Scepticism, Hope and Imagining the Noosphere

This article is a personal response to the idea of the noosphere, the global network of cultural ideas, beliefs, attitudes that can be understood as an emerging planetary consciousness.

Pause for a moment to track your awareness of that last sentence. If you are a scientist like me, you might have been with me right up to those words ‘planetary consciousness’. But then those two words might have sounded a momentary alarm and you might have wondered something like “Is this going to be some new-age rant about the possibilities of global oneness where everything is wonderful?”

When I track this vein of scepticism within me, it finds its roots in an experience that is made up of hope, disappointment, sadness and fear. In words, it might show up as “I dared to hope once that we might live more in unity, but I was punished for being naive both explicitly by others and implicitly in my own experiences of disappointment. I am unwilling to make myself vulnerable to that hurt again.”

But I invite you to consider this beautiful invitation to a new way of thinking from the Human Energy Project:

This trailer, and the superb library of films in the Human Energy Project channel, point to the nature of the new story we need to tell. It is a story of a living, evolving planet where each and every one of us is a neuron in a global planetary awareness.

Watch the series to be inspired. Here I want to briefly stay with the experience of scepticism that I usually have when someone calls for greater global unity because I have come to realise that my scepticism has parts to it that need to be honoured and other parts that need to be examined to see if they are serving me well.

When I watched the Human Energy Project series, I noticed my excitement at the possibility of a more unified world but I also noticed something hesitant within me. So I turned to my favourite tool for working with this sort of ambivalence to clarify — acceptance and commitment training. Specifically, I turned to an alternative to the ACT Matrix model known as the Choice Point model [1]. Over the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with this model as an alternative to the ACT matrix for Prosocial. It has most of the same elements but it makes it clear that every decision is situated in a particular context which I am increasingly realising is important for Prosocial.

Think of the experience of contemplating a world of global unity as a kind of choice-point. The world presents itself to us in the form of an inspiring video and we need to decide what to do with that. Of course, every single moment of every day is a choice point — what will we do with this next moment? Will we act prosocially? Will we engage in self-care? Will we act for the good of ourselves or the good of the group?

Here is what occurred to me:

Lets begin at the top, I am attracted to the video in the first place because I care about unity, increasing harmony, as well as the health and wellbeing of others and social justice. If that was all that was in play, I would think deeply about the ideas and then, if I found them compelling, I would share them widely and use the ideas in my teaching.

But that is not all that is in play. Because I am a rational, learning, self-protecting organism, it is natural that any situation charged with value is also going to be charged with fear. It is the nature of a thinking being that can remember the past and imagine the future that love and fear are always entwined. If we care for someone, we fear rejection or them being hurt; if we care to achieve a project, we fear failure. Things can and do go wrong and the reason the human species is globally dominant is that we evolved to pay a great deal of attention to recollecting and projecting possible disaster.

So three particular fears show up for me in the presence of a video such as this. First, there is the one I alluded to earlier. I don't want to get my hopes up and then be disappointed by humanity. Having my hopes dashed sometimes feels more painful than not caring in the first place. Second, I have social fears for my reputation. What if this is new-age claptrap? Is there some way that this could be shown to be scientifically invalid? Third, there is a set of fears associated with contemplating what a global brain might look like for my individuality. I don't want to be part of a global hive mind if it means losing my individuality and self-determination! If my behaviour is influenced more by these fears than by my values, I wouldn't think about the material deeply and I would avoid sharing it with others.

So now let's gently pause and take in the situation represented in Figure 1. The first thing to notice about this way of viewing the world is that all the fears are perfectly reasonable both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. It makes sense that humans in general, and myself in particular, avoid situations of previous failure. Doing so is a good guide to the preservation of resources if resources are scarce. It makes sense that I care for the quality of information I consume and for my reputation in the eyes of others. Doing so makes me a valued member of the tribe and ensures I am not ostracised. It makes sense that I want to preserve my individuality and self-determination. After all, that is what makes me me.

But seeing all of this also simultaneously opens up space for me to be less in the grip of these fears. I have abundant resources, and pouring them into working on global unity is enormously satisfying even if I do not live long enough to see the effects of my efforts. As I age, I feel more and more trusting that the world will not reject me for being open-minded. And with my involvement in building Prosocial World, I have had the extraordinary good fortune to meet people who are daring to think bravely and carefully about the possibility of greater global harmony, further increasing my trust that I will always belong to the tribes I most care about.

And finally, I have come to realise that fearing the loss of my individuality and self-determination as part of a global brain is actually just a relic of the individualism that pervaded my upbringing and the upbringing of most of us alive today to read this. Whether implicitly or explicitly, I have been taught that each of us should be unique and that acting for the good of the group can lead to exploitation and restriction of freedom. But what being involved in Prosocial has taught me is that no complex system can ever be healthy unless its parts are also healthy. Longing for a more unified world might indeed mean that I cannot do whatever my impulses call for me to do in any given moment, but I will gladly give that up the deeper self-determination of knowing that I have a place in the universe of things, that I belong as I also contribute to the greater good. Fearing being like a termite comes from a place of scarcity and domination. From a place of plenty and self-awareness, I long to be a part of something greater than my limited self.

I would love to hear from you about how this post affected you.

[1] This is my version of the choice point model that I have been exploring as a way of talking with groups. It may differ in important ways from the original model first proposed by Bailey, Ciarrochi & Harris (2013) and then revised by Harris (2018) for more therapeutic contexts but I am grateful to those authors for their inspiration.