degree of Generality and a degree of Expertise, and that also if one becomes extremely good at one thing, by a sort of Kosmic miracle, one becomes Integrally good at many other things, one can draw parallels and have the great Vision that makes everything change.
Now how about the shock for our Egos ? only Great people make things change; one cannot make the economy of Greatness in and Evolutionary worldview. If one is mediocre, whatever hard one wants to evolve and change things, it will at the end amount to not much. “Nature is Aristocratic”, as Jung was saying, and only the Great people do make changes.
Then comes the natural question that I ask myself every two other days :
“Oups… am I Great ? ”
Everytime I ask myself this question I feel bit of a shrinking deep inside, a contraction-; the Ego contraction. Now, there is a much better question :
“Do I want to be Great ?” this one is the real evolutionary question.
One of the most illuminating texts I read on this issue of Greatness comes for the philosopher Simone Weil. She came from a very gifted family, since her brother André Weil, was a genius mathematician (he was one of the top 10 most influential mathematicians of the last century), with a childhood of a tremendous math prodigy (it is recorded that at age 10, he had re-discovered by himself all Euclide geometry), like the one of Whitehead or Pascal. She recalls in her spiritual autobiography, that when she was 16, she wanted to die because she couldn’t be really Great as her brother was. For her, death was better than an entire life of mediocrity. She wanted to die for Greatness… humm …. and then it is when her first spiritual illumination came for her. She understood that if she really wanted desperately to be Great she would become Great no matter what. That , in her words, “ God doesn’t throw stones when one is asking for bread”.
And that’s the spiritual miracle with Greatness; already to have the burning desire to be Great is generating it. Desire is the right word here; Greatness has everything to do with Desire and Love, and very little to do with rationale and causality. That’s the miracle of it; it is, by nature, and intrinsically… Ero-tic, a product of our Desire. To desire Greatness is indeed like making Love with God and producing a Spiritual Child; you guessed : a Great One of course !
Or maybe I am a bit too Frenchie here ?
Have all latitude as any other reading this text, to answer to me…
With my Love
- 15 Questions For Evolutionists – Must Read (raymondjclements.wordpress.com)