The Open
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Betweenness – A Discussion of “Ishmael”

Last night’s kickoff event for The Open was a success!

Using Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as our jumping-off point, we discussed topics ranging from the evolution of consciousness, to the teleology of biological life, to the fuzziness of boundaries between conceptual categories. Our community was formed by Eric and Julie Larson, Molly Mahar, Nick Clifford, David Lassiter (via Skype), and Paul Wallace. We had Hemmingway Daiquiris to drink, thanks to Eric and Julie, and Molly and I provided lots of cheese, baguette, and holiday cookies.

Paul, Molly, Nick, and Julie. Photo Credit: Eric Larson.

Paul, Molly, Nick, and Julie. Photo Credit: Eric Larson.

The evening began with each member of the community discussing their initial emotional or intellectual reactions to the book. Ishmael made some of us depressed about humanity. It empowered others with the potential to take action through narrative. And it fostered censure in some for its lack of scientific precision. However, the great achievement of the book, we decided, was its ability to engender these strong, polarizing reactions. All in all, we each felt something passionately. With such varied viewpoints in the room, we had many places to start.

Discussion unfolded over the next three hours, taking us on a trip through multiple fields of inquiry, a few heated debates, and some surprising changes of opinion. Our conversation was too organic and varied to present here in any fashion that would do it justice. Instead of trying to summarize, I’ll simply present a handful of our discussion topics as they arose. Let these ideas be the starting points for your own debates and conversations.

Key Ideas Discussed

If I’ve left any out, please add them to the comments section!

  • The power of story as a driving force for change – “enacting the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.”
  • Is the science of Ishmael factually incorrect? What other animals might be Takers? A few examples discussed: Argentine Ants, fungus, algae, weeds, and even black holes on the cosmic level.
  • Are all animals potential Takers if only given the right conditions? Are all creatures just attempting to master their environment, and what distinguishes humans as the “worst” is actually just their historical success? Also, what does it mean that we have become aware of this and are now seeking to change the world for the better?
  • From Leavers to Takers to Caretakers – what is the next revolution in the dialectics of conscious beings?
  • What does it mean to be a Leaver? Do they exist? Is the choice to be a Leaver only a choice that a Taker can make (a conscious choice with full understanding of all the options)? Instead of a Taker / Leaver dichotomy, should it be more of a narrative: animal ignorance in the beginning, to Taker conquest via the evolution of consciousness, to becoming the Caretakers via greater awareness?
  • Is evolution a series of failures in search of the right path? Is there evolutionary teleology? If so, is consciousness the accelerated hand of this trial-by-failure process? What is the relationship between conscious content and unconscious instinct?
  • Is consciousness an “on” or “off” attribute that only humans have, or is there an infinitely varied spectrum of awareness? Do monkeys have consciousness? Do rocks have consciousness? Does technology have consciousness?
  • Is environmentalism selfish or selfless?
  • Ants have life-hacked the self / non-self problematic by having only one fertile queen, thus every ant is a kin-member, which is the genetic equivalent to a self. As such, are ants selfless, or masters of the self?
  • Does an element of self-interest negate an altruistic act? Are truly selfless acts even possible?
  • Are selfless acts truly acts of non-self, or are they acts of expanded self? Is there a difference between non-self and boundless-self? For example, was Jesus or Buddha selfless, or had they expanded their self-model to encompass the entire world? Is there a difference?
  • What is the self?
  • Self, cultural ideology, and being alive are formal systems that present no conceivable outside. Yet, certain experiences, whether chemical, artistic, or religious, show us glimpses of an outside. We run into trouble when some group calls its outside to be the outside. However, does the existence of any outside whatsoever constitute a radical rupture of the formal system? What are awareness and perspective if not the capacity to see and enact the possibility of outside? What is enlightenment if not the ability to live within a system while knowing outside?
  • Does life flourish more in death than in life?
  • What is our relationship to death?
  • Is there a difference between life and death? Or are these two names for a single process?

As the night came to a close, we left an open door to the topic of death. It seemed as if our largest problem with the book was its stark categories of “Taker” and “Leaver” as pure black and white, just as good and evil, conscious and unconscious, and self and non-self are problematic conceptual categories. That being the case, we were all drawn to the idea of “betweenness,” as David proposed, or the grey area both between the dialectic and outside of the category system – the space I call “Both, and yet Neither.”

Our conclusion for the discussion was to re-visit the topic of death in this light, and see what humans are capable of becoming with such a vision. What would it mean to be a human who lives between life and death? What would our relationship with the world become if life and death were no different?


  1. Pingback: 8: The Caretaker | Live The Questions

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