The Universal Dialectic
Is there a direction in history? Many modern philosophers would say no, and that the concept of progressive advancement is either a myth or a misunderstanding. But is such a view consistent with a what we observe in the real world?
Despite numerous problems and setbacks, it seems undeniable that the overall state of the world has progressed over the centuries. In terms of living conditions, a significant percentage of the world's population has seen significant advancement.
Denials of progress are generally based on a limited view of of current or past problems, such as world wars, ongoing exploitation of the third world, environmental crisis, etc. Although these problems and many more are very real, they do not negate the fact that in almost every measure, the conditions of human life on earth have improved measurably since the inception of technology.
People are living longer, healthier lives. Where a lifespan of 40 years was once a notable achievement, people are now routinely living into their 80's and 90's. Quality of life has also improved correspondingly, with people suffering fewer and fewer debilitating long-term illnesses.
Despite two world wars in the last century, the number of lives lost to war and violence per 100,000 has nonetheless dropped almost continuously throughout recorded history. Human life has become easier, less dangerous, and longer - in direct answer to Hobbes' observation that the natural state of human life is "nasty, brutish, and short."
If progress is simply a myth or a misunderstanding, did all of this happen by accident? Have we explored space, walked on the moon, cured polio, split the atom, and created the Internet for no reason at all, or through mere happenstance? While some would undoubtedly present arguments to that effect, I will leave them aside here and presume that progress does exist, and that it is demonstrated in history.
Rehabilitating Progressive Thought
If progress does exist, as I have argued, what is its nature? What is the engine of progress? How does it work? It is these questions which I will examine and attempt to answer by introducing the concept of a Universal Dialectic.
In another article in this journal, Dialectics 101, the basic elements of dialectical thought are introduced. If the reader is not familiar with dialectics, he or she is urged to read "Dialectics 101" before proceeding. It is not within the scope of this article to revisit the fundamentals of dialectical thought.
If, having studied and understood the precepts of dialectical thought, we accept it as valid, we are prepared to ask, "might dialectics itself represent the ontological state of the world?" It is my contention that the answer is a resounding "yes."
A Universal Dialectic, briefly defined, is "the infinite, essential, and fundamental principle of evolutionary and/or progressive creation which actualizes all potential states of being through the self-organizing interaction of complementary polarities." More concisely, it is "the process of Becoming, or existence," where becoming is defined as the synthesis of being and non-being, as Hegel put it.
Thus, the Universal Dialectic is not only an ontological statement of "how reality is," it is also a description of "how existence becomes." In this sense, it is simply an observation of how Nature works in the broadest sense. It is a description of the world's dynamic process. It is closer to Heraclitus' "eternal flux" than Parmenides' stasis, although it recognizes both as complementary descriptions of a single reality.
The concept of a Universal Dialectic is identical with dialectical monism, which is defined as "an ontological position which holds that reality is ultimately a unified whole, distinguishing itself from monism by asserting that this whole necessarily expresses itself in dualistic terms." For the dialectical monist, the essential unity is that of complementary polarities which, while opposed in the realm of experience and perception, are co-substantial in a transcendent sense.
Unity and Duality
Because unity is expressed as duality, there is contradiction in nature, and this contradiction produces complementary opposites which interact with each other, creating various new syntheses as a result of the interaction. rather than being static or cyclical, this process of creation is progressive, or "spiral shaped." This helps to explain why we seem to perceive a teleology (a direction of advancement or progression, or seemingly goal-directed behavior) in nature, even though there is no evidence of any conscious intent guiding the process.
There is unity in all opposition or duality, due to the fact that all opposing polarities are ultimately united in the Universal Dialectic. The term itself gives evidence of what it is intended to mean - in all things there is a dialectic (a pairing of opposites), but this dialectic is itself universal (singular and infinite in scope). Again, we find that the essential theme is "unity in duality, duality in unity."
In this view, the Universal Dialectic is what drives progress. Conditions advance because the never-ending conflict between complementary but opposed ideas and values leads to the emergence of an endless supply of new syntheses, each representing a refinement of the theses and antitheses which produced it.
In this way, Nature organically self-organizes from the ground up, just as science and common sense observe. But self-organization and evolution do not necessarily imply progress in and of themselves. In order for self-organizing evolution to be harnessed progressively, intelligence (such as that of humans) must be applied.
Emergent Progressive Evolution
Nature provides only an endless supply of increasing complexity. This is the unconscious action of the Universal Dialectic. Its conscious action occurs when increasing complexity produces the emergence of intelligence. Intelligent beings have the ability to embody the process of evolution in a self-aware manner and shape their environments to their needs with intelligence and conscious direction.
It is then that we can translate the unconscious process of self-organizing dialectical evolution into the terms of progress, improvement, advancement, etc. By embodying the evolutionary force in a self-aware manner, intelligent beings take control of of their own destinies and improve their own conditions in ways relevant to them.
"Progress" is quite simply the improvement of human conditions. While this is no new realization, the process which allows for and actualizes progress remains ill-understood. The potential for progressive evolution is inherent to Nature. Through blind but relentless self-organization, the emergence of intelligence may be inevitable - and once intelligence emerges, progress inevitably occurs.
What, then, is the long-term outcome of progress? To what end is the Universal Dialectic carrying us? While it would require an entire paper to treat this question adequately, it can be briefly surmised that if intelligence and progressive evolution are inevitable outcomes of a universal natural process, there must be countless other examples of intelligent life in the Universe.
And yet, when we turn our ear to the stars, we hear only silence. This puzzling and counter-intuitive result is known as the Fermi paradox, and it poses the question "if life is common in the Universe, where is everybody else?"
A Living Universe
The concept of a Universal Dialectic and the progressive evolution it implies may provide an answer. Our own technology is rapidly advancing in many fields, including those of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Suppose that at some point in the perhaps-not-too-distant future, we simply outgrew the need for organic physical embodiment?
It may seem fantastically Utopian to propose that perhaps the Universe is teeming with life, but it is of a form we do not recognize because we are not looking the right way. Nonetheless, it may be that when civilizations outgrow physical embodiment, they construct vast virtual realities closed off from our own space-time (see my paper "Fundamentals and Philosophical Implications of an Information-Theoretic Evolutionary Model of Accelerated Cosmological Expansion" elsewhere in this journal).
Or, more conservatively, it may be that highly advanced societies never "leave home" or attempt communication because all their physical and psychological needs are fully satisfied on their home world. Provided we do not preemptively destroy ourselves, such a future could await humanity within as few as 500 years.
At any rate, it is not my aim in this article to solve or even fully explore the Fermi paradox, but rather to simply suggest that progress is occurring everywhere in the Universe where intelligent life might be found, and it is likely to render many civilizations essentially "invisible" to us in a relatively short time frame, cosmologically speaking.
The Universal Dialectic is the engine of change. From the first molecules all the way to human social and ideological forces, nature self-organizes from the ground up through the interaction of complementary thesis-antithesis polarities which produce new syntheses. These changes, when interpreted in the framework of human needs, goals, and values, can be viewed as progressive in nature.
In light of the Universal Dialectic concept, progress is viewed as real. It emerges from self-organizing evolution and is present wherever self-aware conscious intelligence is present. Progress is continual and advances because of setbacks and conflicts, not in spite of them. Barring self-annihilation, progress will continue to occur regardless of any culture which fails to recognize it, and will lead humanity to unknown states of advanced being in the centuries ahead.
Just as Columbus would have been shocked and baffled at the alien culture he would have encountered had he landed in the North America of 2003, we too can scarcely imagine the advancements of 500 years hence - but they will occur, just as they occurred between the time of Columbus and today. In this regard, dialectical thought is simply an acknowledgment of history.
Discuss This Article at the Synthesis Forums