The Goodness of the Universe

In 2010, physicists Martin Dominik and John Zarnecki ran a Royal Society conference, Towards a Scientific and Societal Agenda on Extra-Terrestrial Life addressing scientific, legal, ethical, and political issues around the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). Philosopher Clement Vidal and I both spoke at that conference. It was the first academic venue where I presented my Transcension Hypothesis, the idea that advanced intelligence everywhere may be developmentally-fated to venture into inner space, into increasingly local and miniaturized domains, with ever-greater density and interiority (simulation capacity, feelings, consciousness), rather than to expand into “outer space”, the more complex it becomes. When this process is taken to its physical limit, we get black-hole-like domains, which a few astrophysicists have speculated may allow us to “instantly” connect with all the other advanced civilizations which have entered a similar domain. Presumably each of these intelligent civilizations will then compare and contrast our locally unique, finite and incomplete science, experiences and wisdom, and if we are lucky, go on to make something even more complex and adaptive (a new network? a universe?) in the next cycle.

Clement and I co-founded our Evo-Devo Universe complexity research and discussion community in 2008 to explore the nature of our universe and its subsystems. Just as there are both evolutionary and developmental processes operating in living systems, with evolutionary processes being experimental, divergent, and unpredictable, and developmental processes being conservative, convergent, and predictable, we think that both evo and devo processes operate in our universe as well. If our universe is a replicating system, as several cosmologists believe, and if it exists in some larger environment, aka, the multiverse, it is plausible that both evolutionary and developmental processes would self-organize, under selection, to be of use to the universe as complex system. With respect to universal intelligence, it seems reasonable that both evolutionary diversity, with many unique local intelligences, and developmental convergence, with all such intelligences going through predictable hierarchical emergences and a life cycle, would emerge, just as both evolutionary and developmental processes regulate all living intelligences.

Once we grant that developmental processes exist, we can ask what kind of convergences might we predict for all advanced civilizations. One of those processes, accelerating change, seems particularly obvious, even though we still don’t have a science of that acceleration. (In 2003 I started a small nonprofit, ASF, to make that case). But what else might we expect? Does surviving universal intelligence become increasingly good, on average? Is there an “arc of progress” for the universe itself?

Developmental processes become increasingly regulated, predictable, and stable as function of their complexity and developmental history. Think of how much more predictable an adult organism is than a youth (try to predict your young kids thinking or behavior!), or how many less developmental failures occur in an adult versus a newly fertilized embryo. Development uses local chaos and contingency to converge predictably on a large set of far-future forms and functions, including youth, maturity, replication, senescence, and death, so the next generation may best continue the journey. At its core, life has never been about either individual or group success. Instead, life’s processes have self-organized, under selectionto advance network success. Well-built networks, not individuals or even groups, always progress. As a network, life is immortal, increasingly diverse and complex, and always improving its stability, resiliency, and intelligence.

But does universal intelligence also become increasingly good, on average, at the leading edge of network complexity? We humans are increasingly able to use our accelerating S&T to create evil, with both increasing scale and intensity. But are we increasingly free to do so, or are we growing ever-more self-regulated and societally constrainedSteven Pinker, Rutger Bregman, and many others argue we have become increasingly self- and socially-constrained toward the good, for yet-unclear reasons, over our history. Read The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2012 and Humankind, 2021 for two influential books on that thesis. My own view on why we are increasingly constrained to be good is because there is a largely hidden but ever-growing network ethics and empathy holding human civilizations together. The subtlety, power, and value of our ethics and empathy grows incessantly in leading networks, apparently as a direct function of their complexity.

As a species, we are often unforesighted, coercive, and destructive. Individually, far too many of us are power-, possession- or wealth-oriented, zero-sum, cruel, selfish, and wasteful. Not seeing and valuing the big picture, we have created many new problems of progress, like climate change and environmental destruction, that we shamefully neglect. Yet we are also constantly progressing, always striving for positive visions of human empowerment, while imagining dystopias that we must prevent.

Ada Palmer’s science fiction debut, Too Like the Lightening, 2017, is a future world of both technological abundance and dehumanizing, centrally-planned control over what individuals can say, do, or believe. I don’t think Palmer has written a probable future. But this combination of future abundance and overcontrol does seem plausible, under the wrong series of unfortunate and unforesighted future events, decisions and actions. Imagining such dystopias, and asking ourselves how to prevent them, is surely as important as positive visions to improving adaptiveness. I am also convinced we are rapidly and mostly unconsciously creating a civilization that will be ever more organized around our increasingly life-like machines. We can already see that these machines will be far smarter, faster, more capable, more miniaturized, more resource-independent, and more sustainable than our biology. That fast-approaching future will be different from anything Earth’s amazing, nurturing environment has developed to date, and it is not well-represented in science-fiction yet, in my view.

On average, then, I strongly believe our human and technological networks grow increasingly good, the longer we survive, as some real function of their complexity. I also believe that postbiological life is an inevitable development, on all the presumably ubiquitous Earthlike planets in our universe. Not only will many of us merge with such life, it will be far smarter, stabler, more ethical, empathic, and self-constrained than biological life could ever be, as an adaptive network. There is little science today to prove or disprove such beliefs. But they are worth stating and arguing.

Arguing the goodness of advanced intelligence was the subtext of the main debate at the SETI conference mentioned above. The highlight of this event was a panel debate on whether it is a good idea to not only listen for signs of extraterrrestrial intelligence (SETI), but to send messages (METI), broadcasting our existence, and hopefully, increasing the chance that other advanced intelligences communicate with us earlier, rather than later.

One of the most forceful proponents for such METI, Alexander Zaitsev, was at this conference. Clement and I had some good chats with him (see picture below). Since 1999, Zaitsev has been using a radiotelescope in the Ukraine, RT-70, to broadcast “Hello” messages to nearby interesting stars. He did not ask permission, or consult with others, before sending these messages. He simply acted on his belief that doing so would be a good thing, and that those able to receive them would not only be more advanced, but would be inherently more good (ethical, empathic) than us.

Alexander Zaitsev and John Smart, Royal Society SETI Conference, Chicheley Hall, UK, 2010

Sadly, Zaitsev has now passed away. Today, Paul Gilster wrote a beautiful elegy for him, at his site on interstellar exploration, Centauri Dreams. It explains the 2010 conference, where Zaitsev debated others on the METI question, including David Brin. Brin advocates the most helpful position, one that asks for international and interdisciplinary debate prior to sending of messages. Such debate, and any guidelines it might lead to, can only help us with these important and long-neglected questions.

It was great listening to these titans debate at the conference, yet I also realized how far we are from a science that tells us the general Goodness of the Universe, to validate Zaitzev’s belief. We are a long way from his views being popular, or even discussed, today. Many scientists assume that we live in a randomness-dominated, “evolutionary” universe, when it seems much more likely that it is an evo-devo universe, with both many unpredictable and predictable things we can say about the nature of advanced complexity. Also, far too many of us still believe we are headed for the stars, when our history to date shows that the most complex networks are always headed inward, into zones of ever-greater locality, miniaturization, complexity, consciousness, ethics, empathy, and adaptiveness. As I say in my books, it seems that our destiny is density, and dematerialization. Perhaps all of this will even be proven in some future network science. We shall see.

Note: This post can also be found on Medium, a platform that commendably pays its community for its writing and readership. Medium is also much easier to use than WordPress. I keep this site only as a legacy site at present. Please visit my Medium page to find and comment on my latest posts.

John Smart is a global futurist, and a scholar of foresight process, science and technology, life sciences, and complex systems. His new book, Introduction to Foresight, 2021, is now available on Amazon.


  1. Hey John,
    I haven’t used WordPress for so long I can’t find my password, so I didn’t comment online on your great and thought-provoking piece. This piece shows off the depth of your advancement as a futures thinker, it’s a gem on many levels. You tap into many high-value concepts while bringing other sophisticated voices into play. I am not nearly as capable as you are at looking beyond the obvious to see the vast possibilities of a much larger picture, so this was also eye-opening to me.

    You articulate quite well many concepts I have been recognizing as I do my futures research, including, quoting you:

    * “We are increasingly constrained to be good is because there is a largely hidden but ever-growing network ethics and empathy holding human civilizations together. The subtlety, power, and value of our ethics and empathy grows incessantly in leading networks, apparently as a direct function of their complexity.”
    * “As a species, we are often unforesighted, coercive, and destructive. Individually, far too many of us are power-, possession- or wealth-oriented, zero-sum, cruel, selfish, and wasteful. Not seeing and valuing the big picture, we have created many new problems of progress, like climate change and environmental destruction, that we shamefully neglect. Yet we are also constantly progressing, always striving for positive visions of human empowerment, while imagining dystopias that we must prevent.” (Absolutely! But, scarily, our tech seems to be emboldening and empowering more individuals and groups that have not evolved as quickly as most humans in regard to ethics and empathy; when it comes to this aspect of evolution, as William Gibson famously observed, the future is already here, [AND] it’s just unevenly distributed.)
    * I strongly believe our human and technological networks grow increasingly good, the longer we survive, as some real function of their complexity. I also believe that postbiological life is an inevitable development, on all the presumably ubiquitous Earthlike planets in our universe. Not only will many of us merge with such life, it will be far smarter, stabler, more ethical, empathic, and self-constrained than biological life could ever be, as an adaptive network. (Agree, as long as the minority of less-evolved humans that now exists does not survive or grow or find some way to somehow throw a wrinkle in that results in a less-positive future.)

    I’m also happy to see that your book has been published. Amazing. Congratulations!
    Have to run now, but THANK YOU for sending me the link to this, and keep on keeping in touch!

    Keep smiling and be well!

    • Hi Janna!

      I am honored to know you and to continually learn from you. Your work with Pew and your Imagining the Internet site continue to inspire me. Anyone looking for a big picture of the Future of Digital Life should start here:

      A big part of my second book (coming in 2022) discusses the adaptation curve, or all the ways that forced change often makes things worse for the majority of us, in many important variables, before they get better. To paraphrase in the first generation of new developments some important things get worse, in the second they stay worse, and with good foresight, design, and a little luck, in the third generation they can get generally better than they were before the change. Thats how I see things like cities, cars, computers, and now our deep learning AIs. The intersection of capitalism, democracy, and technology have created many of these adaptation curves. We’re presently deep in a tech-created plutocracy that we have to dig ourselves out of, and unaccountable elites make far too many decisions. Nevertheless, there are lots of good signs. Thanks to the ESG movement we now have People, Planet, Profit, and Process to rate our companies. Process is the new one, and we’re realizing that governance, representation, equity, ethics, empathy, and transparency all matter greatly. When I went to business school we couldn’t even get Triple Bottom line (People, Planet, Profit) thinking in our primary education. Now we have a whole generation of incoming workers that have high expectations of how their companies act, even if they still have low control over how their larger political system and economy works. We’ll fix this mess, but it will take time.

      Thanks for the heads up about WordPress commenting. I posted a note at the bottom of the post reminding folks to go to Medium, where I do all of my main posting these days. I’ll put that on all my WP posts going forward. This site is a legacy site, and I may retire it and archive it all to Medium when I get around to it. Speaking of Process (4th P), Medium pays its posters based on readership, a far more empowering and equitable business model and set of ethics than WordPress. WP also makes it very hard for posters to find and use the old editor. They arrogantly force us all into their new, incomplete editor. They deserve to be losing readership, in my view.

      Thanks for all you do for foresight Janna! Warmest Regards, John

  2. I noticed you mention your intention to use Medium instead and no longer posting here at this blog. To my mind, that would be unfortunate. But I understand the desire to seek a larger audience, not to mention a platform that might better pay you for your writings according to the size of your readership.

    The problem with Medium is that, without subscribing to the service, they limit how many articles one can read per month. As I’m working class, I can’t afford such a service. WordPress, for all of its issues, is much more egalitarian in being free and accessible to everyone. That is why I blog on WordPress.

    By the way, I was irritated by the changes here at WordPress. It took me a while to figure out how to get to the Classic editor. The new editor is still wonky and buggy. I don’t understand the motivation for replacing what was working fine. In trying to fix what wasn’t broken they simply created something else that is broken but apparently can’t be fixed. Brilliant!

    Now let me get to the subject of this post. This is something that has been on my mind for a long time. As I was raised in liberal religion, the idea of the world being a good place comes naturally to my mind. As a non-religious agnostic, I no longer think in religious terms, but I nonetheless maintain the moral vision of my upbringing.

    I have read Pinker’s book that you mention. I’m not familiar, though, with Bregman. I don’t know if I’ll get around to Bregman’s book, as I already know the basic argument. Is there anything particularly different between the case made by Pinker and Bregman? What does the latter bring up that former did not?

    It is an interesting argument that “we have become increasingly self- and socially-constrained toward the good, for yet-unclear reasons, over our history.” The “yet-unclear reasons” is the important part, of course. You argue that the reason “why we are increasingly constrained to be good is because there is a largely hidden but ever-growing network ethics and empathy holding human civilizations together.”

    This is supposedly based on the complexity of networks. Accordingly, “Well-built networks, not individuals or even groups, always progress.” That is an intriguing perspective, but understanding its implications would require knowing exactly what is the nature of these networks. It makes me think of hyperobjects.

    Where your thinking really captures my curiosity is when you conclude that, “our history to date shows that the most complex networks are always headed inward, into zones of ever-greater locality, miniaturization, complexity, consciousness, ethics, empathy, and adaptiveness.” That seems to relate to a previous post of yours where you also speak of complexity, in quoting Sam Harris from his book The Moral Landscape:

    “Political conservatism… is a fairly well-defined perspective characterized by a general discomfort with societal change and a ready acceptance of social inequality… The psychologist John Jost and colleagues analyzed data from twelve countries, acquired from 23,000 subjects, and found this attitude [political conservatism] to [also] be correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability.”

    I’m familiar with that kind of research, including the work of Jost, although I’m not sure I’ve looked into that specific study. Obviously, cognitive complexity is necessary for the development of complex networks. But it’s also core to ever more complex ideological worldviews and identities, in how cognitive complexity is linked to cognitive empathy in the development of theory of mind.

    This is seen with how “white liberals” are the first US demographic that has been measured to have a pro-outgroup bias, which simply means they don’t identify narrowly as a mere demographic. Imaginatively empathizing with others different from one requires greater cognitive ability. By the way, this probably relates to the WEIRD bias, as liberals are specifically among the WEIRD demographic of those with higher rates of education, literacy, etc.

    Related to that, have you read Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World? If not, I highly recommend it. He theorizes that the main component is literacy and literary culture. Regularly reading books since a young age alters brain development. This might fit in with the explanation of novel-reading as assisting in greater development of theory of mind and cognitive empathy.

    There are real world consequences to this, of course. Even though literacy has been around a long time, a literary culture only came into existence the past few centuries. During the Middle Ages, most of the elite didn’t read at all or else didn’t read much. The Enlightenment saw the spread of literacy among both the elite and non-elite.

    Maybe as expected, the Enlightenment was also the period during which there was popularization of the belief that every person had a common human nature; i.e., the increased abstraction of theory of mind as a complex universalization of cognitive empathy. So, everyone had a ‘soul’ and so had the same human potential — everyone including women, the poor, slaves, and ‘savages’. That might’ve been the single most radical idea to come out of that era.

    You might like the blog of another scholarly writer who tackles issues of empathy and systems thinking:

    • I really like the literacy idea, and its relation to cognitive empathy. I think that might be even more powerful than Pinker’s moral Flynn effect (the increase in rationality as a cause of violence reduction). Pinker was wisely never definitive with any of his hypotheses anyway. Rationality has always been so limited in humans, and emotion and intuition so strong.
      Thanks for the tip on Henrich’s book. I was about to buy it when I came across this helpful review:
      It seems he overclaims with respect to the role of the Church, telling a too-simple story. I’ll wait for a good historical book on the empathy and literacy connection. That seems a much more promising network thesis, to me. And thanks for Empathy Guru’s blog. Brilliant. I will tweet his post on the Canadian Trucking Strike (Action) tomorrow. Lovely insights.

      • Of course, reading novels increases with reading in general. The rise of IQ is mostly about fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence corresponds to certain areas of rationality like problem-solving and pattern recognition. All of that is necessary for cognitive complexity and cognitive empathy.

        So, the increase of literacy, as related to cognitive ability, would involve multiple aspects of intelligence that would be variously developed with different kinds of reading material. Even cognitive empathy is only able to contribute to larger identities because it is combined with increased abstract thinking. As for decrease of violence, that could be a result, but it also could be a cause. Remember that getting liberals to think about death suppresses the higher cognitive abilities.

        The decrease of sickness and premature death correlates to rising IQ and liberal-mindedness. That relates to conservative-mindedness as a threat response. But it also goes deeper than that. It’s not only fear of violence, infectious diseases, parasites, etc that elicits simpler thinking. The physical and psychological stresses from these factors stunt brain development.

        Research shows that individuals under stress, such as poverty, from a young age typically have a smaller neocortex and a larger amygdala; along with physical development and sexual maturity happening earlier. The body redirects its resources to prioritizing immediate physical survival and procreation, not the development of complex cognitive abilities.

        I would take that book review with a grain of salt. He might be making some good critical points, but it is hard to tell. He makes claims about the book that I know are false or misleading. So, he isn’t necessarily a trustworthy source about Henrich’s argument. I won’t go into any more detail here, as I already explained it in a comment at another one of your posts:

        There are many books written on literacy, empathy, individuality, neurocognition, and culture. Look to the work of Bruno Snell, Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Julian Jaynes, etc. The impact over millennia following the invention of written text and literary traditions has been thoroughly analyzed. Opinions vary on what it all means, but there is a similar thrust to all of these arguments, including that of Joseph Henrich.

  3. Here is an additional thought in extension of what I said before. These kinds of unintended side effects will continue to accumulate, no matter what the political right tries to do. This is why the average conservative today is more left-liberal than the average liberal a century ago. The very structure of our society keeps constructing and strengthening the conditions of ever more liberalization, even as high inequality, industrial diet, and much else is worsening sickness, stress, trauma, and the reactionary mind. You can see these twin forces acting within individuals and within organizations, such as among partisan Democrats and in the Democratic Party (e.g., progressive reform vs lesser evilism).

    American society is being pulled toward two extremes simultaneously. Understandably it can feel like the reactionary forces have the upper hand, in that it is mostly reactionaries who control the levers of power in the upper echelons of government, media, and economy. But my suspicion is that, barring all out authoritarian takeover or societal collapse, the liberalizing forces will eventually win out, as it doesn’t require good intentions of those in power (e.g., Congress presently funding the removal of lead pipes across the country); not that this will inevitably end in utopia, as the reactionaries could hold sway for many generations still.

    That might happen, if only because of increased lifespan that will cause older generations to hold onto power for longer periods, as has been seen with the Boomers, the longest-ruling single generation in history. Also, that increase will be disproportionately concentrated among the upper classes, particularly the elite, with the best healthcare, access to supplements, etc, But, of course, the same unintended consequences will play out as they almost always do. The more the wealthy invest in various modalities of health improvement and lifespan extension, the research and development will lead to ever cheaper products that, over time, will ever more be accessible to the lower classes. It slowly trickles down or at least it has so far.

    The problem for us here in this moment is the liberalizing process could take a long time, likely longer than we will be alive, and so I don’t know what value there is in trying to enlighten the ignorant or preach to the choir. Positive change will either happen or it won’t. It is unclear that it is likely to happen merely because of increasing knowledge, spreading information, improving rhetoric, and organizing political movements. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can obviously do to speed up the process. It’s largely an issue of older generations dying and younger generations replacing them. So, for example, the youngest generations will be the first to be majority college-educated which, for the previously explained reasons, will surely increase liberalism.

    It might be irrelevant that the political right is fighting against education, since increasing education has been a long term trend that has at this point practically taken on a life of its own. We have become a culture that values education, that considers basic education to nearly be a civil right. It would take a major turn of events to disrupt that trend and destroy that entrenched culture, considering that these highly educated young people will be more liberal than any generation before as they hit adulthood and eventually move their way up into positions of power, influence, and authority; but, if our society also worsens with inequality and the reactionary mind, that could neutralize the gains. This is why large-scale change is rarely peaceful. These competing forces will probably erupt in conflict and, obviously, it’s far from guaranteed that the good guys will win the fight.

    The only thing I can see that can be done, from a left-liberal perspective, is to keep banging the drum of public health, public education, and public welfare; but, of those three, maybe most of all public health. Without health, nothing else matters; along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Even poverty, unemployment, and homelessness is not nearly as bad when one has great health or at least sufficient health. More importantly, public health is the one and only thing that touches upon everything else: universal healthcare, family planning centers, contraceptives and STD prevention, diet and nutrition, environmental regulations and cleanup, stress reduction, lowering inequality, treating mental illness, improving learning disabilities, drug and criminal rehabilitation, building parks and recreation centers, and on and on.

    The thing is that possibly we on the political left we should go into stealth mode. We don’t necessarily need, at least for the moment, to overtly articulate and push obvious left-liberal rhetoric, analysis, critiques, and solutions. It might be best if we avoid this strategy of open ideological conflict or at least not to prioritize it. There are many people, even among conservatives and right-wingers, who would support public health initiatives in their communities and for their families; as long as it was not framed as leftist, liberal, or progressive; as long as it didn’t use any ideological language that right-wing media, reactionary elites, and Machiavellian demagogues could turn against reforms. So, instead, we could frame everything as public health. It’s hard to argue against public health.

    Maybe we left-liberals could more successfully gain societal improvements by taking no credit, as left-liberals, for accomplishing them. Just get the American public healthier first and then meaningful public debate might be possible about some of the harder issues involving capitalist realism, neoliberalism, political corruption, high inequality, plutocracy, etc. I suspect we’re too often trying to do things in the wrong order. We need to build the foundation first and then worry about what we can build upon it. So, first and foremost, the focus should be mainly on the health of mothers, infants, children, and youth. If we could raise up a single generation with high levels of health, it might be the single most powerful thing we could ever accomplish.

    • I was reading back through your post. I noticed where you described your own take on a particular issue: “My own view on why we are increasingly constrained to be good is because there is a largely hidden but ever-growing network ethics and empathy holding human civilizations together. The subtlety, power, and value of our ethics and empathy grows incessantly in leading networks, apparently as a direct function of their complexity.”

      What stood out to me is the word ‘complexity’. In nature, complex systems develop on their own over millions of years. But human systems are different in that they are often intentionally constructed and sometimes over very short periods of time. The increasing complexity of human systems has happened extremely fast and increasingly faster — that is what needs explanation. Where does human complexity come from?

      The simplest and most compelling argument is that all human complexity is of a single piece, that human systems complexity is the direct result of human cognitive complexity. If we can’t perceive, think, relate, and act in complex ways, then we won’t be able to construct and enact, strengthen and extend complex systems. And, of course, to speak of cognitive complexity is basically to speak of neurocognitive development and brain structures.

      We have to look to who in society is most clearly and powerfully demonstrating such cognitive complexity. The most obvious demographic that shows up in the research is that of liberals and other liberal-minded groups with high measurements of the personality trait openness. Why do these particular people have significantly more cognitive complexity than others? The easy answer is to point out that they have the average liberal has a larger neocortex, prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.

      That begs the question, though. It’s just another way of saying the same thing. That still leaves us to offer the possible causal factors. Fortunately, scientific research has already answered the question to a large extent. We know what apparently is increasing brain structures of cognitive complexity, openness, and liberal-mindedness: low stress, nutritious food, healthy lifestyle, high quality healthcare, full and well-funded education (from grade school to college), stimulating environments, access to resources and opportunities, parental engagement with children, early exposure to reading, etc.

      What all of these have in common is how utterly basic they are. They don’t require reinventing the wheel. The middle-to-upper classes already have these things to varying degrees. We just need to ensure everyone else also gets the same cognitive-boosting factors and conditions. As I suggested, we need to focus on building the foundation first. It might do little good to attempt to promote complex systems when most of the population has limited capacity for cognitive complexity. And, as I argue, high inequality stunts the cognitive ability of even the wealthy.

      Yet where is there a powerful and influential organization that is focused on such basics and has integrated them as part of a holistic vision? That is why I think we need to frame everything as public health. Too few people understand that all of these basic things are interlinked as part of the same needed structure. Public health sounds boring and unsexy, but it’s possible that the very possibility of social democracy is dependent on that one factor.

      That is to say complex systems live or die according to the health of the whole society. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Yes, complexity of the universe is amazing. The human constraint, though, is that we can’t consciously engage with that complexity without cognitive complexity. Brain scans might tell us more about our society than almost anything else. We need to get back to basics.

      Most Americans and most others in the world are simply trying to get by and even survival day to day is a struggle for many. Our public resources need to be directed to the most in need, specifically among poor young families, because that is where we will get the most bang for the buck. To raise the lower end of the IQ spectrum by a few points could transform society, whereas raising it on the high end might have little noticeable impact.

      The eternal problem is that those on the high end have most of the power while having the least interest in or empathy for those on the low end. The ruling elite, in being trapped in a bubble of vast disparity, can’t even see the reality on the ground or why it’s significant. There is a lack of understanding and appreciation that helping the least among us is an issue of self-interest even for the wealthy, secure, and comfortable.

      I’m not sure how we get past that, as long as high inequality remains the social reality. In that case, the leading public health issue might be high inequality itself. Until we deal with that, progress on any other front might be next to impossible. It’s surely no accident that the most well functioning social democracies are all low inequality. One will expect those societies to make the most advancements and innovations over the coming generations as well.

      That is an interesting thought. I’ve never come across anyone make this argument about high inequality. The standard critique focuses on the correlations to physical, mental, and social problems. Maybe that has been part of the problem, our conception of public health has been too simplistic and narrow. We need to understand that health, public and individual, is inseparable from complexity.

      As high inequality stunts health, the consequence of this is that it stunts cognitive complexity and hence systems complexity. Low inequality does the opposite. I’m just now considering this angle. I wonder what that would mean to think of public health as a complexity issue. Indeed, public health is a system that unites a complex array of numerous sub-systems; and, with all factors taken together, public health underlies all aspects of a healthy society.

      That is the difficulty, isn’t it? When speaking of a holistic vision of public health, this requires the cognitive complexity to create a complex system that could manifest that holistic vision. That means, even if we want to prioritize the promotion of complex systems, we still would be wise and most effective to, first and foremost, focus specifically on the public health system in seeking to promote complexity.

      With that in mind, what voices are speaking to this challenge? And is anyone listening? I honestly can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone discuss public health as a complex system that simultaneously requires and enhances cognitive complexity among the citizenry, but that is essentially what social democracy is about. At their most basic level, Scandinavian social democracies are complex public health systems. Everything else follows from that.

      • To summarize:
        1) Social democracy is primarily about societal health.
        2) Societal health is primarily about public health.
        3) Public health is primarily about inequality.

        1) Social democracy is dependent on systems complexity.
        2) Systems complexity is dependent on cognitive complexity.
        3) Cognitive complexity is dependent on public health complexity.

        In conclusion, any healthy society, but particularly a social democracy, requires effective public health and low inequality as inseparably part of cognitive complexity and systems complexity that consciously engages with and sustainably aligns with the encompassing environmental complexity of the larger world. That is equally true for a hunter-gatherer tribe or an advanced industrial state, but it becomes more central as a society becomes more precarious in its large-scale complexity.

        Yet we actually might learn more about public health by studying the hidden complexities of healthy hunter-gatherer tribes that have lived sustainably within their environments for centuries or millennia. The seeming simplicity of tribal life is deceiving to the uninformed mind. To get an idea of these hidden complexities, learn about traditional mnemonic systems in oral cultures (Lynne Kelly, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies) — they are amazingly impressive, not to mention almost incomprehensible to us WEIRD individuals in highly literate societies.

        These oral-based mnemonic systems are what made possible the constructing of vast astronomical knowledge systems and the building of the Great Pyramids. Even the smallest of tribes orally passed on cultural and natural knowledge that was equivalent to an entire set of encyclopedias. If we better understood humanity’s place in the world, we might not struggle so much with trying to create complexity and, instead, could learn from the complexity that already exists within vast human experience that has accumulated over the millennia.

        The public health crisis is not a natural state of humanity. It is something we created and so we can un-create it. We simply have to eliminate or resolve the causes of ill health, as then public health will naturally follow. Since the agricultural revolution, the main causes of ill health have been the creation of conditions that promote inequality, poverty, social stress, nutritional deficiencies, infectious diseases, stunted development, injurious work, etc. These conditions became worse over time, as agricultural civilizations advanced; and the diseases of civilization (metabolic syndrome, cancer, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, mood disorders, psychosis, etc) rapidly increased during modernity.

        Here is the question. Can we have the benefits of agricultural civilization and industrial society without all of the harms that have accrued and often worsened? Most importantly, how might we attain the complexity of social democracy, democratic socialism, or a similar system without the modern problems that are largely caused by the vast disparities in privileges, rights, freedoms, wealth, ownership, power, representation, resources, opportunities, education, healthcare, etc? Is there a lever long enough (e.g., public health) and a fulcrum (e.g., complex systems) upon which to place it that could move the world?

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