A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bad Things

I feel like I am writing the same thing over and over again.  And I am.  And I will… until everyone (yes, everyone) is listening.  There are 6.5 billion humans on the planet (and dwindling numbers of great apes, elephants, tigers and a whole list of other things alive).  I generally do about three bad things every day -- I won’t name them, I am ashamed -- and I suspect that everyone does: that’s 19.5 billion bad things happening everyday.  I also do good things, but that is not my point.

Billions of the bad things are individually of minor note, but certainly millions and millions of bad things are truly very bad and some many tens of thousands are terrible in the extreme (everyday!) – things that we can’t let go unresponded to.   I’m talking here about acts of genocide, war, institutional theft (and the consequent destructions of many lives).  There is no shortage of bad actions to which to direct our attention and attempted good works.

But, let us return for a moment to those of dwindling numbers.  Do they do bad things too?  Is the catching, killing and eating of a deer by a tiger a bad thing? Can a tiger do a bad thing?  A “tame” bear, not long ago, bit a trainer in the neck and killed him; absolutely bad for the trainer, his family and others, but did the bear do a bad thing in the sense that we should punish the bear other than being much more careful with him? 

Is there a difference in the collected and accumulated bad behaviors of humans and the behaviors of other living things that we humans might see as bad?  This is not just silliness.  It is my belief that until we understand the origins of human bad behavior we will be forever dealing with the many thousands of terrible things, the millions and millions of truly very bad things and the 19.5 billion basically bad things, all daily and all in a bewildered daze.

I think that we can agree that a tiger killing a deer for its own sustaining is not a bad thing, but that a soldier at a check point shooting confused civilians is.  Termites eating the wood of a house is natural to termites (not a bad thing) even though we try to kill them and protect the house, while humans cutting off the tops of mountains to get at the underlying coal is not natural to humans (and is a bad thing) even though the coal is used to make electricity and to heat homes.  We do need to figure this stuff out; millions and millions of bad things really add up fast.  Even if apes and tigers and all those others did bad things they couldn’t have much affect since there are fewer and fewer of them all the time – due in major part to the increasing numbers of humans and the collective bad things we do.

So, enough playing around!  Here is what I take to be the answer: behaviors that disrupt ecological balance are generally bad and behaviors that sustain ecological balance are generally good.  The metric is a stable ecology moving by ecological processes toward maturity.  In nature the behavior of a species supports the ecology that supports the species, otherwise the species either evolves into such a relationship or disappears.  When the ecology changes, often due to physical changes in the planet -- the planet has its own process and rate of maturation and change -- species either keep up with the rates of change by evolving or they disappear.  With the rare and notable exceptions of extinction events planetary changes have been slow compared to the rates of evolution and living things have even pushed things along with the metabolism of free oxygen and the modification of ocean chemistry.

In this view humans invented, several thousands of years ago, bad things.  Humans evolved a way of getting around the ecological gate keepers, of “breaking the rules” faster than ecological perturbations could feed back and correct our unbalancing actions.  It has come to pass that we now are dependent on and function through the bad things that we do.

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