A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse

Surrealistic bridges to a distant island castle
“Bridges to the Neverland” (CC) George Grie

To prevent civilizational collapse, a bridge may be necessary—specifically for geeks—between systematic rationality and fluid, meta-rational understanding. (Not to be alarmist or anything.)

This is an obscure and superficially implausible claim. Here’s why I think the bridge may be needed—and a sketch of how to start building it.

Stages and bridges

My conceptual framework draws on Robert Kegan’s model of adult cognitive, affective, and social development. (I recently posted a summary elsewhere. This essay will be easier to understand if you know Kegan’s model, so it will be helpful read that post first.)

Kegan describes three stages of adult development (numbered 3, 4, and 5). We could call them pre-rational, rational, and meta-rational. These stages are distinctive, internally consistent, relatively-well-functioning modes for organizing one’s thinking, one’s self, and one’s relationships. They might be described as “islands of psychological stability.” To progress from one island to the next, you must cross a heaving sea of psychological confusion, in which the previous mode no longer seems functional, but you cannot yet operate in the next mode reliably. These stage transitions are emotionally and cognitively difficult, and typically take several years, during which one may think, feel, and act inconsistently.

Ideally, a society and culture provides “bridges” of support from one stage to the next. To some extent, ours does. However, Kegan pointed out that we have allowed the bridge from stage 3 to 4 to fall into disrepair. We are not adequately teaching young adults how to be rational, systematic, or modern. This is the central theme of his In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

This problem seems to have only gotten worse in the two decades since he wrote that. That is what makes me fear civilizational collapse. Keeping modern institutions operating requires cognitively modern, rational operators. We may be destroying the conditions necessary to produce them. I’ll explain this in more detail later.

Our society and culture do even less to support the transition from stage 4 to 5. This transition, between the rational and meta-rational stages, is particularly difficult; and no bridge has yet been built. This is an unrecognized lack—and so, an opportunity to contribute. It has, perhaps, never been seriously attempted, so it may be unexpectedly easy: “low-hanging fruit” that has not yet been plucked.

Between stages 4 and 5, there is a gap, a stretch of open ocean. One recognizes the limitations of rationality, but can’t yet work effectively in the meta-rational mode. Many people get stuck treading water here, trying to stay afloat, often not even able to see the dry land of meta-rationality on the horizon. With rationality seeming the only basis for meaning, they fall into nihilistic depression. This is sometimes informally called “stage 4.5,” although it is not a “stage” in the same sense as the others. It is not a workable mode of organization. However, its dysfunction is stabilized by spurious logic of nihilism. Some stuck there may be barely capable of everyday functioning. Others manage better, by recognizing the limits of rationality while continuing to use it effectively in practice.

The stages of individual development are manifest also in forms of social organization. Pre-rational psychology is typical of pre-modern societies—what I’ve described elsewhere as the “choiceless” or “communal” mode. Rationality is characteristic of systematic, modern societies. Postmodernity corresponds to the 4.5 breakdown.

Postmodernism sabotages the bridge to rationality

In the 1970s and 1980s, the best postmodern/poststructural thinkers presented meta-rational views, based on their thorough understanding of systematic rationality.1 This first generation of postmodern teachers had a complete “classical education” in the humanities; they mastered the Western intellectual tradition before coming to understand its limitations.

Deconstructive postmodernism, their critique of stage 4 modernism/systematicity/rationality, is the basis of the contemporary university humanities curriculum. This is a disaster. The critique is largely correct; but, as Kegan observed, to teach it to young adults is harmful.2 Few university students have consolidated rationality. Essentially none are ready to move beyond it. Pointing out its defects makes their developmental task more difficult.

You cannot understand what is wrong with rationalism until you are capable of being rational. You cannot go beyond rationality until after you can use it reliably. You cannot become meta to systems you do not appreciate and do not understand how to deploy. You cannot move from stage 3 to stage 5 without passing through stage 4.

In fact, even most teachers of postmodern theory don’t understand it. Unfortunately, the postmodern pioneers chose to write in obfuscatory riddles. Their insights were difficult enough to understand without that. Few followers could extract the insights. Most teachers are second-generation professors who didn’t understand pomo when it was new, and third-generation ones who were mainly taught dumbed-down second-generation “pseudo-pomo.”

They were never taught to think, and can’t. What they learned was to imitate the founders’ appalling rhetorical style. They even learned to not think—because thinking would lead to questioning the nonsense, which would get you ejected from pomodom. Consequently, most contemporary pomo writing is—as everyone admits—incoherent blather, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That’s “pseudo-pomo.”

At this point, many humanities professors cannot take even a rational, stage 4 stance; they were not taught to think. Lacking that, they cannot critique rationalism accurately. They could not possibly transmit stage 5 meta-rationality to their students now.

“All systems must be destroyed”

Still worse, pseudo-pomo misunderstands the postmodern critique simply as “all systems are wicked, false ideologies invented by the powerful as means of oppression, and must be destroyed.”3

Unfortunately, “critical theory” has so far failed to produce a broad, positive, clear and practical meta-rational vision. With nothing beyond the discredited stage 4 to look forward to, it is mostly no longer possible for humanities majors to develop a rational, systematic self. Nor can they participate effectively in a rational, systematic culture and society. At best, if they do somehow make it to stage 4, deconstructive postmodernism can only push them on into the ultra-relativist nihilism of 4.5. In that abyss, you realize rationality is not the answer, but can see no alternative. There is essentially no support available for the further transition to stage 5.4

This scares me. Up until the 1980s, a university humanities department did teach you how to think—and it was the standard education for the ruling class. Since then, it has taught you not to think. What happens as people trained in postmodern anti-thought move increasingly into positions of power? Without an appreciation for administrative and technical rationality—much less the ability to deploy them personally—how can they lead governments, corporations, universities, churches, or NGOs?

Recently, major institutions seem increasingly willing to abandon systemic logic: rationality, rule of law, and procedural justice. Such systems lost credibility decades ago, and are under increasing cultural/political attack from the pomo-educated. But for now they are critical to maintaining civilization. Someone has to keep the machinery running. Until we can build a fluid, meta-rational stage 5 society, destroying stage 4 institutions means everyone will die. (Not to be alarmist or anything.)

Building a bridge to stage 5 may be critical to keeping the bridge to stage 4 open. Because the postmodern critique is correct, it’s intellectually indefensible to insist on rationality as The Way and The Truth and The Light. To make stage 4 palatable, it has to be clear that it is not the final destination. Confirming the accuracy of the critique opens the possibility of a third alternative to the stage 3 and 4 worldviews. Saying:

makes credible:

Misperception of woo blocks the bridge beyond rationality

STEM5 education teaches the value of technical systems, including formal rationality. STEM education ignores postmodernism, so the bridge to stage 4 is still intact there. Thus, stage 5 meta-rationality is now probably more accessible for STEM folks than other people. I think it is important to present stage 5 in language STEM folks can understand and will find attractive.

For people in stage 4, anything that is not rational may sound like simple irrationality, or magical thinking, and so they are likely to reject it. As a further difficulty, stage 5 has some specific commonalities with stage 3 (pre-rationality), making it harder to distinguish. Dualism—insistence on precise boundaries—is characteristic of stage 4. Monism—rejection of boundaries, and over-emphasis on connections—is characteristic of stage 3. Stage 5 recognizes that boundaries and connections are both nebulous and patterned, so it is neither monist nor dualist. However, from a rationalist point of view, meta-rationalism’s rejection of black-and-white thinking just looks like the blooming buzzing confusion of stage 3 monism, which rationalism is right to reject.

For someone in stage 4, relativizing the ultimate value of rationality seems certain to slide into Romanticism (prioritizing emotions and subjective experience over objective understanding) and woo (supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and wishful thinking). Since nearly all talk about limits to rationality is motivated by stage 3 Romanticism and woo, this is an inevitable misapprehension. However, that is not the stage 5 agenda. This must be made extremely clear.

My summary of Kegan’s theory included a point that merited only a footnote there, but which I want to emphasize here:

Stages 3 and 5 both tolerate contradictions, but of different types and in different ways.

Stage 3 does not feel a need for rational justifications, and mostly doesn’t have the capacity to use them; so it mostly doesn’t even notice logical contradictions, and isn’t bothered by them when it does. However, stage 3 can be highly intolerant of contradictory value judgments, because they threaten community harmony.

Stage 4 finds contradictions within its system a fundamental problem, and tries to eliminate them one way or another. Eventually, if contradictions cannot be eliminated from the system, it must be replaced. Stage 4 wants to find the right system, and if two contradict, that shows one is wrong.

Stage 5 recognizes the value of sorting out contradictions within a system, and retains stage 4’s ability to do so. However, it doesn’t expect any system to work perfectly, so it tolerates internal contradictions if they appear relatively unproblematic. Stage 5 entertains multiple systems, and is comfortable with contradictions between them, because systems are not absolute truths, only ways-of-seeing that are useful in different circumstances. Stage 5 is uniquely comfortable with value conflicts, since (unlike both 3 and 4) it does not take any value as ultimate.

Emanuel Rylke commented, perceptively:

You say “People in stage 3 tend to misunderstand stage 4 as being stage 2” and hint at the possibility for a similar error at stage 4: “3 and 5 both tolerate contradictions” (I myself got hung up on this superficial similarity for multiple years). I think that’s not just a coincidence but a reason for why we can make a reliable distinction between these stages in the first place. If you view cognitive development as a river then sections where progress lies in a direction that looks backwards create a sort of reservoir. Basically there progress is counter intuitive so people slow down a lot and pile up. These then can more easily recognized as separate stages compared to a continuously flowing river.

For stage 4, stage 5’s tolerance of contradiction is indistinguishable from stage 3’s; both appear simply irrational.6

Lacking a clear presentation of stage 5, and particularly a clear explanation of how it differs from stage 3, it is inaccessible from stage 4 directly. At best, one can only reach it from 4.5, the gap of nihilistic despair. This generally provokes anxiety, rage, and depression, and is not a good place to get stuck.

Many of the people I care about most, and find most interesting, are STEM-educated refugees from ideological rationalism. They’ve mastered rationality, they’ve seen through it—and many now are stuck. Systems cannot provide them with meaning; but neither, it seems can anything else. Many fall into crippling nihilistic depression—a characteristic of stage 4.5. This is awful.

4.5 is necessary en route to stage 5, but maybe it doesn’t need to be so horrible. One needs to become disillusioned and disappointed with rationalism, and then angry at it, and perhaps temporarily reject rationality altogether (in theory at least). Moving beyond any of the developmental stages involves a profound sense of loss: of one’s previously comfortable mode of making meaning. One’s meaning-making mode is always experienced as “the self,” and the new mode seems frighteningly alien—even though it is more powerful once mastered. The 4-to–5 transition is particularly difficult, as it appears no new meaning is possible even in principle, which implies you are nothing, and have no value.

However, if you understand that meaning re-emerges at stage 5—or can accept this, based on plausible testimony—then you need not descend into despair. Unfortunately, little or no support is available for the 4.5 to 5 transition. Mostly you can only get to stage 5 through a rare combination of luck, intelligence, and endurance.

The current adult developmental landscape

This diagram summarizes past, current, and potential future ways beyond stage 3. Dotted lines show routes that are mainly unavailable, and dotted boxes are stages that are mainly unavailable.

Diagram of adult developmental stage transitions
Click to embiggen

(This is a good time to remember that adult developmental theory is a conceptual model, not Eternal Truth. Like all models, it highlights and partially explains some phenomena, and marginalizes and distorts others. I am using it here because it provides a useful vocabulary for discussing some patterns I want to point out.)

Twenty-some years ago, Kegan said that the bridge into stage 4 was through participation in a systematic institution: either employment or university education.

Employers such as large corporations and the military induct young adults into bureaucratic rationality. This bridge is still open. However, it seems increasingly under cultural-political attack. Further, it has never led beyond stage 4. Stage 5 institutions are rare, transient, and perhaps entirely hypothetical.7

“Pseudo-pomo” now stands in the way of a systematic humanities education. It is probably still possible to reach stage 4 in some English departments, but you’d have to be smart, lucky, dedicated, and discreet—so I’ve made that a dotted box in the diagram. If you do reach it, the genuine pomo critique is still available; I’ve drawn it with a solid line. However, the critique leads only to ultra-relativistic nihilism. The logical next step, a positive non-eternalist stage 5 cultural and social vision, does not yet exist. (I do plan to try to sketch one in Meaningness and Time—but that’s not what this post is about.)

Formal rationality is central in STEM education, so it’s now the best route to stage 4. STEM departments do not explicitly go beyond that. However, at least some professors understand the limitations of formal methods and the inherent nebulosity of their subject matter, and may teach that informally. They may also teach some stage 5 cognitive skills informally, implicitly, or by example.

Some STEM people figure out the limits of rationalist ideology on their own. Lacking any intellectual or social framework for that, the discovery often leads to nihilistic despair and social isolation. This is common enough that I’ve given that box a solid border.

A bridge to stage 5 for STEM people

So, I really want to help. I care particularly for the STEM-educated who are lost in the nihilist abyss.

But also, STEM people are the most likely to have made it beyond stage 4, and therefore the most likely to be able to reach stage 5. With stage 4 discredited, getting a critical mass of people to stage 5 may be the only way to preserve civilization from systemic collapse. That could be brought on by broad cultural, social, and psychological reversion to stage 3 tribalism. (Not to be alarmist or anything.)

Stage 5 may contain the answers to current pressing social and cultural problems (as I’ll eventually argue in Meaningness and Time). But perhaps even more critically, building the bridge from 4 to 5 may be the only way to keep the bridge from 3 to 4 open. (And to repair the bridge to rationality for non-STEM people.)

Stage transitions usually cannot be accomplished solo. Intellectual understanding is not enough. A bridge needs a culture and community that help in three ways. They should challenge current-stage behavior to push you toward the next; they should support you during the transition, to minimize negative consequences when you are halfway through and can’t quite make the next stage work; they should confirm (praise and reward) next-stage behavior to the extent you can do it. Systematic institutions, ideally, provide these for new members, transitioning from stage 3 to 4.

Cultural and community context for the 4-to–5 transition has, thus far, been rare. The meta-rational mode is not broadly recognized. Context for reaching it has been created only rarely, idiosyncratically, by exceptional individual mentors, plus their circle of students.

Each developmental stage can be explained in terms of any aspect of human being. Kegan discusses the 4-to–5 transition in terms of ethics, marriage relationships, and management style. These are not areas that STEM folks are typically particularly interested in. It may be more helpful to explain in terms of cognitive, or epistemological, approaches. Cognition and epistemology are central in Kegan’s model overall, but he’s vague on how they change in the 4-to–5 transition.

Challenge, in the cognitive aspect of the transition, entails explaining the limitations of rationality; support means showing how meta-rationality works, and how to make the transition emotionally feasible; confirmation is pointing out the power of meta-rationality. In the Cells of the Eggplant aims to provide all three. As of early 2022, only the “challenge” part is complete.

Even when it is finished, it will fall far short of a broad bridge—because that requires a social and cultural context. Can such a thing exist? I am confident it can. It will take collaborative construction by many contributors, though.

  1. 1.Michel Foucault was, in my opinion, the foremost among them. Unfortunately, his premature death prevented what might have become a complete meta-rational presentation. His last work—the multi-volume, unfinished History of Sexuality—is the best. It’s only incidentally about sexuality; it’s about self and society, knowledge and power, language and experience.
  2. 2.This is in the final chapter of his In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, “On being good company for the wrong journey.” The “wrong” journey is that from stage 4 to 5, which he thought almost no university student was ready for.
  3. 3.Kegan pointed out that although campus identity politics is usually presented in pseudo-pomo terms, it could also function as an intuitive attempt to move toward stage 4 from stage 3. The structure of the identity-political ideology is itself a system, which may be a helpful support for some students in forming a coherent, systematic self—an identity. That was in his 1994 In Over Our Heads (pp. 337–338, 342–344, 347). Unfortunately, I suspect that using identity politics as a bridge to stage 4 was more feasible in the early ’90s, at the height of the subcultural mode, than it is now in the atomized mode. Identity politics then retained considerable conceptual coherence from its Marxist roots; but it has become increasingly incoherent. Identity gave way to intersectionalism—in a way consistent with the development from the subcultural to the atomized mode—and that is probably still less capable of leading anyone beyond stage 3.
  4. 4.See, however, Kegan’s discussion of destructive antimodernism (4.5) vs. reconstructive postmodernism (stage 5), in In Over Our Heads, pp. 324–334. This is about as clear a statement of the way forward, within the critical theory framework, as has been written to date, to my knowledge.
  5. 5.Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
  6. 6.This is structurally identical to Ken Wilber’s idea of the pre-rational/trans-rational fallacy, which also draws on adult developmental psychology. I am skeptical of his “trans-rational,” however; it seems to be mostly Romantic monism, which I think is actually anti-rational (and wrong and harmful).
  7. 7.In recent work, Kegan has developed a theory and practice for stage 5 institutions. I wrote about this in “The Cofounders.”