Metamodern View of Reality

One’s understanding of science is intertwined with, but distinguishable from, one’s view of reality at large. There’s the classical distinction made between physics (the study of the natural realm and the relative interrelations of its parts) and metaphysics (the relation to reality as an absolute and the idea that reality in itself is beyond any particular fact or pattern). So what is the metamodern view of not only science (this particular category of human endeavor), but of reality itself? Let’s delve in there (beware, this one is dense).

Insights about reality itself can sometimes be gleaned from key findings in the sciences – from Newtonian physics to relativity and quantum mechanics to cosmology and topology to the mathematics of chaos and complexity, to the emergence of Darwinism and ecological science – all of these have informed how we conceptualize the fundamental, underlying assumptions about reality that lie beyond all specific scientific endeavors, that lie at the heart of what humans understand as reality. Metaphysics must lie beyond the reach of science, but we cannot escape having a metaphysical notion of reality – in this sense, we are always religious creatures; it’s just that our religions evolve with society and technology. Metaphysics of course always, in the last instance, relies upon metaphors – as the only absolute reality we have is the directness of experience.

Still, there is a fundamental difference between the range of metaphysical ideas, senses and assumptions that were held in medieval Europe, and those that were prevalent by the turn of the 19th century and those that are cropping up today as a result of advances of science and changes of the social and psychological landscapes of the world. There is pre-modern metaphysics, just as there is modern and postmodern metaphysics – and now we are slowly beginning to see the emergence of a metamodern metaphysics.

“Metaphysics must lie beyond the reach of science, but we cannot escape having a metaphysical notion of reality – in this sense, we are always religious creatures; it’s just that our religions evolve with society and technology.”

Let’s take a look at some metamodern insights (some of which are pedagogically necessary restatements of postmodern ideas). To have a metamodern view of reality is:

  • To see the fractal nature of reality and of the development and applica­bility of ideas, that all understanding consists of reused elements taken from other forms of understanding.
  • To be anti-essentialist, not believing in “ultimate essences” such as matt­er, consciousness, goodness, evil, masculinity, fem­ininity or the like – but rather that all these things are contextual and interpretations made from relations and comparisons. Even the today so praised “rela­tionality” is not an essence of the uni­verse.
  • To no longer believe in an atomistic, mech­anical universe where the ultimate stuff is matter, but rather to view the ultimate nature of reality as a great unknown that we must metaphorically cap­ture in our sym­bols, words and stories. To accept the view of a world being newly born again and again.
  • To see that the world is radically, unyieldingly and completely socially con­st­­ructed, always relative and context bound.
  • To see that the world emerges through complex interactions of its parts and that our intuitive understandings tend to be much too static and mono-causal. This is called complexity. It is the fundamental principle of not only meteorology but also of social psychology, where patterns (such as the “self”) emerge through the interactions of inter­related, inter­dependent dividuals.
  • To accept the necessity of developmental hierarchies – but to be very critical and careful with how they are described and used. Hierarchies are studied empirically, not arbitrarily assu­med.
  • To see that language and thereby our whole worldviews travel through a much greater space of possible, never-conceptualized worlds; that lan­gua­ge is evolving.
  • To look at the world holistically, where things such as scientific facts, per­spectives, culture and emotions interact (this form of interactivity is called hypercomplexity, because it involves not only many interacting units, but interacting perspectives and qualitatively different dimens­ions of reality, such as subjective vs. object­ive reality).[i]
  • To see that information and management of information is fund­a­mental to all aspects of reality and society: from genes to mem­es to money and sci­ence and political revolutions.
  • To ­accept an informational-Darwinian view of both genes (org­anisms) and memes (cultural patterns) competing to survive thr­ough a process of dev­elop­mental evol­ution that involves neg­ative selection (that dis­favored genes and memes go extinct, but continue to exist as poten­tials).
  • To see that Darwinian evolution depends equally upon mutual co­oper­ation and competition; that competition and cooperation are always intertwined.
  • To see the dynamic interplay of the universal and the particular, where for instance humans in more complex societies become more individ­ual­ized, which in turn drives the development of more complex societ­ies where people are more interdependent and more universal values are needed to avoid collapse.
  • To see that the world runs on dialectic logic, where things are always broken, always “stumbling backwards” as it were; that things are always striving for an impossible balance and in that acc­idental movement create the whole dance that we experience as reality. So the develop­ment of real­ity does have directionality, it’s just that we are always blind to this direct­ion; hence the metaphor of “stumbling backwards”.
  • To see that reality is fundamentally open-ended, broken, as it were, even in its mathematical and physical structure, as shown in Gödel’s incomplete­ness theorem and in some of the core find­ings of contemporary physics.
  • To recognize that potentials and potentiality, rather than facts and actual­ities, constitute the most fundamental or “more real” reality. What we usu­ally call reality is only “actuality”, one slice of an infinitely larger, hyper­­complex pie. Actuality is only a “case of” a deeper reality, called “absolute totality”.
  • To explore visions of panpsychism, i.e. that consciousness is every­where in the universe and “as real” as matter and space. But panpsych­ism should not be confused with animistic visions of all things having “spirits”.

Okay, this list is a bit dense, admittedly. We won’t go through it all in detail, but at least you have some metamodern metaphysics elixir in condensed form. Add water and you’ll see it expand and we can study its structure and details together. For now, let’s zoom in on a couple of favorites.

”Everything is always also something else, and you can’t ever pin something down and find its very core or essence. You can just have more or less functional or relevant explanations and accounts for phenomena, depending upon certain situated assessment criteria.”

Metamodern Metaphysics

So the fractal worldview means that you generally approach things fractally: everything is built up of iterations of elements that we may normally think of as opposites or at least distinct from one another.  For instance, we think of life and death as opposites, but death is only possible in relation to life, which in turn always consists of dead matter, the life processes themselves also being processes of dying (things are alive because they are always falling apart). Or you can take “Left and Right” in politics, where Soviet Communism is a far left phenomenon, completely dominated by its internal right wing, so that it in practice becomes more right wing than its adversary the USA. Or the relation between a particular person and society as a whole: society contains all the different (in-)dividuals, all of whom in turn contain society, which they do by virtue of concrete interactions with other (in-)dividuals all of whom contain innumerable aspects of society, and so forth. Religion and science are also in a fractal relationship to one another, as people’s religious beliefs about reality are always influenced by the scientific and technological surroundings, and these religious beliefs in turn determine what can meaningfully be inquired into, for what purposes.

This is of course married to the anti-essentialist stance mentioned above, as any “essence” we try to see as fundamental dissolves as parts of larger and/or smaller fractals. From Thales (who hypothesized that the essence of all things is water) and onwards, people have ascribed different ultimate essences to reality or to different phenomena: matter is the basis of all, physics is, mathematics is, consciousness is, information is, God is, love is, perspective is, relationality is the essence of reality. And things have essences: life has élan vital, humans have souls, there are elements like fire, earth and air, heat is a substance called phlogiston, your annoying neighbor is evil. The metamodern mind places instead a fundamental slot of emptiness or nothingness at the heart of reality (and also/neither doesn’t do so, as reality of course has no essence, and thus cannot be ascribed to emptiness either).

Everything is always also something else, and you can’t ever pin something down and find its very core or essence. You can just have more or less functional or relevant explanations and accounts for phenomena, depending upon certain situated assessment criteria.

One such criterion that deserves a special mention is to arrange things hierarchically. Hierarchies are important to the metamodern worldview in order not to end up in a state of disorder, of pure chaos. We have to see which statements or perspectives are more abstract than others, meaning that they contain the less abstract ones and that they are an instance of a zoomed-out mode of whatever fractal we are studying. So for instance, which is more abstract in mathematics, addition or power functions? Of course it’s power functions, because you cannot understand these without first understanding addition, then multiplication, and then power functions. Power functions are hierarchically above addition. You can’t say that one is just a different type than the other – they are the very same “type of thing”, it’s just that power functions are more abstract. But these hierarchies are never in and of themselves moral hierarchies, in which “GOD loves power functions more than HE loves addition”. If we take the killing of God seriously, we must also understand that there is no ”One Superior Vantage Point” to which we can climb and from which we can judge reality and rate the souls, bodies and minds of ourselves and our fellow human beings. Whenever we habitually ascribe essences of good or evil, or superiority or inferiority, to someone or something, we are unconsciously sneaking in a pre-metamodern God into the framework. So it’s not God’s hierarchy that we’re talking about here, not anything like an “objective moral order” of things. Hierarchy is simply a tool for ordering things so that reality doesn’t crash when we open it up for the onslaught of a fractal, non-essentialist view. Hierarchy isn’t the essence of reality either, it’s just part of the fractal (which isn’t the essence of reality either, but just something we need to cling on to).

This in turn connects us to hypercomplexity: since there is not one fundamental hierarchy or essence or fractal to which we can pin reality and we recognize the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena, we must recognize that things emerge not only as the interactions of well-defined and knowable units (patterns of moving billiard balls in a defined two-dimensional space: atoms, individuals, etc.) but also – and primarily – as intra-actions of discernable but fundamentally undefinable phenomena that interact within an equally discernable but undefinable larger set of dimensions. In other words, we can only know phenomena by also knowing their interactions and relations, as these relations also constitute the phenomena themselves (hence intra-action), and we can in turn only know the space within which phenomena are known by studying the phenomena themselves. As this totality cuts through such different aspects of reality as objective facts, socially constructed perspectives, subjective awareness and systemic contexts – all of which we can study at different levels of fractal zoom, ordered hierarchically – it is simply insufficient to think of reality in terms of “emerging complexity”. If we want to include the gaze of the observer within this study of reality (as well as the social construction of that gaze), then we must call this totality something else. Søren Brier has suggested the term ”hypercomplexity” – and I suppose that’s a good term. Hypercomplexity is thus a concept high up in the metamodern hierarchy of reality, higher up in fact than hierarchy itself. That also, of course, makes it a vaguer and more difficult concept. Hierarchies are always only relative descriptions of the interrelations within the order of things.

If we begin to understand the “functions” that work throughout reality, meaning the functions iterating upon the results of former events which in turn result from the same functions (from “repetition”) – the best examples of which are found, perhaps, from metrology and ecology (but you can find them within sociology as well, as the French philosopher Badiou for instance has given repetition a central place in his philosophy of the political state) – then it becomes clear that more of the same logic or event can often produce different results after many iterations. For instance, a body’s metabolism creates byproducts that eventually kill the organism, which then puts metabolism to an end. Another example; the speed of computing and bandwidth speed increase through similar processes over a number of years, but effect in reality a shift from a late industrial society to a postindustrial internet society. This leads us back to the old Hegelian idea of dialectics, that reality evolves and develops as things break down, that everything is transient because it is, ultimately, unsustainable and almost impossible. Order becomes chaos, chaos brings order, the search for happiness births suffering, suffering births wisdom. Everything is shifting, transforming in profound ways, and everything is imperfect, which is what makes evolution possible in the first place. Contemporary notions of entropy and negative entropy come to mind: life is possible because things are always falling apart.

If reality doesn’t have a master plan, it means that it deals with endless possibility or potential in every moment, even if it congeals in the actualities we experience, resulting from an infinitude of collapsed scales of likelihood. So even as reality is patterned in different ways, in the last instance, it is unbound, in a sense “free”.

If there is an unbound infinite potential in all parts of reality, and all parts of reality are interconnected (across time and space if nothing else, but actually much more intimately than that), we have also reintroduced a kind of “God” to our metaphysics. And this God is everywhere to be found; hence we must take up an interest in exploring pantheistic ideas, i.e. the study of an ever-present God-as-nature, which then lets us entertain the possibility that consciousness in one form or another is not isolated to humans and a few “higher” animals, but is ubiquitous to the universe, unlike normally assumed. This idea or notion is called panpsychism. Consciousness is not viewed as an epiphenomenon, but as an inherent aspect of reality. It is closely related to the position that has historically been called “neutral monism”; i.e. that consciousness and physicality aren’t fundamentally two different things, but one and the same. Far from all people who could be described as metamodernists are panpsychists but there is undeniably a close connection between the two as panpsychism is one of the most discussed and debated issues among metamodern thinkers.

Still reading? Welcome to metamodern metaphysics (admittedly the most difficult part of metamodern philosophy). Next we turn spirituality.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

[i] Brier, S., 2008. Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough! Toronto: University of Toronto Press.