“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance:
but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
-Matthew 13:12, KJV
It’s been a minute, but we’re back with a vengeance. The past several months have been a strange and interesting time for most of us, I’d imagine, and you may have sensed some changes in the way things are moving. We seem to be on the razor’s edge in a way- torn between the sense of impending doom and hellish chaos that the mainstream culture and political sphere are experiencing and something else entirely. I’ve been asking a number of people about how their year has gone, and so many have told me that despite the uncertainty and disruption, this year has led them to be in the best position they’ve ever been in.
Why is there this disconnect between these worldviews?
How did we become so split in our perspectives?
What is the critical difference, the thing that makes one person thrive where another flounders?
This is something I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about recently, and we’re going to explore it today. Along the way, we’re going to explore the concepts of scarcity and abundance, take a look at the Matthew Effect, revisit my Theory of Everything, and try and answer the last question.
Let’s get it.
We’re going to start with one of the critical dichotomies of our time, competition versus cooperation. These two strategies (and the conflict between them) are built into the structure of almost all human society, and they form the basis of the two worldviews we’re going to be looking at: scarcity versus abundance. A person who operates from a position of scarcity fundamentally believes that there is not enough to go around and thus resources (wealth, ideas, relationships, etc.) are tied up in a zero-sum game where winners take all and losers get nothing. A person who operates from a position of abundance believes that there is more than enough to go around, will share freely and is able to cooperate with an attitude of trust and openness because of the security this belief provides.
Now, there are about fifteen thousand or so self-help books on developing an abundance mindset, so I’ll keep the description brief and get into the meat of things. The first and most important thing we have to identify here is that one of these strategies is demonstrably better, and I’m sure you can guess which one. It’s proof enough that Man is called the social animal that we’re hardwired for cooperation. There’s a quote (semi-plausibly attributed to Margaret Mead) that I’ll paraphrase hard here: “the first mark of civilization was fossil evidence of a healed femur, because it requires the help of another person to do the healing.” (For more on our cooperative history, read Tribe by Sebastian Junger, highly recommended and a quick read.)
We are social creatures, period. Our ability to feel the deep pain of loneliness is an evolved trait that kept people from doing things that distanced them from the group, because if you got exiled from the tribe, you died. The end. We resent people who “hoard” wealth today because in the hunter-gatherer societies we evolved into, if you hoarded meat after a hunt, you’d get your ass kicked or get exiled (and then die, remember?)
We’re evolved for prosocial behavior in small groups (about 150-250, also known as Dunbar’s Number), and our modern environment basically doesn’t reflect that at all. We live in massive cities surrounded by strangers, where we’re taking part in many social hierarchies that we may not even be able to see all the levels of. If you have 150 people, you can probably figure out where you stand, but if you work for a massive corporation, you’re probably never going to go from an entry level job to CEO. When we can’t navigate the social hierarchy effectively, we feel isolated, and when we’re isolated, we act very differently.
There’s a study on lab rats who were placed in an isolation cage alone with the choice between normal water and water laced with cocaine. The lonely rats chose the coke water, as one would expect- being a rat is hard enough already. However, when they were placed in a cage with other rats, they kicked their coke habit. Why?
Cocaine is (among other things) a dopamine agonist- it releases dopamine, the reward chemical. Dopamine is the chemical your brain releases when you do something like learn a skill, win a game, or succeed in a challenge. It’s a little bit of an antisocial chemical at times- it plays a big role in drug addiction and other forms of negative behavior like gambling, risk taking, and binge eating. Dopamine basically tells you “good job, keep doing whatever you just did,” even if what you just did was smoke a bunch of meth or spend $500 on Clash of Clans.
Unlike dopamine, there’s another critical chemical you can’t get when you’re alone- oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the pair-bonding chemical- it’s what you get from hugs, spending time with friends, and genuine compliments (the “warm-fuzzies,” if you will.) You basically only get oxytocin by socializing. Oxytocin also has the effect of reducing the severity of drug withdrawal as well as reducing drug-seeking behavior, so when the sad rat made some friends, the oxytocin helped him drop his thirst for the white lightning.
I’m going to propose a hypothesis here: it seems that when we’re not receiving a sufficient amount of oxytocin from normal, healthy socializing, we default to seeking dopamine, and the dopamine circuits are the basis of scarcity mindset. A cokehead will do anything to score their fix, including lie, cheat, and steal, because they need to secure the next hit of dopamine to stave off the loneliness of oxytocin deprivation. This becomes more disturbing when you realize the mechanisms of “social” media all revolve around the dopamine circuits, but that’s not within the scope of this article, so we’re going to brush over that bit.
We get dopamine by competing and winning, and we get oxytocin through recognition and appreciation by the group. Each of these has their purpose, and this is by no means a wholesale demonization of dopamine (we have dopamine circuits for a reason, after all.) However, I am going to make the argument that our modern society is hyper-dependent on dopamine, and that this is because we’ve destroyed, or at least forgotten the value and importance of, our healthy social communities.
Here’s where things get weird.
There’s a concept called the Matthew Effect which is named thusly after the biblical quote I opened the article with:
“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance:
but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
This has been warped a bit by the social sciences into a more familiar saying:
“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Not generally something people would imagine Jesus saying, right? Humor aside, the Matthew Effect seems to be present across many domains- for example, scientists who are already well known get more attention than those who are less well known but do superior work (re: this probably means you, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but no hard feelings.)
I’d hazard a guess that the combination of oxytocin provided by some measure of recognition over time (being recognized in your field, having some social status, or growing up in a supportive environment) combined with a few early successes (dopamine feedback) is the preconditions for an abundance mindset. If you only get the dopamine, you’ll chase your success but won’t ever feel validated by the group, and if you only get the oxytocin, you’ll lack the drive to take risks and seek challenges. Get both, though, and you’re unstoppable.
This brings us back to the obvious superiority of an abundance mindset as a means of operating in the world. Unless you live in an environment where there’s actual scarcity, like one of those Marxist countries your academic friends speak so highly of (hey, Venezuela!), then you’re really not benefited by acting antisocially to secure your own survival. Given the choice, it is a better, more sustainable strategy over time to act with trust and the intent to cooperate, because those who trust are trusted in return and those who can play nice play more games, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson.
If only it were that easy.
Our predisposition towards a competition-based scarcity mindset is actually predicated on a metaphysical assertion about reality, or more simply, the mainstream worldview actually believes that the nature of reality is fundamentally scarcity.
We’re going to get a bit heady here, so buckle up.
I won’t go excessively in-depth into my Theory of Everything here but if you’re interested you can read about it here. To summarize, my argument is that the universe, within the span of the flow of time (from the beginning of time, the Alpha point [the point of highest potential energy] to the end of time, the Omega point [the point of lowest potential energy]), is governed by the proportion between A and Ω.
The scientific worldview assumes that as time flows, energy goes from being usable to being dispersed in a process called entropy, and the second law of thermodynamics predicts the “heat-death of the universe,” where at the end of time the entire universe has reached a uniform cold temperature and all movement stops, like a hot cup of coffee becomes room temperature after you leave it sitting out. Except in this case the room temperature is like, zero degrees Kelvin, more or less.
This is all very abstract, so let’s turn it into a metaphor. The mainstream scientific worldview basically assumes a universe in which no matter what one does, at the end nothing matters, and things fall apart. It’s metaphysical nihilism, and by assuming this is the extent of the universe, we create a worldview based on the assumption of utter meaninglessness built in. We set ourselves up for failure.
My theory argues that while the physical world may fall apart, we gain something from it, too. If you break a toaster while taking it apart, you may not be able to fix that particular toaster, but you have gained something, too- you learn how it works.
Ultimately, my argument is that our subjective consciousness (the experience of you inside your head) is real, and that subjective consciousness as we experience it isn’t some illusion (many people believe this, look it up), but actually a fundamental and inseparable part of our reality. My argument is that potential may run out, but we gain information (subjective experiences and knowledge of the way the world works) as a result. The mainstream scientific worldview argues the universe ends in zero, but I’d argue that rather than an equation, it’s a proportion.
My argument is one for metaphysical abundance. The scientific worldview argues that the universe sprang into existence somehow from nothing and will return to nothing, where I argue that the universe is a cyclical, evolutionary process of change- I think that life and consciousness are fundamental properties of being, and that there is no scarcity because the nature of the universe itself is one of abundance.
I propose that as the physical universe’s potential energy is lost to entropy, we gain something else- syntropy, the counter-entropic force. Syntropy comes from the Greek syn, meaning with or together, and trope, meaning transformation. Here, it means “the transformation of things coming together,” and I’d argue that Syntropy is the same force that I spoke of when I wrote about the “tendency towards complexity” and the “will to Order.”
Life is the syntropic force- as the universe changes, life changes with it. DNA itself seems to be an information storage system that arises as a response to these universal processes of entropy- it “learns” and grows based on the laws of the universe itself, and it stores a record of the conditions the universe was under as it develops. Our consciousness represents this information system becoming self-aware and able to reflect on itself.
Anyway, let’s zoom back into some more practical, less heady stuff.
To summarize that- the mainstream scientific worldview has built our society on the assumption that scarcity is a normal part of our reality, but I do not think this is the case. I believe the universe is fundamentally good, and a place of abundance that we can succeed in if we accept that to live and thrive in the universe requires us to do certain things, like cooperate.
How does this tie back into where we’re at in society?
The world is currently on the razor’s edge of a choice:
Do we live in a world of scarcity, or one of abundance?
If we live in a world of scarcity, we will continue competing and living in a way where man turns against man. We’ll destroy our natural environment in the hopes of making more money to enjoy some quality of life while the world goes to shit. The rich will win at the expense of the poor, while the gulf between the two continues to grow. Politicians will continue to sell out their country to corporations and foreign interests while the people who elect them suffer in the mires of poverty. Eventually, there will be no one left to compete with, as our destructive strategy reaches its inevitable conclusion- death and desolation.
If we live in a world of abundance, then there’s a different story to tell. We’re waking up from a centuries-long nightmare to find that the light of dawn shows us a world that isn’t so bad after all. People are learning to work together again as we return to our social roots and community finds a new birth after the isolation of quarantine. We’re finding that we’re stronger together than we ever were apart, and that by cooperating, we can accomplish more than we ever imagined. Rather than blaming the world, we’re taking responsibility for ourselves and for those around us, and together we’re going to build a better world in the wake of our fading bad dream.
I think most people are ready for abundance, but our culture is so steeped in the fear that breeds scarcity that it may be some time before they’re ready to trust again. Our task is deceptively simple- to trust in the fundamental goodness of being itself, to believe again in the wholeness of the universe and the ability of the broken to be fixed. When we can move beyond the pain we’ve clung to, we open ourselves to the infinite possibilities lying before us, ready to be claimed.
This, then, is the last question:
Which world will you live in?
Will you live as if the world is falling apart, and in doing so, accept your fate as the dead wood that burns away, or will you learn from the mistakes of the past, and despite the pain, choose to persevere? Will you turn against your fellow man, scrounging for scraps in a sinking ship, or will you offer your hand and help lift them up to see that it’s not so bad as it seems?
Either way, the choice is yours.