The Flip, The Formation, and The Fun

Let’s work to bring these shifts in consensus reality into being.



I’ve had a few more thoughts about the inner life of the future and my mind has given birth to another conceptual triplet. Please forgive me. It’s really rather embarrassing, but just the way my mind works at the moment, enchanted by the threeness of things. I have just ordered a book by Cynthia Bourgeault that has ‘The Law of Three’ in the subtitle, and apparently, that comes from Gurdjieff, and it’s a book about The Trinity, which is basically the idea that God is a relationship that’s a trio, which is also true in Hinduism, and love properly understood is apparently like that too. Maybe I’m not crazy.

As a concession to my weakness for alliteration, I’m going to call these three changes the flip, the formation, and the fun.

I wouldn’t inflict these ideas on you if I didn’t think they mattered. I am pleased to have settled on this trio as a way to summarise what I believe has to happen, what I ‘stand for’, and what I think meaningful work looks like.

When I’m wondering whether or not to do something at work I can now ask myself:

Is this going to help with the flip, the formation, or the fun?

In plain language, the flip is a change in our understanding of what reality is made of, the formation is a change in our relationship to what is good, and the fun is about a change in societal purposes, what we are collectively aiming for.

In technical terms, the flip represents a fundamental shift in metaphysics – mostly to see consciousness and value as ontological primaries and the world as sacred, the formation represents a shift in metaethics – mostly a shift from utilitarianism to virtue ethics and, as a corollary, transformative education as a modus operandi; and the fun represents a shift in metapolitics – mostly a shift from an extractive growth economy built around extrinsic ends to an economy built around intrinsic ends of a cultural and creative nature, loosely (and yes, slightly provocatively) characterized as ‘fun’.

The changes are informed by Perspectiva’s founding idea that we live in three worlds of systems (where the ‘fun’ is needed) souls (where ‘the flip’ is needed) and society (where ‘the formation’ is needed) and that any meaningful theory of change has to be premised on the relationship between those three worlds.

There is some bad news. None of these three things will change easily or willingly. The good news however is that these changes are possible, and if they occur in the second quarter of the 21st century, the second half of the 21st century might yet be a time of peace and plenty. Note the alternative diet in those delicious numbers. Thinking in triplets is lovely, but it’s not sine qua non.

The Flip

First, we need to flip out, as outlined in Jeffrey Kripal’s book called The FlipWho you really are and why it matters. This point goes beyond Kripal and can be understood more or less broadly. The point is that the scientific and philosophical consensus about who we are is shifting, and it is in our interest to get ahead of the curve. That’s partly what I was trying to do with Spiritualise back in the day, to indicate that political hope may lie far outside of politics, in a shift in the perception of how reality is, who we are, and what it makes sense to do.

The misplaced presumption of secular liberal atheistic materialism is at the root of our multifaceted delusion called the metacrisis becuase it precludes the kinds of quality of vision, sentiment, sensibility, encounter, and reckoning that are in some fundamental sense spiritual. It does not follow that we invite in old time religion by the back door. As Kripal makes clear, the case for the irreducibility and/or primacy of mind often points towards an uncanny and even disturbing view of reality that is at odds with much of religion. But we do need, as Kripal puts it: “a new metaphysical imagination that does not confuse what we can observe in the third person with all there is”.

The emerging view, which is also a perennial view obscured by the intellectual fashion of the last fifty years or so, is that Consciousness is an ontological primary and an irreducible feature of reality, and so is Value, and that the world is sacred in a way that is not merely rhetoric but more like recognition. There are many nuances and unstated connections that are beyond our scope here, for instance on consciousness alone, panpsychism is not dual-aspect monism, which is not integrated information theory, which is not idealism. The important point for grasping the flip however is that none of them are materialism – none of them starts from the assumption that the world ultimately just matter and its emerging properties.

Curiously, nothing follows very directly from ‘the flip’ because the world functions the same way for everyday purposes, and so we should not get carried away with it as a premise for new political initiatives. And yet almost everything follows indirectly from the flip because it shifts our perspective so fundamentally. The flip helps us to relate to the world less like an overperforming material object and more like a miraculous enchanted relationship; in that new setting, each of us is less alone and we are all called upon to play our part in relation to a whole that has its own beguiling subjectivity and intersubjectivity. The flip is therefore neither a premise nor an axiom, but it is a disposition towards the world, and it entails a cultural correction at the level of intellectual leadership that will have cultural and political implications (not all of them good, which is why we need the formation and the fun too). I believe this flip is underway, and that it can culminate and become the prevailing view in countries that are currently tacitly materialist, and this can happen in years rather than decades or centuries. This thought gives me hope.

We need to flip partly because without that flip there is unlikely to be epistemic and spiritual renewal, the world will become increasingly unintelligible, and we’ll grow increasingly exhausted. The flip is not a transformation of consciousness as such, but an important precursor to it. There are aspects of the flip in Cynthia Bourgeault’s work on ‘imaginal causality’ and more generally the idea is not one specific thing, but a change in orientation, such that we do not eschew the material world, but nor do we confuse it with all there is, all that is influencing life, or all that we can influence. The flip significantly enhances our curiosity, our appreciation for intrinsic features of life, and our sense of the possible; and in a time of artificial intelligence, the flip may also be necessary to make consciousness, and therefore humans, relevant.

If you’d like to read something to give this matter the requisite scholarly grounding, chapter twenty-five of Iain Mcgilchrist’s The Matter with Things (volume 2) is a good place to start. Iain does not use the word ‘the flip’, and may even disassociate himself from some of the thoughts above and below, but as his publisher, my view is that most of the interest in his work stems from relief and delight in the recognition that our intuitive longing for the flip does not come at the cost of intellectual compromise, but rather intellectual renewal, even renaissance.

The Formation

Second, we need a shift in our meta-ethical orientation, from utilitarianism to virtue ethics. That shift might seem really niche! But so much follows from it, not least our cultural logic, and the broad shift of emphasis from a society built to serve economics and a society built around education for higher ends.

Utilitarianism is the view that we judge the rightness of an action based on its likely consequences, and we assess those consequences in terms of their utility, which is something generically useful, valuable, and measurable. That’s a very brisk simplification of a complex body of moral theory, and risks straw-manning (forgive me, I’m blogging) but in all its guises, utilitarianism, at least by itself, seems ill-suited to contending with problems at scale. Partly Utilitarianism is ill-suited to problems at scale because it makes the mistake of confusing what is measurable with what is important, and partly because we cannot track the consequences of actions with any reliability and therefore use it as a basis to decide or to assess decisions. More fundamentally, utilitarianism leads us to what Derek Parfitt called ‘repugnant conclusions’ where what appears to be morally right is often sharply at odds with our moral intuitions. These kinds of concerns don’t seem to have discouraged movements like effective altruism or long-termism, which I believe are dangerous and deluded (though sadly well-financed) views of the world, as Perspectiva has helped to illustrate.

What does this matter? Utilitarianism is the metatheory underpinning capitalism, and it organizes our political economies and therefore shapes the world. Utilitarianism is the unacknowledged lingua franca of public policy. Utilitarianism is codable and is therefore becoming embedded in artificial intelligence systems around the world. Utilitarianism also takes preferences as given, and has little to say about how our desires arise, even if that’s from addiction or advertising. What we need today, at least in the late capitalist West, is not to satisfy prevailing desires but to try to reclaim our capacity to shape our own desires, and align our desires with our higher purposes and better societal aims than status-seeking consumption – that aim is in direct opposition to capitalist logic, which is why it is Utilitarianism does not help us ‘want what we want to want’ as Frankfurt famously put it. But virtue ethics does.

There is too much to say at this point because virtue ethics has its technical side in analytical philosophy, but it amounts to the question of what is good, what increasing goodness means, and asking what it means to grow towards goodness and thereby live well. Virtue ethics is therefore, for me, fundamentally about formation being the central project that shapes the meaning of life. Becoming who we are. Collective individuation. All that.

One way to look at it, as Habermas put it, is that Modernity separated the value spheres of truth, beauty, and goodness and our challenge is to find a way to put them back together. What follows is outlined in my essay on Bildung where I take inspiration from Jon Amos Comenius, a Czech philosopher and theologian who lived from 1592 to 1670 (and declined the offer to be President of Harvard University). He is considered by many to be the father of the idea of universal or democratic education.

Comenius’ genius lay in grasping that since learning is as natural as breathing or eating or sleeping, education should be seen as an aspect of nature’s formative process; and since nature is often experienced as sacred, and we are part of nature, an organism’s lifelong disposition to learn is the wellspring of meaning and purpose in life. A healthy society that is attuned to nature and other sources of intrinsic value depends upon making this educative process the axis upon which society turns

This point is deepened and developed in Zak Stein’s contention that Education is the MetacrisisWhy it’s time to see planetary crises as a species-wide learning opportunity.

If the flip is about relating to reality differently, formation is about growing through and for that relationship.

But how does all this play out politically?

The Fun

Third, political leadership now calls for ecological reckoning, and that means helping populations contend with the discomforting truth that indefinite growth on a finite planet is delusional. We all need to find ways to tell the truth that brings people with us. That ‘bringing people with us’ is where the fun comes in. The problem is that the language of degrowth and even post-growth is totally uninspiring. I forgot who said it first, but if we are going to wean the world off the teat of growth or even just consumerism while continuing to meet the needs that consumerism meets, we are going to have to ‘throw a better party’. Or as Emma Goldman put it: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”.

This is not a trivial point! It is not naive to think that the future needs to look like fun, in fact, it may depend on it. And that’s because we need an attractor that is strong enough to draw us out of our immunity to change, and our entrapment in capitalist logic.

For a while, I kept the door ajar to other ideas, but I now believe that beyond the elixir of wishful thinking, there is no viable and credible way to mitigate climate collapse that does not entail reducing aggregate energy demand. That premise means mature economies need to have overarching policy objectives that are not tethered to indefinite economic growth and the financial instruments that rely on it. There are many powerful sources to support this point. A recent lecture by Nate Hagens is well worth your time, as is a paper in Science rigorously questioning the assumptions of Green Growth. Any please read whatever you can by Tim Jackson. There is an understandable madness to indefinite economic growth but it really has to stop. The following paragraph from Jackson’s most recent book, Post Growth (p150) really hit home:

A conundrum faces us here. Those who want change tend not to be in power. Those who hold power tend not to want change. The possibilities for any kind of change depend on the distribution of power coded into the rules of the state. The mercy of the state depends inherently on its mandate. The mandate forged by western democracy is a very particular one. Political power is uncomfortably tied to the delivery of economic growth.

The challenge is to depict a socio-political arrangement that is not inherently oppositional, but rather for something attractive and galvanizing. I don’t know what this is yet, but I have noticed some people now speak of the care economy, and that’s a step in the right direction. Indra Adnan speaks of Planet A, and that also helps. But personally, I don’t think the right language form has been born yet, and that’s because I think what we need now is some existential creativity and prefigurative culture that helps bring a prefigurative politics into being.

I believe the language has to come from the young and be adopted by the old, and I believe that can and will happen soon.

So here’s the case in outline. The bad guys are materialism, utilitarianism, and indefinite economic growth. The good guys are the flip, the formation, and the fun.

Here’s how the counter-attack plays out.

On the metaphysical front, we flip. It becomes normal to see the world as enchanted and it looks moribund to think otherwise. We work for that through contemplative practices of various kinds but also just intellectually and steadfastly.

On the metaethical front, we form. It becomes ridiculous to think that what we want is simply a given, and we actively work to clarify what is worth wanting. We work for that educationally, broadly conceived.

On the metapolitical front, we have fun. Economic growth looks increasingly delusional, while growth of the soul or spirit looks increasingly normal. Speaking of economic growth as a panacea, as for instance the Labour party in the UK currently does, will gradually become taboo, just as homophobia or racism were once normal but are now taboo. We work for that through prefigurative culture, informed by existential creativity.

So there we are, it’s lunchtime, and I have to go take a break and prepare to lead from confusion this afternoon.

But it’s a relief to me to see that this trio is roughly what I am up to these days, and I would encourage you, dear reader, to get up to it as well.

The flip, the formation, and the fun…