Hunger for Wholeness: What Evolution Has to Say about Technology with Steve McIntosh (Part 2)
In part two of Ilia Delio’s conversation with integral philosopher Steve McIntosh they dig into Steve’s view of the current cultural climate and what’s preventing progress. What role does technology play in evolution and what does evolution tell us about technology? Plus, Steve tells Ilia his hope for our future.
ABOUT STEVE MCINTOSH
“Like life itself, culture is an evolutionary phenomenon.”
Steve McIntosh, J.D., is a leader in the integral philosophy movement and author of the acclaimed books: The Presence of the Infinite—The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, & Goodness (Quest 2015), Evolution’s Purpose—An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins (SelectBooks 2012), and Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution—How the Integral Worldview Is Transforming Politics, Culture and Spirituality (Paragon House 2007). He currently works as president and co-founder of the integral political think tank: The Institute for Cultural Evolution. McIntosh’s innovative political thinking has recently been featured on NPR, The Daily Beast, The National Journal, The Hill, and in a wide variety of other media. He is the author of numerous influential political articles including Depolarizing the American Mind, and Why Centrism Fails and How We Can Better Achieve Political Cooperation.Support the show
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A HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS TRANSCRIPT | S03E06
What Evolution Has to Say about Technology with Steve McIntosh (Part 2)
Robert: Welcome to Hunger For Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Last week, Ilia asked integral philosopher, Steve McIntosh, about the injustice of unhelpful binaries and dualistic thinking in our systems meant to promote progress. Today, Ilia asked Steve how he would encourage institutional progress in an evolutionary world, especially in the face of climate change.
Ilia: I think it's important, first of all, to raise to our explicit awareness that we are in evolution. You know, that evolution is not something happening around us or to us, it is us. And that, again, I find our systems do not deal at all really with the fact that we are in evolution, and therefore, as our systems and values and our ways of seeing the world begin to shift, that in a sense how we're going about the world also begins to shift.
Ilia: Therefore, I think systems need to take on a more organic character that, you know, when the right time comes, the system itself has to give way to new principles and maybe operative structures that can support then an evolutionary way of life. I think we have sort of a systemic fixity, you know, that things don't change in systems, even though we change, even though life itself changed, leaves fall, trees die, and new things are born. And yet, there's something about the systems we've built—I can think of religion just as a case in point, you know, just even more specifically just trying to get, say, the Catholic church just
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to accept evolution fully. And that it's not just like, maybe just the body by evolution and the souls by God or some—and the way we constantly have to rely on the ancients, ancient writers, ancient thinkers, as if we're too afraid to have a completely novel idea that might break free of anything ancient. And I find ourselves really
still, Marshall Mcluhan said, we're always sort of going ahead, looking through the rear view mirror. You know, we're always driving into the future looking through the rear view mirror. And there's something about us that finds, in a sense, more support or security by relying on the past and taking that leap of faith in the world's becoming and creatively advancing into the future with new ideas, new structures. You know, if you were to create a new structure, political structure, economic structure, what might you suggest?
Steve: Sure. To be human is to know what it feels like to be evolution happening as you said, and I think one of the marvels of our age is that this discovery of evolution, it's like an injection of new truth. In other words, the ancients, we have something the ancients didn't have, right. Is the idea that there's nothing new under the sun. Well, evolution is new under the sun in terms of humanity's realization of the story of our origins. And this hasn't been adequately digested or appreciated. I mean, even though it's been 150 years since Darwin, in some ways we've just recently begun to appreciate that the universe is evolution happening. And that this, I refer to it as a kind of revelation of evolution. It's almost like a spiritual teaching unto its own rights. Because it's so much new truth, so much kind of expanded viewpoint, the spiritual implications of it are bound to be profound. And the opportunities for us to take this new truth and use it to improve the human condition and to bring a little bit more heaven to earth. It's like we're in California in 1848, there's just nuggets of gold just laying around. We just pick them up. In other words, all this new truth hasn't yet been put to work. And so, recognizing the opportunity to understand evolution more deeply, understand it in the within of things, you know, as Teilhard did so brilliantly in sort of one of the fathers of our understanding of the revelation of evolution for sure. But we've just begun to unpack the deeper meanings of what it is to live in a universe of becoming and to be agents of that becoming; both within ourselves and within our larger collective.
Ilia: The other thing maybe I just want to touch base on is the fact that we're living now in critical times in terms of global warming. And I'm sure you, like myself and many, many others are deeply concerned about the future of the earth. You know, is it sustainable? Do
we have a future before us? And what kind of future might that be if indeed global warming is warming? And it shocks me. I have to tell you outright, it just shocks me for all that we know, for all the depth of our knowledge and the fact that we can shift, we can change, we can think in a new way. We have been reluctant to do so. Our systems are unable to really make the necessary shifts, and we're facing a dire future. What's your take on where we're going with global warming?
Steve: Sure. Well, I think it's an existential threat to humanity's existence. I think it's the most important issue facing us in our age. I've written about it, you know, the think tank that I'm part of makes it a major issue of our concern. I also believe that the upside of it is that it can be a positive catalyst for the further evolution that isn't—as we solve problems, new problems emerge with greater direness and complexity. The wicked problems are sort of the price we pay for the evolution that we've achieved as a society. And that, this existential problem of a warming world is one that is forcing us to evolve. So what does that mean? That is, there are many progressive people active in politics who were screaming from the rooftops that climate change is dire. That we have to address it immediately, and that the only way to do it is to overthrow capitalism or to generally change everything. And I'm sympathetic to those concerns. I'm sympathetic to the sense of urgency, but I also recognize how from a political standpoint, the problem of climate change being identified by progressive culture has in some ways added to the complexity of solving it. Because many see the telos of progressivism as a large-scale cultural structure, and it's anti-modern, that in a sense, it freezes the rest of society in place. Because if they're afraid that if they get on board with global warming, then that's going to empower progressives—sort of wipe away the best of what's come before. So the idea that it is a change that we need to build political will for, but that political will itself that's so needed is a casualty of the culture war. And our inability to form adequate political will to address these existential challenges -
The think tank that we started in 2012, the focus was on climate change from the beginning. So in other words, climate change has become a cultural football in the culture
war, and how can we help people appreciate that. Like Thomas Friedman once said that “green should be the new red, white and blue.” That everyone should be concerned about global warming, that it's a unifying issue instead of a dividing one. We came to understand that dealing with climate change sort of upstream from that was political polarization, and that that was more of a cultural issue that couldn't be solved within the beltway by political compromise. That we had to grow our way out of this, you know, thesis of the establishment and this antithesis of the progressive postmodern culture, and that, that was the best way to address climate change. The idea that, oh, well, that's too long term, this is too urgent. Well, the greater the pressure, the faster the evolution, at least from a cultural perspective.
So the pressure is increasing, the intractability of the problem is becoming more frustrating. And so, thinking in new ways about it, thinking in more inclusive ways, thinking in ways that can honor modernity and make modernity and technology and capitalism and all other things, which progressives take a dim view of, realizing that that could be a huge ally in overcoming global warming. And that the idea that global warming is a complete justification for the overthrow of our society, rejecting that, and seeing that our society has the resources to deal with it both culturally and technologically, if we can just overcome what we might call the democracy problem. Like, I did a talk on global warming, and I asked the audience, well, how many here people think climate change is an existential threat and that we could easily be doomed by this? And they all raised their hands. And then I said, well, how many people here would be willing to overthrow democracy in order to meet that existential threat? And nobody raised their hands.
Okay, so we have democracy and we have a culture war that's tying our democracy, and so it seems like the answer to global warming, at least it involves a component of cultural evolution. A more synthetic view that can appreciate that we can't just tank the economy, that the economy can be made to still be vital and yet be more sustainable. And I think there's lots of good things happening in that way. I'm not completely sanguine about it taking care of itself. I think the sense of urgency has still got to permeate our discussions,
but I also believe that being more sympathetic to those we see as the enemies, being more sympathetic to their concerns, preserving the best of what's come before, recognizing with 9 billion people on the planet, we can't just safely wipe out modernity that it has to be sort of gradually, it's like turning a giant ship. It takes a little while.
Ilia: That's right.
Steve: And so, I think that recognizing that it's a cultural problem first, and that this revelation of evolution could be applied directly to cultivating the evolution we need to then do the technology and the societal changes that'll make it more sustainable.
Robert: Among the many human institutions at play in this complex dynamic, technology plays an essential role in our shared future. But can its unwieldy allure be harnessed for the common good? Will it bring us together, or will it be our downfall? Coming up, Steve tells us about technology's role in our evolution and his hope for our future.
Ilia: The way technology is operating and the way it's functioning on a planet that is facing a dire future due to global warming, is that technology has become almost a way of sidetracking our attention. I'm really fascinated by the fact that technology has really lured us into its grasp. It has a grasp on us in a way that ecology does not. We're aware of the problems of the environment. They've been with us, I mean, you know, since at least the last 50, 60 years since Rachel Parson sounded the alarm on pesticides, et cetera. And yet, while these conditions of environmental degradation have been continuing, technology has kind of taken us like a giant electromagnetism into its grasp and we are completely fascinated by cyberspace. We actually are enamored by the fact that we can become something other.
So for me the cyber world is like a new Platonism. It's like all the new possibilities of what I can become, and therefore, it takes me out of my reality into a virtual reality, into alternate realities where I can be more than one person. You know, I can go on to Second Life and take on a whole new persona. And this type of thing is actually, so what I want to say is,
first of all, is that technology and ecology are really not aligned in the overall human betterment of the global whole. And I think technology is on a trajectory where it says, well, you know, we're kind of stuck on this human level, and now it can become superhuman. So the transhumanist movement is we can become something other than human, we can go beyond ourselves. So as one technologist said, biological life was never our destiny; maybe chips are our destiny, maybe silicon is our destiny, maybe another form of elemental life is our destiny.
In other words, we have confined ourselves or we've defined ourselves by biological carbon-based life, but maybe this isn't it. And that is what technology in a sense is both alluring and frightening. In other words, it holds out for us, “wow, this is what you can become, infinite fields of creative imagination.” And on the other hand, it's saying, “why are you so worried about ecology? We're good.” First of all, we can solve some of these problems with technology, but we'll become something completely other than. We'll download our brains, we'll go into different, you know, embodiments, we can take up new bodies if consciousness is just an epic phenomenon, if it's just something that we can take out and repackage within a new medium, why are you so worried about biological life? And so, we have to align, and this is one of the things I see with religions, the world, religions still kind of tribalized and all competing for their salvation theories and who has the best eschatology and whose God is the real God type thing. So, they're out of the picture. They're not major voices in what's taking shape here.
So technology's like, “we're the new gods,” you know, “here it is. We've got the power, we've got the imagination, and we're little deities, so we'll just take it away from here.” And I think this is where Teilhard would say, we have to reboot the cosmic hole. The whole thing's a rebooting. It's like you reboot your computer, you know, when the file, when it starts to crash. Well, this planet is sort of like on the verge of being a giant computer that's about to crash, and we need to reboot it and therefore get a whole new kind of taking up of a new life, where I do think we have to bring those religious sympathies into it. They have to be integrated into this whole of human evolution, of human evolution into these
organic systems. And I would say maybe re situate technology within this wider hole. Because I think some of the problems that you're naming are not only not going to go away; we're going to continue to fragment. That's in a sense, even though we are on a new level of consciousness in the news sphere because of technology. So it's never a clear cut, as we well know, it's never one or the other.
Ilia: But I do think that overall, technology does two things. It allows us to remain privatized. I can stay in my room and go online and be connected to everything—then that's a problem. So the organic is, you know, the biological life, the organic life. What is the basis of connectivity? What is the basis of a new collective whole? What is the basis of belonging to something together? It can't be just mind alone or something that's informational without the embodiment of connectivity, which includes then the natural world and animal life, plant life and elemental life.
Steve: I can say that one of the key lessons from this revelation of evolution is that evolution at every level builds on itself by taking up and using the accomplishments or the essence of what came before, sort of almost, in some cases, volumetrically envelops it. And this idea of rebooting our society, in some ways, that's what emergence does; it provides a kind of a fresh view. But we also know from the revelation of evolution that we can't just wipe away what came before and start from scratch, because then we'll have to make all the same mistakes again on the trajectory. The battle begins with new, with every birth, but the culture does not, the culture has a degree of continuity. And to the extent that we want to build the next sustainable level of evolution culturally, and in terms of consciousness, then we have to include the biological and the in-person. We have to recognize that the over embrace of technology is in a sense, a symptom of the lack of adequate transcendence. As transcendence has been driven out of the culture for understandable evolutionary reasons to sort of break free of the medieval structures.
But of course, that becomes unsustainable in itself because everyone needs transcendence as part of reality, as part of the food that feeds our souls, and that the worship of technology as a poor substitute for transcendence is part of the malady of our age. Also, this idea that this escapism or the notion that we're just going to escape our biology or we're going to escape the biosphere; that's a form of disassociation that you see whenever you sort of break with the structure of emerges, which you're not transcending and including, we're just trying to transcend without including, then that leads to dissociation, which is almost always pathological. And so, the pathological nature of overemphasis on technology or making technology our savior, meaning trying to claim that technology can deliver all the transcendence that we need, that that's one of the maladies that is creating the pressure for us to reboot, to pray for, to participate in, and to generally be part of this next emergent level that's appearing now on the horizon of history. So, that's what gives me hope and faith that evolution is continuing. And no matter how dire things seem, I think we'll find a way to muddle through.
Ilia: Wow. That's great, Steve. Thank you so much.
Robert: This concludes our conversation with Steve McIntosh. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. If you're interested in hearing more about the speakers or presentations from the Whitehead-Teilhard Conference, keep an eye out christogenesis.org as resources become available. As always, I'm Robert Nicastro, thanks for listening.