The crisis of meaning in contemporary society is characterized by a lack of context. Everything has been hyper-contextualized to the point that all context has evaporated and we are left floating in an acontextual ocean of information. Since the time of Hegel, it has been the dogma of the human sciences that all social phenomena are based in history. To understand an event is to understand its historical context. There are no transhistorical truths. Yet Hegel was also the first to bring this realization to its logical conclusion. If all social phenomena are historical, then the discovery of history itself has a historical context. This is why Hegel took his time to be the end of history. There is a history of histories, and therefore there is a kind of transhistorical truth. To put it another way, if all truth is relative, then that truth must itself also be relative. What is it relative in relation to? The absolute. So the discover of history was at the same time a discovery that the absolute or the transhistorical must exist, in a certain way.
But the discovery of history had the effect that it tried to wipe out all previous notions of transhistorical truth. And so what we were left with was the hyper-contextualization of all social phenomena. All social phenomena were seen as embedded in their tightly bound historical constraints. By default, scientific truths took over the throne of transhistorical truths, even though scientists themselves say that science is in continual revision and offers no transhistorical truths. And so particulars began to reign over any kind of overall, universal historical context. And so we are left without an overall story of our time.
What the scientific (and the historical) revolution gained for us in terms of understanding the world as it is, they lost for us in terms of understanding the world as it ought to be. This is precisely the opposite effect that Hegel intended. Hegel emphasized the science of dialectic, which was originally put forth by Socrates and Plato. The science of dialectic is the science of what ought to be. Yet when we look at the modern political dialogue on Twitter, for example, it looks more like all out rhetorical warfare, than a science of dialectic (though this may be going on underneath the surface). What we need is truly modern, scientific conception of dialectic, a true science of what ought to be. This will guide us back to an overall story of the world that is true and good.
Many scientifically minded individuals, such as Max Weber and David Hume, have considered “what ought to be,” to be irrational. In other words, there can be no science of what ought to be. Science has no purpose, science is value-netural, it is not concerned with “what ought to be,” only with “what is.” However, when science is not nested in any kind of deeper value-laden framework, then it has no ethical guidance. Science cannot be harnessed toward bringing society better circumstances or outcomes. There is no basis for judging nuclear warfare to be better than peacetime flourishing. This is obviously absurd, there must be a clear scientific basis for ethical claims. Jordan Peterson has claimed that a Darwinian notion of truth appeals to the survival value of a claim, basically things are true according to whether they pragmatically help us survive. Thus a belief can be metaphorically true, while it is literally false, such as the belief in religion or money.
“What ought to be” is highly complex, in fact more complex than we can conceptualize within our own experience, but that this does not necessarily mean that it is technically “irrational.” It just means that it is more complex than we currently understand, we may be able to understand it tomorrow. How can we have a science of something that we do not understand? We have an intuition about it. In other words, we can represent it in symbolic form. We can compress “what ought to be” into simpler concepts, like a low resolution image which represents the higher resolution original.
Experience is composed of one option, continuously selecting, cutting off many other possibilities. And so experience, is, in some sense, simple. Experience is the low resolution image. By contrast, “what ought to be” is composed of various potentials, various possible futures. This is the complex, high resolution original. All of these possible futures are continuously compressed into this one simple experience. Decision is the act of summing up, compressing, aggregating all of the complex possibilities of “what ought to be,” into one concise, simple experience. But obviously not all decisions are morally equal, there are better and worse decisions. The better decision or experience is the one that compresses the most heterogeneous complexity of “what ought to be” most accurately, into the most concise, most simple possible gesture.
When people compare their low resolution images of experience, they find vast differences. But when they are able to mediate those differences by this field of “what ought to be,” by this complex field of possibility, then they are able to modulate their differences into the more complex, overlapping network of possibilities, without giving up their low resolution convictions. They update their low resolution convictions, by adjusting them to fit more accurately into the higher resolution original. The higher resolution originals overlap with one another because they are more informationally complex. If we each imagine all the hypothetical possibilities of the evolution of our current experience, then those hypothetical possibilities will overlap much more than our current experience itself, which is more limited.
And so we have a concrete way of testing what is ethically better and worse, by direct empirical experience. When experience is an accurate compression of “what ought to be,” then it will be singular, it will be a fluid, uninterrupted continuity of experience. This means that the emotions and the biochemical systems are well regulated. This, in turn, means that individual behaviors meet collective social expectations. And this means that the social order is well configured. So there is a clear continuum between direct experience and the social order. Experience is a compression of the social order, it is a compression of “what ought to be.”
Our direct experience contains the entire social configuration, in compressed form. This is a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous power. The way that we navigate our personal experience, in a sense, determines the equilibria of the world. The gradients of continuity of experience are gradients of entirety. We always try to represent or symbolize the complex whole in a simple manner. We know that this representation is provisional, we use it for reality testing and updating. When we meet something that is unexpected, this interrupts the continuity, this breaks down the conception of the whole in specific ways, and this is meaningful because it indicates the specific place to adjust and adapt.
Understanding experience as a compression of the highly complex whole guides the way back to an overall historical context. By the emergent interactions between people, we each form symbolizations of the whole that begin to resonate and feed back between one another. These stories get more and more sophisticated in content, yet become simpler and simpler in format, until they converge on the one final story. This final story is the collectively synchronized whole of experience.
Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral