July 21, 2010
Four steps in the pfc’s rise to power
Here’s a working draft of the final section of Chapter 1 of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness. I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.
Four steps in the pfc’s rise to power
No good archaeologist would dream of entering a dig without having some kind of plan in place and preferably a map of the area showing what to anticipate. Similarly, before diving into our cognitive history, it may be helpful to chart out where we expect to go.
Our cognitive history correlates different phases of human cultural evolution with different levels of the pfc’s power of the rest of human consciousness. These are very briefly summarized as follows:
Pfc1: Stirrings of Power
The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago. These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers. Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus). But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 35,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.*
Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power
Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place. Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival. Agriculture was born. Notions of property and land ownership arose. Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing). Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place. Cities and empires soon followed.
Pfc3: The Coup
In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience. Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world. But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality. Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.
Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology. Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines. Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.
Pfc4: The Tyranny
In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day. Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change, leading to increasing destabilization of this relationship.
These stages in the pfc’s rise to power may also be mapped out in the form of a conceptual graph, as seen in Figure 3. The horizontal axis (approximating a logarithmic scale) represents the time in years before the present day. The vertical axis is a conceptual measure, representing the increasing levels of the pfc’s power over human consciousness. If you follow the curve of the graph, you will note four inflexion points, with the curve’s steepness increasing at the beginning of each new phase, such as the first use of symbolic communication and the beginning of agriculture. This represents the notion that, not only does the pfc’s power increase in each phase, but the rate at which it gains power also increases. If you compare this curve to the two earlier graphs, you’ll see that they all share the characteristic that the curve starts going almost vertical a few hundred years ago, around the time of the Scientific Revolution in the west.
Figure 3: Graphic representation of the pfc’s rise to power
You may also note that the line bifurcates at the beginning of monotheism. This reflects the thesis of this book that, with the dualist cosmology of monotheism, the Western mind became more subject to the pfc’s power than the minds of other cultures. This gap continued to increase after the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Finally, you’ll notice that the curve for “non-Western consciousness” doesn’t quite make it to the present day. This signifies how, in the era of globalization, what was originally a “Western consciousness” has really now become a global consciousness. While there are some groups living in remote parts of the world who still hold a fundamentally different worldview, they are few and far between, and for all practical purposes, the pfc’s tyranny has become a worldwide phenomenon.
So now, with map and instruments in hand, it’s time to begin digging.
 The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated. The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed. Some of these timing issues will be discussed in more detail in the relevant chapters.