The Missing Science of Human Civilization
Why is the world a place of discordance and conflict? Why are we so seemingly incapable of tending to each other’s needs, or of communicating in a manner that facilitates trust in each other, optimism about the future, and other such goods of social existence?
I know many thoughts have been made on this issue, and to my knowledge, most of these blame either political or cultural conditions. Or if you ask the overenthusiastic techno-optimist or historical materialist, they might just say that our problem is scarcity and the steady advance of technological innovation will inevitably produce a superabundance of goods. However, I think the problem goes much, much deeper than any particular problem of political corruption, faulty cultural developments, or simple lack of productive capacity. Since my teenage years, motivated by the seemingly complete lack of a good answer to my own miserable situation, I began to theorize that the catalogue of sciences available to humankind was incomplete. I began to increasingly realize that, at the center of human scientific study there was this big gaping hole – and it is this hole, this missing science of human civilization, which I wish to draw attention to in this essay.
Inspiration for this science which I have in mind could be drawn from many sources. Analogues of one sort or the other could be drawn to various great thinkers in history, who may not have seen the issue or realized its extent in the same way that I believe I have, but in the socialist and Marxist traditions there is certainly thoughts that have touched on the shores of what I call the missing science. Petr Kropotkin, in his most sincerely beautiful non-fiction The Conquest of Bread once spoke of the need for a new science, which he termed the Physiology of Society. As the father of anarcho-communism, it is worth putting this term into context though, and understand that this physiology is not there to describe a static model of society, not some kind of Confucian ideal harmony of the citizen perfected in their role, but a study of the possible functions of society, as in what kinds of society is physically possible. Interpretating Kropotkin here (since he does not himself speak much of the subject), one might imagine this socio-physiology as the exploration of the furthest reaches of freedom for human society. That is, what is possible within those hard limits imposed by nature as with physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth.
Besides Kropotkin, I would like to invoke 2 more figures whose theories appear to me related to my above interpretation. The first one of these, Bronisław Kasper Malinowski is a crucial early figure in anthropology. He puts the above physiology of society on its head by looking at how existing societies, in terms of their cultural artifacts and customs, can be explained as the necessary combinations of cultural traits for said social model of society to persist. That is, a custom, as an example, has a function in the satisfying of the basic needs of individual members of said society, which in the aggregate allows for the whole society to continue existing. This is known as the Functional Theory of Culture, or Functionalism. And to a Karl Marx-reader like myself (the 2nd figure of mention), this idea evokes themes discussed by him in a much earlier work like The German Ideology, wherein we get a short description of how social orders come to be. In particular, for Marx, society as seen through the narrowed lens of economy, is to be understood as the result of what human beings produce in order to satisfy their needs, and the means we acquire to satisfy those needs (i.e. tools) themselves lead to new needs (and also, as an important add-on, this is all part of a process of increasing social interdependence, making Marx’s theory of needs also a theory of society). Here Marx’s theory is a kind of functionalism (or vice-versa, functionalism is a kind of Marxist materialism), but not as a theory of cultural self-perpetuation, like Malinowski, but as a theory of social change (the rolling effect of need-satisfying means begetting new needs, which require their own means, which in the case they cannot be found, leads to the disintegration of previous social relations and to social change).
While Marx and Malinowski have some interesting ideas, the economic and anthropological views briefly described here are not very satisfactory (pun not intended). They are crude views taken from above, and while they may act as inspiration for sciences, they are not in any way ready, nor would I say worthy, of filling the spots of the missing science of human civilization.
Abraham Maslow’s individualistic attempts to study human needs in the form of certain “basic needs” of universal applicability is neither that promising, if still interesting. His idea was that there are certain general needs we all have in common but which find different expressions in each culture (quite reminiscent of Malinowskis thoughts on the manner). Such as our needs for food, which is obviously universal at the outset, but without thereby everyone eating the same type of food. Perhaps more than any before him, Maslow’s idea is promising in that it sought to get closer to an understanding of what is actually necessary for a good human life. Despite his generalization, his idea is concrete and through clinical psychology, aimed at some kind of genuine scientific insight. For instance, in his book Motivation and Personality, he makes a strikingly empirical claim that the human body, in trying to satisfy certain basic needs, it comes together almost like a biological conspiracy to solve for said needs. That is, our bodies are built to satisfy these needs and if we fail to be satisfied, our body in sense turns against us (or, in the case we join the conspiracy of our own organism, we turn against the world, such as when we rage or despair). The result of his findings were disappointing however, putting aside the infamous pyramid which he did not himself design although he provided the ingredients for the idea, the problem of Maslow’s need-oriented motivation-psychology is that it was ultimately a dead-end. For after trying to confirm his theory and being criticized for the lacking quality of his studies, even if we in the end were to agree that he was in some sense “right” about what he said, the whole enterprise kinda stops there. There is seemingly little more to be said of the matter. His interesting remark about the conspiracy of the human body (my simplified phrasing, not his) is after all a question for biology to answer, not for psychology and its particular methods of scientific inquiry. There is little more to learn going in this direction then, we are scientifically stuck, so to speak.
But now you may wonder: what the heck IS the missing science? So far the common theme has perhaps been needs, like the study of human needs. Or perhaps you remember my initial remark with regards to social cohesion, or the physiology of society, so that we could perhaps view the sum total of needs, human as well as their animal friends, as the thing we want to study.
I could continue to mention other attempts to get within the ballpark of the missing science. There is the psychoanalytic interest in desire, of course this field is heavily criticized as unscientific. Then one could consider the modern liberal economic study of economic wants, or demand economics, and the study of how to psychologically manipulate people, with for instance the role of advertisement in matching consumers with products, of marketers in finding a viable consumer base to rally before a product or brand, or the implementation of nudge strategies to increase our engagement within some system of governance or commercial computer service or product (i.e. social media and video games). These latter ones are at their base rather nihilistic though, and suffers from the opposite problem of something like the Marxist highly generalized historical materialism, in that they are overly particular and unsystematic. They are not avenues for understanding human social existence altogether, but only provide examples of actions, or technologies, made for the present environment and for present conditions to suit immediate capitalist ambitions.
So what IS the missing science? Initially I thought to myself that it was indeed the study of human needs. We just had to figure out what human needs were like. But this immediately posed the deeper question: what is the metaphysical nature of human needs? What are human needs, exactly? Len Doyal and Ian Gough’s A Theory of Human Need, a book which I otherwise despise for its mediocrity and compromised integrity (it explicitly sketches an ambition to justify social democracy instead of aiming for truth), does, for all that it is lackluster, make an initial interesting divide between the ways we understand need. On the one hand, the way which Doyal and Gough favors, is need as basically synonymous with what is strictly required for any particular objective to be achieved. Their objective of course was social democracy, in a kind of synthesis of the philosophies of the capability approach with the philosophy of John Rawls’ famous A Theory of Justice. The problem with this idea of course is that it reduces need, or in their case human need, into nothing but a synonym of some arbitrary specification depending on what you believe should be the essential characteristics of this thing we call need. It is a philosophical position ripe for a culture war over the definition over these essential characteristics. It is also hugely unscientific, for we learn nothing of what is the essence (if there even is such a thing at all), only about the various practical methods that can be put into achieving our stated aim. Nothing at all is being studied here. The posited essence of needs is nothing but the collage; the accidental assembly, of various different topics that we like, into a joint interdisciplinary project. There is no distinct nature being explored here.
The other way one can look at needs then, is as some kind of driving force, like the motivations of Maslow, and here in fact we do open ourselves up to studying an actual something, some distinct type of object in nature. So that was the kind of need I had in mind, after initially in my teenage years also being influenced by this “needs = requirements” perspective that drove people like Marx, Malinowski, and Doyal and Gough, as well as Kropotkin. Of course, there is a sense in which needs as the conspiracy of biology is also a sort of requirement, because one can imagine that whatever goes for free will, or individual agency, is lost to some extent under the pressures of baseline needs. A statement which I believe Maslow would likely agree to, as he put self-realization as the last stage of motivating factors of an otherwise satisfied individual.
But in making this choice, or this realization, that needs are in a vague sense akin to some force at play, I also came to realize that this force seemed to have a lot in common with many other words which one finds in English and other languages, some words of which we’ve already touched on. For, is there a meaningful difference between need and desire? What about need and want? Or need and drives? Of course we could make up all kinds of definitional differences, but the possibilities of the human imagination to make categories does not make justice to actual natural differences, and I felt that at least in some sense all these kinds of words: need, will, want, desire, and drive, all of these terms formed a cluster of meaning that intersected, not always at the same spots, but they were all connecting each other to the same something. Like as if there was some hidden object in nature, or some forgotten object perhaps, an object that could describe all of these in mere variations upon the same. The object that was at the same time need, will, want, desire and drive all depending upon the context in which you viewed it. At first, I just called this by the acronym of N2W2Ds, but this acrononym eludes to a constellation of different things connected in some sort of web of meaning. But that wasn’t what I ultimately believed was the case, and also it was a bit of mouthful to pronounce. So I created a new word from this: nowods – that special object of nature, hidden behind vague terms like need, will, want, desire, drive, as well as other terms I’ve not mentioned.
However, what concretely is the nowod? The Cybernetic Theory of Needs, which I wrote a paper on a couple of years ago, is my attempt to answer this question. The nowod is akin to a mathematical pattern, it is a unit of cybernetics (the study of control processes). I will not go into extensive details about the abstract properties of nowods here, because that is a whole paper of its own which I’ve already explored in an older unfinished manuscript, but in short the nowod represents a piece of matter or a collection of matter whose processes – chemical, biological, etc. – can be described in the form of 3 roles which said matter plays, and the way of thinking here may be familiar to anyone who’s ever studied a functioning dynamic system whatsoever. The first role is the matter about which control is to be exercised, this is the rather boring role of simply being the object of some kind of will of the universe (or in less grander terms, the will of the human body). The second role is defining some range of allowed physical property values for this matter, or the value ranges of satisfactoriness, in which nothing is to be detected, and the corresponding out-of-bounds property values, for which a detection event is to occur. The third and final role is to react to the detection with some mechanism that has some degree of influence on correcting said property values back within their satisfactory bounds. Overall, the cybernetic theory of needs, or, the cybernetic theory of nowods I should say now, is the study of satisfaction and unsatisfaction in nature with nature, or the universe, or some part of the universe, as a purposive agent that seeks to make things one way or the other. It is not so much the study of a constant idealized regulatory system, which it certainly sounds like if you’re familiar with cybernetics, rather, it is the study of the general dynamics of natural purpose. Of nature as wanting, desiring, willing, etc., and with us beings as the instances of this wanting, desiring, and willing. It is looking at something like the human body, and asking what types of processes occur in their multitude, to record them like a naturalist records animals, and to learn the tendential relationships of these myriads of nowods.
But what is the purpose of this study of natural purpose, you may ask? Is this the missing science? The missing science is not just the study of an object of natural purpose, but to relate back to the beginnings of this essay, and to bring social existence back into the collection of those thoughts we carry after we lost social existence in the move to Maslowist individualism – the purpose of the purposive science is to give us the tools to construct a utility language, a sort of secondary language, a scientific language you might say, with which to express “nowod-ological” facts. If you think of nowods as needs again, you might think of it as the language by which we can express needs in their most precise, detailed, and clear manner. Something we are, I believe, disasterously bad at today as a species. It’s not just that we have individuals who are bad at expressing themselves, virtually all of us are, I would argue, either lucky enough that mistaken thoughts on the issue matters little, or we get enough of the baseline right and decide thereafter to call it “satisfaction” even if it’s just the shaky baseline solved for, or as the more likely outcome, we simply suffer the consequences in actual suffering. In some sense, a lot of human activity is irrelevant to achieving full need-satisfaction and depends on a generous distribution of luck from nature (i.e. our biological adaptations, or our friendly terrestial climate) to not make us fall apart under our own uselessness, our own total lack of developed expressiveness in terms of needs; in terms of nowods.
But facts aren’t enough, and what kind of facts are we even looking for to know? This language of nowods, let’s call it Nowodish from now on, is also a tool for charting avenues of cooperative action – to give us an understanding of how to move in directions that jointly lead to better need-satisfaction. This is where nowods perhaps becomes some sort of physiology of society and takes on its fully social role. If we are able to share a detailed understanding of how we can all progress in our satisfactions, that is a remarkable means for achieving a kind of social trust. As long as the science lives up to its promise, as long as it is reliable and efficacious and we develop the technologies to go along with it, there are few things more trust-inspiring than a clear view of progress into well-being, happiness, pleasure, security, freedom. And when we as the many different people coordinate to make such progress, what we are doing is an act of nowod-integration with each other. In other words, we plan our lives and our actions around a joint space of nowod-compositional possibility where there are certain possible vectors of integration available for all of us (although the result of a vector of change is dependent on the vectors chosen by others). What we want, of course, is to see the satisfaction of certain nowods that bring us to a place of good experience, a lovable experience of good feelings (i.e. of pleasure, or of meaningfulness) which is also kept secure (protected in their vulnerability). And the role of this universal cybernetics, is to make it possible to plan for this without getting bogged down in the vague, the imprecise, or the outright wrong of unscientific assumptions.
Lastly, I would like to say a few words about the kind of society we have, when we have a fully developed Nowodological society. For the role of Nowodology is not to be prescriptive, it is not a normative science as such even though there is the possibility that it could be corrupted for such a purpose, rather it exists to open up the possibilities for self-coordination and coordination with others, to make possible the plan for progress in the general satisfactions of life. Ultimately, nobody requires perfection from society, but wouldn’t it be awesome if it was easy to make society generally nice and lovable? Perhaps with some rough edges which is likely necessary and desirable given the open-endedness of the universe we live in, but at the core at least, in those parts that matter most, we end up with a society that is basically just really nice. I think that should be our end, and that is what Nowodology can help with too.