The Highest Common Denominator

We are incredibly complex creatures. From macro to micro, our design is beautiful, intricate and marvelous to behold. I remember watching a short video in physics class in high school similar to the one below which showed the wave dynamics of a crowd of people:

People, when moving in an aggregated mass, tend to “go with the flow” in a way that modifies their approach to fulfilling their self-determined desires. Given that human beings are generally gregarious creatures, it follows that the longing to belong tend to bring them together into masses that move in concert with one another.

These masses are unified in purpose, interest or some other common denominator, and the individual actors tend to trade personal identity for group identity. The homogenized group may be as small as two, and if you’ve ever watched a young couple lose themselves in one another, you know what I mean. Scaled out significantly, you begin to see larger groupings such as races, religions, nationalities and so on, which are masses of people who recognize a common identity.

The rise of individualism is apparently a recent phenomenon, fueled by the great thinkers of the Renaissance. I imagine that this was only the rebirth of the idea and that individualism was generally accepted as a cosmology in earlier civilizations, but it is hard to imagine a grouping of people more tied to the notion of individualism, self-determination and self-realization than modern Western society.

We – especially in America – see ourselves as individuals capable of independent function. For many the independence is based on a freedom from the deterministic oversight of a Creator, for others it is based on the freedom from the unifying and directive control of a Church, while for some it is based on the relative sense of independence stemming from the freedoms promised by the Constitution that governs our Republic.

The roots of self-reliance, self-love, self-education are found in the soil of the notion of individualism. The rise of knowledge and the structural members of individualism – free will and choice – create the impression of self-determination, yet the physics of the matter tell a different tale. Aggregated individuals become groups and the groups take on a life of their own that in many both obvious and subtle ways undermines and dilutes the potent and catalytic influence of free will and choice.

The net result is that in many groups there are individuals who would fight to the death to defend their right to individual expression, yet they more often than not do so on the basis of the dictates of a larger group, rather than at their own behest. The perception of individualism, in my observation, is more important for the large majority of people than the reality of its manifestation.

A question I would love to realize the answer to is this: is there a unifying impulse or compulsion inherent in life itself that better heard and heeded would create a more harmonious and productive whole? Individual actors, acting primarily on the basis of unadulterated self-interest, produce in large measure the world we have today. Everything else in the observable world seems to function according to a more natural, deeper, invisible impulse.

Even our own complex, highly organized physical and energetic bodies seem to be guided by something that we haven’t sufficiently understood or explained to date. We have compiled a mountain of knowledge over the last six centuries, but what really have we learned about how to live better, more productive, happier, more harmonious lives? Precious little in my estimation.

In a world where everyone simply does what is right in his or her own eyes, without respect to a deeper unifying influence, the lowest common denominators – fear and greed – reign supreme. These base influences not only seem inescapable, they seem normal and are determined by social and physical science alike to be natural. But are they?

I don’t think that we can conclude, without reasonable doubt, that we do not have an ability to perceive and to move in concert with a higher common denominator. As human beings we tend to focus on that which we can see and we consequently explain away and dismiss, often with prejudice, that which we cannot see or adequately explain through the lens of our present consciousness. Call it group bias, fanaticism, prejudice or whatever you’d like, limited thinking leads to limited function and limited function constricts vision and understanding.

My own thinking on the matter at present is that individualism and determinism are not opposites, but instead complements. Free will and choice are vital to right function, but I do not feel that it is safe to conclude that they operate without respect to some other coordinating influence.

What about you? Another cup of coffee or tea might be in order at this point before you answer… Have a great day!

10 thoughts on “The Highest Common Denominator

  1. Colin

    I think that if you really think about it, it’s obvious that people working together would be more advantageous for humanity than people working for self interest. However, people feel that the options are either using their free will to make what they feel is the best choice based in their self interest, or not having free will at all and having someone else make all their choices for them. I feel, like you, that there is a influence that can guide us to make the right choice, not just for the individual but for the whole as well, and without the loss of choice. If we could feel this influence as individuals, there would be much less need for the kinds of laws that many people feel are limiting to their free will!


  2. Lady Leo

    I’ve never thought of it in the terms of the highest common denominator but it makes sense. Could that be the tie that should bind us, not restrict our individual contribution but actually create the milieu for it?
    I think you’re right; this deserves more thought but I tend to think it requires daily thought; not because there is no answer but very little conditioning to do this type of thinking.
    Your blog, for me, is a catalyst for more rigorous observation, thanks.


  3. D.H.

    I appreciate what you are bringing up here, Gregg. I think if we were to look at this honestly, we’d find that our own self-determination and imagination is more often used as a isolating ceiling rather than the creative tool it should be in conjunction with the greater coordinating force you mention. It is a bit shocking to begin to trace backwards along the lines of my motivations and find myself quickly bumping into outdated precedents, prejudicial information, reactions, unquestioned habits… Sounds like a recipe for individual and collective delusion and derailment. Not where I want to end up, so I thank you for these excellent points of consideration.


  4. Isabelle Kearney

    It would seem difficult to deny that there isn’t some “larger” force than our own individual or group thinking or desires. Even if we just call it “life,” we have to admit that it’s intelligent and adaptive. We as a race tend to look for rules to explain and control who we are and this typically funnels into two choices – the rules of science or the rules of faith. And, from this point, you have all sorts of conflict relating to what the rules are in each of these camps.

    Free will is vital, but I do feel as well, that there is much more to this. The action of free will could be much more meaningful if that “coordinating influence” that you speak of was heard and understood. We should each be able to be individuals without conflict.


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