Common Sense 2.0—How the Task Ahead May Be More Straightforward Than We Think

My last two posts emphasized how culturally mature perspective requires that we bring greater complexity to how we think (see The Crisis of Gun Violence and Seeking More Effective Middle East Policy). Each also addressed how culturally mature perspective makes doing so possible. Here we turn to what might seem an opposite result. If we can get our minds around that complexity, there is a sense in which what we find becomes, if not simpler, at least more straightforward. With time, it can come to feel obvious, even ordinary—like common sense. What is different is that this is a maturity of common sense that we have not before been capable of. Think of it as “common sense 2.0.” Some examples of such “common sense” results that reference other previous blog posts follow:

Morality (see Culture as Parent). Culture in times past has functioned like a parent, providing us with personal and collective rules to live by. This fact has made life simpler. In the ethical realm, for example, clear moral codes, unquestioned gender roles and the like, have helped keep the often great complexity of moral concerns manageable. Culturally mature perspective, in offering that we might recognize the limitations of such one-size-fits-all rules, makes the necessity of thinking more complexly inescapable. But at the same time, there is a sense in which it makes doing so more straightforward. By helping us engage that complexity more consciously and systemically—more as a whole—it lets us address moral/ethical questions with a newly encompassing directness. Making good moral decisions becomes “simply” about discerning what choices will produce results that are most life-enhancing—for ourselves and for those around us. In a sense, this kind of discernment has been what moral decision-making has always been about (moral codes have offered simplified rules for making life-enhancing choices). But we have never before been capable of engaging the moral decision-making task with the inclusiveness of perspective or the maturity of responsibility needed today. Little by little, the importance of doing so is becoming obvious—common sense.

War and Peace (see The End to War as We Have Known It). One of culturally mature perspective’s most defining results is that it helps us get beyond our historical tendency to divide the world into us and them—“chosen people” and “evil others.” Good guy/bad guy “common sense” is simple; we only need to know who our enemies are and needed actions follow. The more encompassing kind of common sense that Cultural Maturity makes possible is necessarily more complex. It requires, and also makes possible, a significantly deeper understanding both of those with whom we might disagree, and of ourselves. And at once there are ways in which culturally mature perspective makes decision-making on the world stage simpler. Because we become more capable of seeing things for what they are (rather than through the lens of polarized symbolism), we become better able to appreciate real conflicts of interest, and points of possible cooperation. Decision-making requires greater sophistication, but it also becomes more straightforward—a reflection simply of taking into account all that needs to be considered. The result is the possibility of a maturity of policy common sense that will be essential in the future if we are to co-exist on the planet in safe and healthy ways.

Life and Death (see The Radical Implications of a New Maturity in Our Relationship to Death). I’ve written extensively about a needed new maturity in our relationship to death and how it ties to multiple issues—most immediately the future of health care, but also the prevalence of violence in culture, and essential challenges facing the media. In times past, our beliefs about death have protected us from engaging it directly—religious codes provided agreed-upon explanations (e.g., that we go to a “happier place”). Or if our worldview was more secular, we might treat death simply as an adversary to keep at arm’s length. Cultural Maturity challenges us to look more directly at death—and also helps us do so. While the picture that results is more demanding and complex (it requires that we give up easy explanations and be more comfortable with uncertainty), with it, death more clearly becomes simply part of life. The fact that we need to more consciously consider it becomes obvious—common sense.

Love (see Beyond Romeo and Juliet). Another provocative result of culturally mature perspective is that it challenges us to rethink the meaning of love (and ultimately, relationships of all sort). It helps us appreciate how, while modern romantic love has taken us forward in essential ways, it represents only one chapter in love’s story, and not a final one. Love’s modern picture includes a kind of simplification that we can easily miss. Compared with love in the time of matchmakers, the addition of greater choice means that romantic love requires us to tolerate more complexity than love in times previous. But the way romantic love works has also, in its own way, protected us from love’s full complexity and uncertainty. Love based on seeing the other as our other half (our romantic “white knight” or “fair maiden”) requires only the most limited knowledge of either the other person or ourselves. A more mature “whole-person” kind of love is decidedly more complex it what it asks of us. It requires that we more deeply engage personal and relational complexities and confronts us in new ways with the diverse forms that meaningful love can take. And, again, here with love, there are also ways in which Cultural Maturity’s changes make things more straightforward—and in an important sense simpler. Increasingly our choices in love become based not on external expectations, whether those of family or culture (that may conflict with who we are) and magical beliefs that another person can complete us (a task at which we must ultimately fail), but on the most “ordinary” kind of measure: simply the degree we can add to each others’s lives.

Political Left and Political Right (see Partisan Pettiness—An Abject Failure of Leadership). Partisan ideology is simple—you agree with the Left or the Right as is your inclination. In my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I describe how the traditional views of the political left and the political right reflect opposite, but complementary perspectives—two hands of a more complete, systemic picture. I also describe how, while seeking to find compromise between the positions of those two separate hands has often produced effective decisions in the past, it cannot continue to work in the future. The reason: Critical challenges ahead will increasingly require systemic perspective just to make sense of the questions they ask, much less to find useful solutions. Going forward, our understanding must be more encompassing and nuanced. Such understanding is necessarily more complex—more multifaceted, and also complex in the sense of being more able to address change and uncertainty. But because it more accurately takes into account all that is involved, in the end it also better represents common sense. This is a sophistication of common sense that we are only beginning to appreciate is needed, and rarely yet able to apply. But increasingly, it is a kind of common sense on which effective leadership depends.

Progress (see Human Purpose, the Evolution of Narrative, and the Challenge of a New Cultural Story). Arguably, culturally mature perspective’s most essential challenge is to our modern concept of progress. An extension of Industrial Age thinking, the modern concept defines progress almost solely in terms of material growth and individual achievement. While particular innovations may be technically complicated, the definition itself is simple to grasp, and its achievements easily measured—“onward and upward.” But while what our modern definition measures has in times past supported advancement, it will prove increasingly limited for doing so in the future. Going forward, our definition of progress must include all that goes into making life full and complete—in addition to material advancement, the depths of our relationships, the health of the environment, our sense of creativity and meaning, and much more. This more inclusive definition of progress is necessarily more complex. But there are also, again, ways in which it is simpler than what we have known. When we stand back and looks at the big picture, it becomes obvious and straightforward—very much common sense—that progress must reflect all that makes existence vital and meaningful.

Science and Religion. In my recent book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions, I address how culturally mature perspective points toward the possibility (and importance) of understanding the relationship between science and religion in more sophisticated ways. Again, the result is at once more complex and simpler than what we have known. Our familiar two-separate-worlds picture is simple in that each world has its clear governing rules. But it leaves us with the question of why we might believe reality to be anything but whole. People today often respond to this major philosophical question by dismissing one of the pictures halves. But a more reasonable response to the question of why we have thought in separate-worlds terms is that doing so has protects us from the complexity of what a more complete picture might demand of us. Culturally mature perspective suggests that traditional views of the material and the spiritual reflect contrasting ways the world looks when viewed from different parts of how our mind’s multi-faceted cognitive workings. The picture that results is necessarily more complex. But at the same time, because it better includes understanding as a whole, it is ultimately simpler—at the least in the sense of being more complete and elegant. [Creative Systems Theory provides a more specific and detailed framework. It describes how the ways we conceive of science and religion (both now and in evolving variations through history) reflect the toolmaking, meaning-making “creative” mechanisms that underlie how we understand. It proposes that we can appreciate science and religion as complementary ways (with science emphasizing difference and religion emphasizing connectedness) in which, over time, we have attempted to make sense of existence’s larger, richly dynamic and generative, systemic nature. (See Science and Religion on the Creative Systems Theory website).]

The idea that culturally mature perspective produces understanding that is at once more complex, and also more straightforward—we might say simpler—is not in the end mysterious. It follows directly from the cognitive changes that produce it. All of the new capacities that accompany Cultural Maturity can be understood to follow from a new ability to at once more fully step back from, and more deeply engage, the whole of our cognitive complexity (see Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Changes). The ability to engage understandings of all sorts in ways that are more encompassing is one of the most defining attributes of these changes. Because reality becomes more of a whole, if we can tolerate this greater complexity, we also experience it as simpler.

In teaching, I often use the image of a box of crayons to help capture this result. What makes culturally mature perspective new in that it gives us the worldview of the whole box. It lets us step back and better appreciate the multiple aspects of experience—all the crayons—and at once it helps us more consciously recognize the larger picture—the multi-hued whole the crayons make up together. Culturally mature common sense reflects this new, more complete picture. In using the word complete, I don’t mean “objective” in the sense of now seeing with perfect clarity; appreciating a “crayon” is not the same as fully understanding it. But this larger vantage does produce a fundamentally new, and newly essential kind of common sense. The “common sense” conclusions of times past reflected the viewpoints of single crayons (or several crayons in interaction), with culturally specific assumptions adding particulars. Culturally mature perspective’s at once more complex and simpler kind of common sense reflects how the world looks when, in a conscious and integrated way, we apply the whole of our complex natures to making sense of our complex world. In the process, we come just a bit closer to seeing things simply as they are.