Jefferson's idea is profound, and it has powerful consequences. And he is certainly not alone in this belief. For example, Martin Luther King's idea, the core idea in his “I have a dream” speech, that blacks can overcome their oppression by whites, that centuries of real-life experience notwithstanding, blacks and whites are and always will be equal, is a modern restatement of Jefferson.

But both men went far beyond being mere proponents of ideas. They were both men of action: Jefferson through his role in the American Revolution, and King as the leader of the civil rights movement. They both demonstrated, clearly and forcefully, that actions speak louder than words. King's courage to make his speech, backed up by all of his other actions, is what gave his ideas power and resonance. This is what made them real, made them more than just talk. This is what, ultimately, convinced us of their truthfulness.

King's actions had great consequences. On the one hand, his efforts were instrumental, crucial, to the civil rights successes that have been achieved. On the other hand, he paid for his courage with his life.

As this makes clear, it is not only ideas that have consequences; the greater effects usually derive from what we actually do. Indeed, you can even say that this is the fundamental rule of life, that everything you do, that everything anyone does, has consequences.

Of course, you might say that this is obvious, but most people, through their actions, demonstrate that it isn't obvious to them at all. You could even say that our greatest failure as a species is our inability to predict the consequences of our actions. While seeing into the future is, on the face of it, patently impossible, some accuracy in forecasting is available through insight and thoughtful analysis. If you jump off a cliff, you know you will hit the bottom in a few seconds. I'm not referring to Nostradamus here, just the ability to navigate partially the rivers of cause and effect.

This failing is so pervasive; it is worth giving a few more examples.

Many problems around the world are caused by cultural misunderstandings, such as when people in positions of authority think that they understand a foreign culture when in fact they do not. For instance, the spies of the CIA have regularly ensnared the U.S. in foreign controversies and conflicts, due to their ignorance of local situations and individuals. From Cuba, Castro and the Bay of Pigs, through to Vietnam and beyond, the examples of their incompetence (and hubris) are legion. (The latest example, of course, is the recent, and horrific, reverberation of their involvement helping guerrillas in Afghanistan fight the Soviet Union. Now they are fighting us.)

In this book I will argue that wisdom equals education coupled with experience. However, although both are necessary, the second is the more important. Put another way, a life of limited experience leads to limited understanding. You must experience life to understand it! People with narrow lives have narrow minds (and often warped views of themselves and wide biases).

Unfortunately, many of the people who obtain positions of power in social institutions have privileged, cloistered lives. They are raised in, and usually never leave, worlds that intentionally insulate them from the rest, and the bulk, of human society and experience. Their vocations, and avocations, while often stimulating and challenging, also have the effect that they interact only with people such as themselves.

The consequences of this, of the concentration of political, business, media, even religious power, in the social elite, and of their having little understanding, indeed, often great misunderstanding, of the public they serve, have been disastrous.

Consequences can be limited or they can be severe. They can be felt immediately or take a long time to become manifest. They can be of short-term all the way through to limitless duration. For example, consider the enormous unforeseen and unintended consequences of technology. Revolutionary improvements in health care and food production enabled great increases in population, leading to massive social pressures, civil conflict, habitat destruction and species extinction.

Of course, inaction also has consequences, as with the results of a planetary-wide lack of urban and environmental planning. (This is the responsibility of the above-mentioned elites!) Another type of inaction is the endemic low salaries paid to police and government officials in developing countries, which have led, even encouraged, many of them to become corrupt. However, probably the greatest consequences of all, both of action and inaction, derive from the process of parents raising their children. Simply with better parenting, many, many problems could and would be avoided.

Some people might say that in many cases actions do not have consequences, as with individuals who commit crimes or other ethical misdeeds and who are never caught and punished for them (or with parents who do a poor job raising their children). But this is not true. Arguably the greatest consequences of our actions are their effects on ourselves, on who we are, on our identities. We are what we do.

If you kill someone, and get away with it, you may have gotten away with murder, but that does not mean there is no consequence. You are now a murderer. The killing can never be reversed, and you will have to live with that, with who you are and what you have done, for the rest of your life. (And if you do a terrible job with your children, there is no way you, or they, can escape from that either.)

The counter to our inability to predict the consequences of our actions is our adaptability. Without it, the mistakes we make would wipe us out. However, our adaptability, which is touted as one of our strengths, is really just a mask for this weakness. It would be much better to avoid problems rather than cause them and then have to adapt to them.

As this suggests, we are unable to learn, or we learn only partially, from our mistakes, hence the aforementioned repetition of history.

A much broader issue of actions have consequences is its linkage with, actually the probability that it is the driving force behind, the wide prevalence of repeating cyclical patterns. Actions have consequences, which lead to reactions and further consequences, etc., often following a circular route back to the beginning. Of course, this raises the question, what is it, precisely, that is cycling?

The universe is a web of systems, of loose and not so loose forms of organization, and of an extremely wide variety. Also, there are structures we are aware of, and those which we are not, for whatever reason, including:

- We have not yet developed awareness of them.
- For some systems it may be the case that it is not possible for us to have awareness of them.

In this book when I refer to form, at the fundamental level this is what I mean. A form is any type of system, organization or structure, including any thing or process. For instance, when we consider music using the structure of scales and octaves, or numbers using a base system of ten, these are forms. A basic question in our analysis will be: are such forms real aspects of nature, of physical reality, or merely human projections onto it?

On examination, it is clear that there are many levels of form in the universe. To start there is the form of the universe itself, which is the study of such fields as physics. Also, it is worth noting that the universe is a global form; it is a structure that embodies a whole.

Within the universe there are two basic forms of parts: its inorganic components, and those that are organic, i.e., life. But life is also a global system: each living thing comprises its own self-contained universe.

Within life we find its various kingdoms, including animal, and within animal, human. Human life in turn is comprised of two sets of form, individual and social, which also interact. The form of any given individual is a consequence of his or her genes, and free will, and the interaction of these with all manner of social influences. And, social influences themselves can be distinguished between education and other types of influences, with the latter having some selfish underpinning, distinct from but which is then applied to such individuals.

As all of this implies, another basic aspect of form is its content; what the organization or structure contains. Viewed in reverse, this means that a form is anything with content. But, must a form always have content, or can it be empty? Also, if form does imply content, then is anything truly random? Wouldn’t the content necessarily take on some aspect of the form? Further, if nothing is truly random, is there such a thing as chance, or luck?

To return to actions have consequences, many systems, both physical and social, exhibit cyclical patterns. There are cycles for individuals, from birth through to death, for human societies and social institutions, for other species, for habitats and ecologies, for the entire planet, and perhaps even for the universe itself. The cycles generally take the form of initiation, followed by growth to maturity, at which point they may achieve a stasis, although this is inevitably temporary, after which they decline and die or regenerate into something new.

It is worth noting that if a system becomes inflexible, if it is unwilling or unable to change, if it loses its ability to adapt, then it will die.

All systems have goals; the organization exists to fulfill some purpose. The systems strive to achieve their goals, and through this to establish an equilibrium, but for a variety of reasons such an equilibrium - if it even can be achieved - is impossible to maintain. One aspect of the universe is that it is in flux: it never stops changing. This means the environment of which any system forms a part constantly is changing, so the system itself must change continually as well.

Also, it is worth mentioning that any given system may have multiple equilibriums, with chance, or some other factor, determining which is achieved. For example, water can be stable as vapor, liquid or ice, depending on the temperature and pressure in its environment. More generally, a system may be at rest or in an energetic state, with the latter, in equilibrium, having a regular cycle or periodicity.

In some cases - a few - energetic systems do achieve a true harmony, and they can stay in such an equilibrium for a very long time, adapting and evolving and changing very slowly as the environmental conditions change and evolve around them. But at some point an unexpected (“stochastic”) shock will occur and disrupt the environment, upset the equilibrium, and force a major readaptation: the system will be compelled to seek a new equilibrium.

Examples of this type of system development include tribal rainforest cultures, which lived in peace for millennia until contacted by, and then confronted with commercial and military pressures, and diseases, from the modern world. Such environmental changes disrupted these cultures and forced them to adapt, although it is arguable that they have yet to achieve a new balance.

Also, some equilibria are established which are not truly in harmony. They are not so much “maintained” as “contained,” by a force of a magnitude sufficient to accomplish this given the size of the system in question. But such equilibria are in a sense false equilibria, and they also are much more subject to severe realignments, which can lead the systems to be even more out of balance. For instance, coup d'etats, revolutions and violent mob actions are regularly the forces behind political realignments, but as was seen many times in the twentieth century, they often lead to social situations which are even less acceptable than those that they replace.

As another example, this book will argue that modern society, and the corporate system on which it is based, is also a false equilibrium. Our present social system is based on competition, rather than cooperation and sharing, and it enhances the positions of some through the subjugation of others. It does not achieve, or even strive for, a true equality, and therefore, I believe, it is doomed to fail. It may be restructured, and evolve into something truly harmonious, or it will collapse, to be replaced by what, nobody knows. Such changes are - or they would appear to be - the subject of chance. Unfortunately, though, the highest probability is that it will be replaced by some new and perhaps even more authoritarian social system. Human history will simply repeat itself once again.

One interesting example of cycles is the theory of history presented by Giambattista Uico (c. 1725), which linked transition in forms of government and social organization with changes in systems of spiritual belief. According to Uico, human society progresses through the following, repeating, four-stage pattern:

- Divine or theocratic. In this stage people are overwhelmed by the impossible scale and mystery of the universe, and they seek explanations for it in supernatural form.

- Aristocratic. In this stage the awe is expropriated and made the province of selected individuals, of lords and priests.

- Democratic and individualistic. At this point the concentration of power erodes and shifts from the elites to the general public.

- Chaotic. Lastly, society degrades and becomes anarchistic. Control is lost (form implies control as well as content), and the social organization becomes fundamentally disrupted. The consequences of this startle people back into universal reverence and the cycle begins anew. (This book will consider whether we are now, as a planetary society, entering the last stage.)

Another interesting cycle, particularly since it conflicts with the consequences for human social organization that follow from the principle of equality, is the regular stratification of society, following any period of development or other change, into a class structure, with upper, middle and lower classes.

Finally, there is the possibility of mystical cycles of life and death, both for individuals and the universe. Indeed, actions have consequences is a restatement of the concept of karma, or “the cosmic law of cause and effect, in which each person creates his or her destiny based on his or her own actions.” (From Here to Nirvana, Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones, Riverhead, pages 54-55) In addition, karma is the view that there is “neither beginning nor end, [and] each life is the effect of the preceding and engenders the following, but none determines the totality.” (The Immortal, Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, New Directions, page 114)

I also intend to review the factors behind social stratification, and give some perspectives on reincarnation, immortality and other possible forms of afterlife.

© Roland O. Watson 2001-2005