Creating a Planetary Culture
The following is the Preface and the Introduction of my forthcoming book Creating a Planetary Culture: European Science, Chinese art, and Indian Transcendence. The book will have six chapters, 45 illustrations and about 95 pages. It will be available at online book stores at end of June or early July.
The six essays in this book are a condensation of articles, essays, and books I have written in the past 25 years or so on topics ranging from art, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, consciousness, and culture. The six chapters can be read as stand-alone stories, but when taken in together are meant to depict a larger mosaic.
The essays focus on the world’s three main “source cultures,” China, Europe, and India. Each of the three source cultures has a distinct worldview and inclination. Science played a key role in Europe; art, or rather esthetics, was a dominant factor in China; and religion or spirituality had a key influence on India.
The first scholar to make this distinction was the American art historian George Rowley. In 1947, Rowley published his magnificent book Principle of Chinese Painting. Rowley notes that art, like religion, deals with “inner reality.” The artist reveals the inside of life, not the outside. He then asked what makes a Chinese painting and how Chinese art differs from Indian and European art. He wrote:
“Reason and corporeal beauty were the fortes of Greek art. The Hindus had such an urge toward religion that the religious symbol vies with the natural sensuousness of their tropical forms. Everywhere in the art of Western Europe the importance of the individual person and his ingenuity in handling material and technical problems were paramount. In each case, dominant cultural traits determined the character of the art. What was dominant in China? Here we meet a unique and surprising answer. The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art.”
China and Europe had influenced each other since the 17th century, but in the course of the 19th century, China started to assimilate European science while Europe started to assimilate Chinese esthetics. Europe’s Modernist Revolution in art and architecture between the 1860s and the 1920s was the largely unwitting embrace of Chinese aesthetic principles by European artists and architects. The intermediary was the Japanese woodblock print, derived from the Chinese prototype.
The role of Eastern esthetics in the Modernist Revolution on the latter was not widely recognized. Two notable exceptions were Vincent van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright. Van Gogh, while in Paris, wrote to his sister in Holland: “You may understand the change in the paintings when you think, for example, of the colorful Japanese pictures one sees everywhere.”
Frank Lloyd Wright, an ardent collector of Japanese printing, was more explicit. He said, “The gospel of elimination of the insignificant preached by the [Japanese] print came home to me in architecture as it had come home to the French painters who developed Cubism and Futurism. Intrinsically the print lies at the bottom of all this so-called modernism. Strangely unnoticed, uncredited. I have often wondered why.”
Even Van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright overlooked a key element of the Modernist Revolution: the Western embrace of a Chinese projection system technically referred to as axonometry, which is the Chinese equivalent to Europe’s linear perspective. Developed in the early 10th century by Chinese artists, axonometry made European architecture “modern”. Today, the Chinese projection system is used by every artist, architect, engineer, and designer in the world. It is an indispensable feature of Computer Aided Design systems that are used to design everything from skyscrapers to space shuttles.
Science and art play a key role in the creation of our planetary culture. Science produces technology, and art gives shape to technology. The word science is rooted in the Latin “scientia,” meaning to know. The word “art” is derived from the Latin “ars,” which originally meant “skill” or “craft.” The scientist creates the machine, be it a steam engine, airliner, or computer; the artist gives it form.
Art, science, and technology are not ends in themselves but a means to an end. They have dramatically improved the quality of life for billions of people. Barring calamities resulting from geopolitical rivalry, an economic collapse caused by debt, or ecological disasters, the world is on track to provide everyone on the planet with basic material needs by 2040.
Moreover, advances in technology such as artificial intelligence and robotics will lead to the end of most work that does not require a human touch or human heart. In the 19th century, people worked up to 90 hours a week. In the 20th century, one agricultural machine could replace hundreds of farmworkers, and in advanced economies, people worked 30 hours a week. In the 21st century, one dedicated AI system could potentially replace millions of jobs.
The end of most physical and mental labor will be a turning point in human history and it will change our consciousness. For centuries, our identity has been closely linked to our job, skill, or profession. Our work determined our social status, (I am a doctor, engineer, civil servant, etc.). In the post-work era, people will focus on life rather than making a living. Deprived of their professional identity, they will look for meaning and “sense-making.” This is where India with its yogic science forms comes in and forms the triangle with Europe and China.
India has the deepest reservoir of knowledge about human consciousness. It gave the world yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism. In the 19th century, the Russian mystic Madam Blavatsky co-founded Theosophy, a synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy inspired by Indian (Vedic) thought. Madam Blavatsky played a key role in encouraging the West to turn towards India for spiritual enlightenment. She is widely seen as the godmother or midwife of the New Age movement.
The Indian worldview was also the inspiration for the macrohistory of the American futurist Lawrence (Larry) Taub. Using the “Varna” cycle described in the Vedas, Taub showed that human consciousness advances in identifiable stages. The transition from one stage to the next is driven by “spiritual imperatives,” a collective realization that humanity has to advance and evolve to a higher level of existence.
Taub mentions slavery as an example. The barbaric practice existed for millennia throughout the world, but in the 19th century, in the span of barely three decades, most Western countries officially abolished slavery. While it still exists in some regions, any country reinstating slavery would become a pariah. According to Taub, the spiritual imperatives of our age are the end of meat-eating, economic equality, and voluntary simplicity, the latter being lifestyle choices that minimize the needless consumption of material goods and the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.
Macrohistories and “grand narratives” were popular in the 20th century. Alvin Toffler, Daniel Bell, and John Kenneth Galbraith developed economic macrohistories, showing how society evolved from agricultural to industrial to post-industrial society. (They didn’t anticipate the Fourth Industrial Revolution driven by AI.) Samuel P. Huntington, the author of Clashes of Civilizations, offered a political macrohistory focused on the conflicts between ideologies — liberal democracy vs. fascism vs. communism. After the Cold War, these ideological clashes would give way to clashes between cultures: the West vs. Islam, Muslims vs. Hindus, the West vs. Greater China.
In the 21st century, macrohistories fell out of favor. French philosophers and Post-Modernists criticized “big pictures” of history for their “reductionist” tendencies. They claimed that microhistories simplified complex cultural differences that can’t be captured in a universal schema. Taub’s macrohistory is arguably immune from this critique. He discusses economics, ideology, as well as gender, but his macrohistory is based on humans, and more specifically on human consciousness.
This collection of essays can be read as a mini-macrohistory. It fits into Taub’s larger macrohistorical model. In both macrohistories, China is now taking center stage. China has modernized, but it has retained its cultural roots. China’s worldview and modus operandi are still based on that ancient principle of yin and yang, the warp and woof of Chinese culture. The yin-yang philosophy is unique for having both an ethical and an esthetics dimension.
Chuang Tzu, the first Chinese sage to be referred to as a Taoist, address the issue of reconciling opposites in the book with aphorisms that carries his name. Chuang Tzu commented on the squabbles between Confucius and followers of Mencius. The Confucianists argued that we should love our family. Mencius’s followers said we should love everyone equally. Chuang Tzu resolved the dilemma by not taking sides. He said: “If you wish to affirm what they deny and deny what they affirm, the best means Illumination.”
The notion of reconciling yin-yang opposites can be applied to all the polarities in our existence — human and nature, spirit and matter, realism and idealism, conservative and progressive, rights and responsibilities. As we transcend polarities and create a post-work and post-material world, the yogic sciences of India may offer us a road map for what comes next. The yogic tradition has the deepest reservoir of knowledge about the nature of consciousness.
Table of Contents
To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
Leonardo Da Vinci
This collection of short essays had its genesis in Japan in the 1980s. While visiting Japan’s old capital, Kyoto, it struck me that classic Japanese art and architecture had a “modern” quality. Japan’s traditional art had the same visual directness as modern European art of the late 19th century, and the minimalistic aesthetics and human scale of classic Japanese architecture resembled European modernist architecture of the early 20th century.
Fascinated by this seemingly modern aspect of Japan, I traced the source of Japanese aesthetics to China. Starting in the 6th century AD, Japan assimilated the main features of Chinese culture. Japanese artists acquired the calligraphic skills of the Chinese, and Japanese carpenters learned how to build Chinese temples, palaces, pagodas, and even entire cities. Nara, the first capital city of Japan, was a smaller version of China’s Tang Dynasty capital Daxing.
I next looked into the sources of Europe’s Modernist Revolution. European art was based on optical representation (photographic likeness). The optical tradition in art originated in Greece, and reached its pinnacle in the 17th century, with masters like Leonardo, Rembrandt and Vermeer. They perfected the art of clair-obscure (chiaroscuro), the use of light and shadow to give figures depth and volume. The use of clair-obscure, tother with linear perspective, formed the basis of classic European art.
In the early 1860s, the French artist Edouard Manet shocked the Paris art establishment with a painting that ignored the conventional rules of optical representation. Manet depicted a boy playing a flute in bold, flat colors. The picture has no sign of light and shadow. As it turned out, he was inspired by the Japanese Ukio-e, small woodblock prints that had arrived in France in the late 1850s.
Manet inspired other artists, among them Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, who came to be known as the Impressionists. All of them were struck by the visual immediacy of the Japanese print and experimented with the visual language of the Japanese print artists. Liberated from the constraints of optical representation, the Impressionists painted images that created a visual rather than an optical effect.
The Japanese impact on the development of modern architecture in the West was no less profound. In the late 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright pioneered the development of a new architectural style for the industrial age. Wright, like the European modernists, was an ardent collector of Japanese prints.
In the early 20th century, Wright designed several homes that used the same flat, rectangular planes that characterized Japanese architecture. His designs, known as the Prairie Homes, caused a sensation in Europe and had a major impact on the development of modernist architecture in the 1920s.
A pivotal moment in the Modernist Revolution came in 1923 when the Dutch art movement De Stijl exhibited its architectural models in Paris. To illustrate their conception of a modern architecture, De Stijl used a so-called axonometric projection. What they didn’t know was that axonometry (pronounced akso-Noh-metry) originated in China. Axonometry was to Chinese artists and architects what linear perspective was to European artists and architects.
The Chinese developed their own projection system in the 10th century AD. The Chinese name for axonometry, dengjiao toushi, (literally “equal-angle see-through”) suggests that the projection system was inspired by Chinese architecture. But it was also central to Chinese painting. While linear perspective captures a static moment in time, axonometry accommodates time and space.
The origin of axonometry has been a blind spot among art historians. We can read a hundred books about Chinese art or modern Western art without a single mention of axonometry. I pioneered the study of its origin and found it valuable in understanding the Chinese worldview and how the Chinese conceived of the unity of space and time.
Tracing the source of Japanese aesthetics to China and its influence on the Modernist Revolution in Europe answered my question about the modernity of Japanese aesthetics. But my study of the history of Chinese aesthetics produced yet another lead and another aspect of “modernity.”
In the 1960s, the British scholar Joseph Needham began his monumental study Science and Civilisation in China, a multi-decade project that is still ongoing. In one of the early volumes of his study, Needham mentioned the remarkable encounter between Gottfried Leibniz, inventor of the binary code, and the 64 hexagrams that form the basis of the I Ching, or Book of Changes.
In the late 17th century, Leibniz published his first paper on the binary code, the numerical system used in today’s digital computers. Leibniz sent an explanation of the binary code to Father Joachim Bouvet, a Jesuit priest living in Beijing. Leibniz assumed his invention might be of interest to the Chinese. A few months later, Father Bouvet replied by sending Leibniz a copy of the 64 hexagrams, explaining that the Chinese had used a binary code for centuries.
Leibniz subsequently wrote a second paper to credit the Chinese as the “true inventors” of the binary code. The Chinese used different symbols — broken and unbroken lines instead of 0 and 1 — but the principle was the same. Leibniz had little knowledge of Chinese cosmology — he didn’t mention the words yin and yang — but he may have intuited that the Chinese used the hexagrams as a symbolic code. As we will see, we can give a code any attribute we want, as long as we agree on the meaning of the code.
Joseph Needham made a similar intuitive jump when he made a link between Leibniz’s claim and cybernetics, a new science developed in the 1940s by the American scientists Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics, the precursor to artificial intelligence, was the first comprehensive theory for binary computing. Needham pointed out that both the I Ching and cybernetics operate on binary logic. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that both Leibniz and Needham were on the right track.
Digital computers use binary strings as a symbolic language to represent everything from alphanumeric symbols to images, video, and sound. The binary code is at the heart of “cyberspace.” The Eight Trigrams, comparable to Boolean classes, are building blocks of the 64 hexagrams. They have attributes rooted in the Chinese worldview, but when we drill down to the foundation of cybernetics and Chinese culture, we find the same binary principle at work.
Cybernetics was the first interdisciplinary science and a historic turning point. Since the start of the scientific revolution in the 17th century, the various sciences led to ever-increasing specialization. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the last polymaths, and Leibniz was one of the last great thinkers who had full command of all the disciplines of his age. Cybernetics started the reunification of the sciences. Since its birth in the 1940s, it has been applied to nearly all scientific and academic disciplines, including psychology.
Cybernetics was interdisciplinary at birth. In the introduction of his book on cybernetics, Wiener described his collaboration with Dr. Arturo Rosenblueth, a neurophysiologist at Harvard Medical School. He wrote:
“For many years Dr. Rosenblueth and I had shared the conviction that the most fruitful areas for the growth of the sciences were those which had been neglected as a no-man’s land between the various established fields. Since Leibniz there has perhaps been no man who has had a full command of all the intellectual activity of his days. Since that time, science has been increasingly the task of specialists, in fields which show a tendency to grow progressively narrower.”
If specialization had been useful in the past, it had its limits. “Today,” Wiener wrote, “there are few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restrictions. A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist. He will be filled with the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleagues three doors down the corridor, and he will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy.”
Not widely known or appreciated is the fact that cybernetics was the precursor to artificial intelligence (AI). AI can be seen as cybernetics with a self-learning function. AI systems can be programmed to learn from their mistakes and correct them accordingly. Some in the AI community are concerned that AI could develop its own consciousness but more likely is that AI will reflect the consciousness of its designers.
AI will be “embedded” in the larger cybernetic environment of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, the fusion of technologies like robotics, advanced automation, AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as abundant (green) energy. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, will make it possible to meet the basic material needs of most people in the world.
Industry 4.0 will also lead to the end of most work. In the 20th century, power tools and robotics relieved us of most physical labor (in the 1980s, Japan opened the first factory that used robots to build other robots); in the 21st century, AI will relieve us of most mental labor that can be captured in a mathematical model leaving only work that required human care and compassion.
Predicting the end of work may seem unrealistic, especially given the geopolitical and financial (debt) crisis that emerged in the early 21st century, specifically the competition between the US and China, but long-term trends suggest otherwise. In the 19th century, people worked up to 90 hours a week. At the end of the 20th century, this number had dropped to around 30 hours in advanced economies.
The American futurist Lawrence (Larry) Taub predicted the end of nearly all work by 2050. Taub believed that the end of most work will lead to a change in human consciousness. With technology eliminating most work, people are no longer able to identify with and find satisfaction in their job or profession. As they look elsewhere for meaning and fulfillment we will see what Taub called the spiritualization of society.
The “pioneering stage” of the spiritualization of society has already begun, with India playing a key role. Taub points to the second half of the 20th century, when millions of people in developed countries embraced yoga, meditation, mindfulness and other consciousness-raising activities. Integral Theory, developed in the same period by American philosopher Ken Wilber, integrated Western psychology with Vedic thought.
If the forte of Europe was science, and the forte of China was art, the forte of India was consciousness, the closest translation of the Sanskrit word Antahkarana, or “Inner instrument.” Developed by Vedic sages over 3000 years ago, Antahkarana distinguishes four parts of the mind: ego (concerned with self), identity (nationality, race, gender, profession, etc.), mind (will/desire), and memory (accumulated experiences). It plays a key role in the yogic sciences.
Antahkarana appears to have been conceived as a framework to develop a cosmic consciousness. The Vedic sages suggested that cosmic reality is a process of creation, destruction, and recreation, an infinite sequence of Big Bangs governed by an unknowable source that permeates all that exists. This cosmological focus explains why the pioneers of quantum physics were fascinated by the Vedas. Newtonian physics explored the universe “out there,” quantum physics revealed that the universe is within.
Using the Antahkarna model of mind, the yogic sciences offer techniques to deal with Vedic cosmology. Memory, or chitta, deals with remembering and forgetting. Chitta is the database of accumulated experiences and is shaped by upbringing, environment, and education. It forms identity, ego, and mind. When chitta is emptied, it becomes a tabula rasa that can tune into ultimate reality, an awareness of the unity of all that exists. It has the additional purpose of raising awareness of what we are in the larger cosmological scheme of things — temporary guests in Earth’s cosmic garden.