Western Civilization - Now What?
The mood in the Western world today is somewhat strange. Against an arguably uplifting backdrop – a lasting peace, extended life expectancy, a steadily decreasing violent crime rate, rising education levels, greater social tolerance, a continuous flow of innovations making life ever more comfortable – there is a general sense of unease and a diminishing confidence in the future. Many authors have offered explanations for this malaise in the civilization, analyzing it from various angles: political, economic, religious, psychological or environmental. But these explanations, as pertinent and convincing as they are, appear to come short of identifying what underlies the present state of Western civilization.
After having unified itself through Christianity, produced the Scientific Revolution, launched the Industrial Revolution, dazzled humanity with its artistic masterpieces, and developed democracy, the West is having doubts about its future. Government is deemed increasingly ineffective, consumed by a never-ending struggle between opposing parties, rather than focused on devising and implementing strategies that will benefit society lastingly. Christianity, the traditional religion, is no longer the spiritual framework of existence to a majority of Westerners. This essay has the ambition to offer an explanation of this particular state Western civilization finds itself in, and a possible remedy to it.
1)The present state: horizontality
The Western world today is characterized by horizontality. Horizontality arose from the Scientific Revolution and its mechanistic concept of nature, which infused Western culture thanks to its success in explaining natural phenomenon. The mechanistic concept of nature transformed nature from being subject to the will of God to being governed by fixed laws. It was horizontal in that nature no longer depended on the will of some supernatural agent above and beyond it. Following the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment philosophers extended this concept of a horizontal and independent physical reality to the human world, and arrived at a horizontal concept of humanity: human beings are naturally equal, and they should govern themselves rather than be governed by a ruler above and separate from them. Horizontality has had two main effects in Western civilization: the birth of democracy and the fading of spiritual transcendence.
The Enlightenment philosophers drew a conclusion from the notion that all human beings are naturally equal. Their logical conclusion was that all human beings should have equal rights. They named those rights as natural or human rights. These include liberty, equality before the law, freedom of expression, freedom of association, property rights and equal political rights. Equal political rights mean equal right to run for elections, equal right to vote at elections, and equal voting power in elections (one person’s vote has the same weight as another person’s vote). This set of fundamental rights are now universally approved in Western society and deeply embedded in Western minds.
Democracy is the product of the equality of political rights. It is therefore firmly established in Western societies. But the Western world would be mistaken if it thought that because it is the most powerful civilization in the world today with its technical superiority, its political system is vindicated, or that its political system is a condition of its material success. In fact, historically, the technical supremacy of the Western world well preceded the development of democracy. The Scientific Revolution, which started in 1543 with Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and was achieved in 1687 with Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, took place in a Europe with non-democratic political systems: kingdoms, duchies, principalities and empires. Significant material and technical development followed and just before 1800 for the United States and in the middle of the 1800s for most European countries, various forms of democracy were adopted. And most of these were far from full democracies at the time, as a large part of society was not allowed to vote. After the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment came about with its new ideas and ideals centered around the principle of equality which would mature into the political system that is democracy. I argue that one of the three equalities of right on which democracy is based, namely the equality of voting power, is misguided. Not grounding the political system in a correct understanding of social organizations makes democracy in its current form unsustainable over the long run.
The ‘bottom-up’ approach to strategic decisions in an organization rarely works. The ‘top-down’ approach is the only way an organization can be effective over the long run. Competences, abilities, experience as well as information are not the same between the top, the executive level, and the bottom, the production level. In an army for example, those in command have different competences, skills and knowledge from the soldiers on the ground. They also have aggregate information relevant to their scope of decision which soldiers don’t have. Soldiers, for lack of relevant competences and information, cannot be put in charge of strategic decisions; that would be disastrous in the conduct of war. But this is in essence what happens in a democratic political system. In a democracy, someone who does not have the competences, experience or knowledge suited to make strategic decisions for society, takes part on an equal footing with someone who does to the political process that sets society’s strategy. Electing leaders in a representative democracy doesn’t solve the problem because the leaders must at least to some extent mirror the electorate since the electorate selects them. The lack of competences, experience and knowledge in the electorate are reflected in the policies on which candidates run their campaign. And once elected, the leaders must strive to implement the policies they ran on – otherwise they won’t be re-elected.
The development of democracy transformed the Western world in a very profound and positive way. It emancipated people from unfair and authoritarian regimes. This development happened gradually, with women gaining the right to vote only around 1920 in most Western countries. For some countries, full democracy became effective even later when all minorities were granted the right to vote and stand elections. Including everyone in the political process, not discriminating people based on gender, race, wealth or other arbitrary characteristics, has been a prodigious progress for humankind. However, along with the unfairness of prior political regimes, democracy also removed one element that is required in order to maintain an effective social organization: verticality. It abandoned a key social principle that breeds and sustains success.
Businesses soundly are still organized vertically, and this is a cornerstone of their achievements. Their ability to bring about a high level of innovation and efficiency depends on this verticality, on this top-down approach. Companies and corporations are the main drivers of Western civilization’s success today. However, they have nowhere near the scale of society. Their number of employees is very small compared to society’s total population. For this reason, they cannot provide verticality at the scale of society. Moreover, as they deal mostly with commercial and economic matters, they are not much involved in important and strategic areas such as education, scientific research, defense, justice, infrastructures and long-term planning.
The fading of spiritual transcendence
In the absence of modern science and its explanation of the workings of the natural world, including the origins of the human species, the founders of Judaism, the religion preceding Christianity, conceived transcendence as a personal deity. God created the world, and he was personal which meant that he could communicate with humans. His message to them was to explain why they existed and what the purpose of life was. The founders of Judaism wrote ‘holy scriptures’ laying out the contract between God and the Jewish people. This gave life a superior overarching meaning beyond day-to-day survival and beyond the very short span of life. The central element tying humans to God was morality. God was conceived as the source of morality, and morality was the vehicle through which humans could fulfill their purpose on Earth. Christianity, having its source in Judaism, also tied humans to God through morality. Morality and its ultimate form, love, were seen by early Christians as the answer to the question of life’s purpose. A lapse in morality was the reason for ‘the Fall’, the reason why humans are mortals living on Earth rather than immortals living with God. Morality was also the path to follow in order to regain the privilege and felicity of being united with the creator. By worshiping God and behaving at the highest moral standard, humans would get God’s blessing on Earth and join him in the afterlife. This provided the meaning of human existence.
Morality was central because it was critical to the survival of a small and vulnerable Jewish people compared to its much bigger neighbors. A breakdown of morality was a great risk to society’s strength and unity. Society relied on the existence and respect of a moral code for its strength and unity. Besides, morality benefits any society as it raises the level of trust between people and strengthens the bonds of society. The fact that the meaning of life set out by a religion aligns with the interest of its people is not a reason to doubt the tenets of the religion. That a very important principle to society and society’s transcendence were aligned is in fact highly rational. Why would God make a contract with his people that would be against their interest? What kind of God would that be? A contract centered on morality was a perfectly rational explanation of human existence and human condition. Without scientific knowledge and with morality so important to society, a transcendent God who the first humans had disobeyed and who would welcome them again in his realm with the condition that they behave impeccably, was a very plausible answer to the question of the meaning of life.
The other major reality of those times, one that continued for many centuries, was the brevity of life. Deadly diseases, epidemics, poor living conditions, wars, crimes – all meant that death was ever-present and ubiquitous in society. A person who continued to live until old age was an exception. Living under the shadow of death was the rule. As a response, God offered everlasting life in return for moral exemplarity.
In summary, the tenets of Judaism and Christianity were answers to the most pressing problems of the time, giving credible reasons for these problems and the way to address them, thereby providing the meaning of existence. Then Christianity, a small sect from Judea, grew and developed throughout the Roman Empire where the official religion inherited from Ancient Greece was nearing the end of its life. Christianity embraced the entire natural world in a single view, the ‘creation’, thereby unifying natural phenomena, and the transcendent being, God, was the sole cause behind all existence. This encompassing view was a great ‘advance’ from the Greek mythology in which multiple gods were responsible for multiple aspects of nature – sea, time, earth, sky, wind, light, etc. The Greco-Roman religion had become difficult to believe, increasingly considered a collection of myths, just as with Christianity today.
As a result of the Scientific Revolution which made nature no longer dependent on the will of a supernatural being but moved by its own forces and governed by its own laws, the transcendent Christian god started losing its influence and fading from the front stage of Western societies. The new horizontal way of looking at nature, using mathematical tools, yielded extraordinary results, and over the four centuries following the start of the Scientific Revolution, it debunked Christian explanations of the origins of Earth, of life and of humanity itself. In addition, the immense technical progress made since the beginning of the modern era in the Western world has made immoral conduct less able to destabilize society to the point of threatening its viability. Major advances in material conditions and the resulting diminished likelihood of imminent death have also made human beings less volatile. As a result, the subject of morality has become less critical to human society, and for this reason, morality has been secularized, no longer linked to the sacred. The moral explanatory power of our existence has thus vanished. Moral-centric transcendence has gradually disappeared from a Western world transformed by technical progress and the individual empowerment that has come with it, rendering the strong norms of conduct imposed from above no longer necessary. Westerners also gradually came to understand the rationale behind moral conduct and the relativity of it to a certain extent, history showing that moral standards evolve as new material conditions and social conditions arise. This increasingly has pushed morality into the sphere of scientific inquiry, similarly to nature which is studied and explained by the natural sciences and no longer by religion. Evolutionary biology and neuroscience are making progress in understanding moral behavior and moral judgement. On the issue of the shortness of life, progress in agriculture, food safety, sanitation, medicine and general material living conditions have been so great and so transformative that today someone in the Western world can expect to live 80 years. This is a dramatic change from the past, even as recently as two centuries ago. The absence of major war in the Western world is also a significant change from the past. As a result, the answers upon which Christianity was built are no longer relevant, and thus no longer persuasive. Today, Christianity is by all accounts dying, a ghost of its former self with dwindling active members and persuasive power. It is now widely considered a myth. Its purported miracles have become irremediably unbelievable for most people. This means that its return to a central position in society is unthinkable. As the Christian religion is fading, Westerners find themselves wobbling in a spiritual vacuum.
There are some who think that humanity should rid itself of transcendence altogether, jumping to the conclusion that transcendence has been discredited and is an unnecessary fantasy. But transcendence is a fundamental dimension of existence, and a relation to it, a relation to a particular expression of it, is a profound aspiration of human beings. Denying this side of human existence is like denying the tails side of a coin. The crisis of religion in the West is not the prelude to an a-spiritual civilization. It is important not to confuse the means of expressing and maintaining the spiritual dimension (e.g. Christianity) with the spiritual dimension itself (transcendence). The means are transient, passing, limited in time as with all human enterprises, but the end is universal and timeless, a fundamental dimension of human existence. As the idiom goes, one must not throw the baby – transcendence – out with the bathwater – expression of transcendence in a given religion or spirituality. The expressions of transcendence observed across space and time, plentiful and rich, are vehicles for this universal dimension of existence. What we now call myths were transcendence expressed in specific contexts, times and societies. They were the vehicles through which transcendence was made present and effective in society.
2)The need for verticality
Life and entropy
Science defines a complex life form, such as an animal or a plant, as an organism composed of specialized cells (e.g. muscle cells, brain cells, lung cells, blood cells), which are composed of complex molecules (e.g. proteins, phospholipids, deoxyribonucleic acid), which are composed of basic chemical elements (e.g. atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen). A living organism is therefore a highly ordered structure compared to the scattered basic chemical elements from which it is composed. Life is order that strives to persist, order striving to maintain itself. But, as everything in nature, it is subject to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This law states that entropy – the measure of disorder – in an isolated system (no exchange of energy or matter with the outside) inexorably increases until it reaches its maximum. Left alone, any organism gradually loses its order and ultimately decays, decomposing back into its basic chemical elements. Only by exchanging with the environment – taking from it building materials (e.g. proteins, lipids) and energy (e.g. oxygen, glucose, lipids) – is an organism able to maintain its low entropy, by making new cells to replace damaged ones. The new cells have a lower entropy than the damaged ones they replace. Another important way in which an organism maintains a low entropy is by avoiding damage to its cells in the first place. In the case of humans, this is achieved by creating a material environment (e.g. hygiene, shelter, clothing) that is favorable to preserving cells. The social environment also plays a major role in keeping entropy low, by lowering the risk of adverse events and the stress associated with them, thanks to various social structures ensuring a level of mutual protection and mutual support.
A living organism is entirely designed to fight off damage and destruction, to counter this entropic increase. It is its raison d’être. It is an order designed to persist and maintain itself. And while doing so, it constantly seeks new ways to achieve this, new ways that will give better results, more protection from the natural increase of entropy. In biology, this is achieved through evolution, the order improving upon itself with added complexity to be better at defending itself, accommodate more conditions, access and harness more types of nutrients, etc. That’s how the animal realm came about, animals having the ability to move in order to better take advantage of their environment and to escape threat. Beyond biology, there is also an evolution of our human-made environment: the built environment (buildings, roads, tools, machines, clothes, etc.) and the social environment (social organization and institutions). Tools for example have evolved throughout history with the development of ever more effective and sophisticated technologies. The human-made environment has ultimately the same purpose as our organs: to help maintain the order that we are.
Human beings are social animals taking part in a social order from which they benefit enormously, as mentioned above. The social order is akin to an ‘organism’ that, when functioning well, is effective at preserving its constituent ‘cells’, the individuals. That’s the reason behind morality for example. Morality defines virtuous social behaviors that favor mutual trust between the members of society, and its practice leads to a stronger and more productive society. Trust is an essential factor promoting group order, creating bonds that strengthen society and therefore lower its entropy. Distrust on the other hand breaks down these bonds and increases entropy of society as a result. The age-old question when dealing with social organization is, what is a better system to increase the overall order of society? In answering this question, some people emphasize general notions such as equality or individual liberty, while others look to more specific measures such as public education, public healthcare, deregulation, social security, low tax levels or redistribution of wealth.
In the simple case of a physical system containing particles moving in random directions, one way to lower entropy is to have a force move the particles in one direction to one side of the container, thereby creating a higher degree of order in the system compared to the initial state where the particles were spread randomly across the container. If the force stops, the particles will slowly spread across the entire container again, increasing the entropy of the system until the system reaches the state of maximum entropy. Another example of lowering entropy is a chemical reaction that produces bigger molecules than the ones at the start of the reaction (e.g. 2 H2 + O2 -> 2 H2O). The forces that cause this chemical reaction are the electric forces of the atoms; they are internal forces of the system. The system is able to achieve a lower entropy because the chemical reaction produces entropy in the form of heat that is transferred to the environment by diffusion. A third example combining the two previous ones is photosynthesis that green plants perform, taking in energy from sunlight and converting it into the force required for the chemical reaction that produces complex carbohydrates and oxygen out of water and carbon dioxide (6 H2O + 6 CO2 -> C6H12O6 + 6 O2). In this case, external energy and the internal electric forces of the atoms are used to lower the entropy.
In all cases, to lower the entropy of a system, a force needs to be applied to the elements of the system – either an internal force or an external one. At the human social scale, this force is what I call verticality. There are two types of verticality: authority, which is internal to society, and transcendence, which is external.
Authority can be obtained by a competence that other people value, by force, or by a combination of the two. Authority is granted either officially, giving the holder a specific status, or unofficially. Hierarchy is the official vertical ranking in an organization, where the members above hold authority over those below. Authority brings order to society, and therefore lowers its entropy. Authority obtained by competence is more effective at lowering entropy than authority obtained by force.
The other type of verticality is transcendence. Transcendence stems from the mysterious part of existence. It is the dimension of existence that escapes our comprehension, that is beyond what we can conceive. It is the ‘outside’ in human existence. It is the utmost form of verticality in the sense that the outside ‘dominates’ the inside; it is much ‘bigger’. By virtue of this quality, transcendence is the type of verticality that brings the most order to human existence and to society. In order for this external force or energy to act on society, in order for society to harness this energy and thus lower its entropy, society needs to make itself receptive to it. It does so by expressing the mysterious part of existence in human terms. It is analogous to the chemical receptors in plant leaves that enable plants to receive energy from the sun and use it to lower their entropy. A society’s expression of transcendence is the receptor that makes transcendence an effective force in society. It allows society to receive energy from this ‘outside’ and use it to lower its entropy.
The particular forms taken by the two types of verticality in a given society, although they don’t seem so at first, are mirroring each other. Christianity, with its all-powerful God, mirrored the autocratic political system – kingdoms, principalities and empires – that were in place at the times of its development and apogee. That’s why for example God was also called ‘the Lord’ or ‘the ruler of the world’. And that’s why the decline of these autocratic political regimes occurred concurrently with the fading of Christianity. This mirroring is also true today. The flat political system and the spiritual vacuum correspond. They are the products of the lack of verticality.
Verticality is a cornerstone of society. The virtual elimination of such an essential structuring force in Western societies today, aside from the corporate world, is I think the main reason behind the feeling of unease and disorientation growing in the Western world. This feeling is a consequence of basing society on a horizontal conception of existence. The confusion of the Western civilization is the symptom of the breaking down of society-wide vertical orders. This civilization, in freeing itself from the restrictive corset of outdated regimes of verticality, setting off the age of a flat model of existence, has thrown away along with the oppressiveness and unfairness of the old world the verticality essential to life and society. It threw out the baby with the bathwater.
3)A new verticality
Verticality, as we’ve seen, is the force structuring and maintaining society, the force creating its order. Verticality in a political system means that political power cannot be held equally by all members of society. The legitimacy that equality supposedly confers to the horizontal democratic political system, and that is one of the main arguments in its favor, stems from an abstract conception of human society. What people ultimately desire is the best system to lower both their entropy and society’s overall entropy. Lowering entropy is the purpose of society, not equality or some other abstract notion. It is doubtful that a majority of people are attached to this equality of voting power.
As we’ve seen, the internal type of verticality is authority, and one way to produce authority is by a competence that others recognize and value. Therefore, one way to introduce verticality at the heart of democracy is to inject some competences in the political system. A solution is a weighted voting system, where the weight of a vote, instead of being the same for all voters, is determined by the voter’s level of qualification. The level of qualification of voters would be assessed by simple tests. This brings verticality to the heart of democracy, producing overall a more qualified electorate in charge of setting the strategy for society and selecting the political representatives to deliver it. It is a sort of democracy 2.0, a significant upgrade from the rudimentary version 1.
It is not the purpose of this essay to state what those qualifications or attributes ought to be, nor what scale of electoral weighting should apply. That is for society to agree upon, and to iteratively improve and adjust. However, some sensible qualifications and attributes in my view would be: life experience (age), thinking consistency (logic), scientific literacy, and knowledge of fundamental economics. The 21st-century Western world has the technical means and infrastructures to develop and implement these kinds of tests to determine the level of qualification of voters. It is technically, financially and practically well within its capacities.
Transcendence in our science-and-technology-powered world
The power that science and technology bestows on humanity has created the conditions for a modernized expression of transcendence to arise. It is this power that renders the old transcendence expression outdated and makes it become a myth. The sense of mastery over nature that science and the many technological inventions have imparted to humans, and the sense of security derived from it, have made supernatural explanations of reality unbelievable for most Westerners. Science and technology have put Westerners on a new level of existence. This modern relation to reality, more secure, reality being more predictable and more under control, leads transcendence to be expressed also in modern terms. The technical and impersonal reality that science describes and that is our new base reality leads transcendence to be expressed also in more technical and impersonal terms.
The expression of transcendence that I believe corresponds to our science-and-technology-defined world is: the opposite of our reality. By our reality I mean the reality defined by science – the physical reality. Physical reality is our reality in the 21st century. The opposite of our reality is a radical other, an ‘outside’ of this ‘home’ that is our reality. To direct one’s attention to it is a strange experience, a transcendental experience – an experience of infinity.
Transcendence is of a different nature than reality obviously; that is why it is the domain of spirituality whereas reality is the domain of science and practical life. Our relation to it is a spiritual one. In Christianity, the relation to God is called faith; it is a belief in his existence and a will to cultivate a personal relationship with him. In the case of the opposite of our reality, there isn’t a personal relationship with a deity based on trust, love and worship; it is an experience of radical otherness and infinity. By experiencing infinity, we realize the finite nature of our reality. This is what establishes spiritual verticality, infinity being ‘superior’ to the finite. By acknowledging this transcendence, people and society access a superior state, they are elevated. This is how the new form of transcendence and the new qualification-weighted democracy are mirroring each other. Qualifications elevate the ones who have them and thus elevate democracy.
All forms of transcendence come with core tenets that are not and cannot be fully explained, demonstrated or justified. It comes from the essential characteristic of transcendence as what is beyond our comprehension, beyond everything we can conceive. Such a blind spot is a defining characteristic of transcendence. This is why even though the Christian god has multiple attributes (omnipotent, loving, creator, etc.), it is also the deus absconditus, the hidden god whose essence is unknowable. The modernized form of transcendence as the opposite of our reality obviously satisfies this criterion. By definition it cannot be described in detail or be fully explained. Ideologies from the Enlightenment Age until today have had the ambition to anchor the social order solely in a rock of rational and universal principles that everyone could find within and by themselves, and therefore agree upon. They have been trying to make such principles explicit and transparent for everyone to understand and agree upon. These fundamental principles would form the cornerstones of a ‘social contract’, and laws would derive from them the same way mathematics were derived from simple and self-evident axioms. Egalitarianism for example uses equality as the fundamental principle. These principles have generally been abstract and centered on the individual. After more than two centuries, it can now be said that these attempts at removing any blind spot from the foundations of the social order by dismissing transcendence and sticking exclusively to the human reality have (unsurprisingly) failed. Not only have these attempts failed in the face of people’s persistent spiritual aspirations, but they never even found a consensus on the values or rights that should constitute the first principles. Stark divisions appeared from the beginning and are still at play today. Spiritual transcendence is not on the margins of human existence; it is part of a whole existence and to imagine a social order without it is I think a serious mistake.
As we’ve seen in part 2, transcendence is an energy for society to lowers its entropy. This outside energy is harnessed by society through having a particular expression of it, suited to the society. And the wider it is acknowledged, the more unifying and powerful it is. The result is an increase in order for society. The opposite of our reality achieves order through the collective experience of infinity which elevates society. It does not achieve order through submission. Christianity is a form of transcendence based partly on submission. Society’s order in our 21st-century civilization cannot be the result of submission. Our civilization allows everyone to follow their own path, explore, and seek their own truth. The opposite of our reality is consistent with the openness and freedom of our 21st-century civilization, because it is an openness itself; it does not impose any belief or meaning. It is a ‘place’ of absolute openness, and it unifies people in the shared experience of this infinite openness.
I began this essay by pointing out what I think characterizes the present state of the Western civilization, a horizontality that is weakening Western societies by producing an ineffective political instrument and dismissing the essential dimension of existence that is spiritual transcendence. After explaining the necessity of verticality as a structuring force of society and where it comes from, I presented a new, modernized version for its two types – the temporal and the transcendental.
I first presented a version of verticality within the political system of representative democracy. This verticality takes the form of unequal voting power among citizens. This means weighting the vote of citizens in accordance with their qualifications and abilities. This introduces a vertical principle at the heart of democracy. Then I presented a renewed form of transcendence, the opposite of our reality. This expression of transcendence corresponds I think to our science-and-technology-based civilization. I believe that with these two new forms of verticality, a temporal one and a spiritual one, the West can have a more positive and effective future.