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

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Founding Formulations

A little over one hundred and fifty years ago biology was a collection of anatomical and taxonomic descriptions and chemistry was a collection of element descriptions and procedures for making a variety of compounds.  Darwin systematized biology with evolution theory, Mendeleev systemized chemistry with the periodic table and, in the 1913, Neils Bohr delivered a satisfactory model of the atom.  Until these additions to the intellectual tool kit there were no primary organizational structures against which to test ideas and actions in these disciplines.  They relied on disorganized and unsatisfactory theories, precedent of action and habit of thought. 

If these pursuits of knowledge are any guide, those areas of thought that do not have a sound systematic fundamental theoretical base will also have large areas of fundamental error.  The social sciences, including economics, are the most important examples.  We act on these sources of knowledge all the time, but there is no systematic organized structure underlying them.  Freudian psychology applies to a tiny part of human behavior and very inadequately.  Keynesian economics is localized.  There are conflict theories, game theories, theories of industrial societies, theories for pre-industrial societies, feminist theories, cognitive theories, motivational theories, Marxist theory, neo-Marxist theory, supply side theories, demand theories; several pages would be required just to name them all.  But there is no general intellectually sound systemic theory or system of theories that gives order to the huge variety of ideas, ‘rules’, explanations and predictions that our political and economic actions must use everyday just to function. 

It has long been recognized that humans have made great changes in their technical use of the world’s opportunities: from atlatls to ballistic missiles, from sandals to 747s.  But our understanding of ourselves and our actions on the world has been abysmal.  We can control the path of a proton in the world’s most incredible machine, but we have no reliable understanding of the economic and social processes presently in action or needed to survive for the next hundred years.  Yes, we have a thousand disjointed theories and thousands of self-serving proposals, but no real soundly based understandings. 

A necessary, while intellectually unsatisfactory, step is to realize what we do not know. Adding that caveat to plans of action and a real willingness to include scientifically valid tests of those plans is vital to our future.  We have just seen the consequences of a politically powerful attempt to enforce ideological certainty on a reality that rightly refused to allow itself to be painted in those colors; the terrible consequences will continue so long as we can make no deep effort to accept uncertainty, find and adapt to biophysical reality.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Jesus H. Christ!

Jesus Hussein Christ! (I have to assume that is what the ‘H’ stood for in my youthful expression of frustration.)  People are arguing about whether criminal members of the Bush administration should be investigated, charged and put on trial. 

JHC! People are arguing about whether Israel is justified in attacking Gaza.  There are questions about this being an honest defense and not a politically motivated terrorist attack on a civilian population already under economic attack.

JHC! People are wondering and worrying over whether Obama’s will be a different kind of presidency. Anyone hear of the rule that policy, regardless of the statement of it, is determined by the person implementing it?  Larry Summers, Robert Gates anyone? 

JHC! There are questions about whether to close Guantanamo and what to do with the 95% of the men and boys sold into perpetual detention there. 

JHC! There are people talking about “winning” in Afghanistan and sending more troops, like this a regular old war with armies and targets and stuff to destroy. 

JHC! Pakistan!

JHC! Iran is trying to get weapons.  Well, who the hell isn’t?And who do they have to fear? Anyone remember Mosaddeq? 

JHC! People are actually debating whether “executive compensation” (nay, thievery) is excessive.  What is the right amount to steal? 

JHC! There is an argument that “Bush kept us safe from Terrorism.”  The fact is that I kept the whole earth safe from alien invasions, but I can't tell you about the details because then the aliens would know how I did it and we would all be doomed.

JHC! People are arguing over whether there is a power elite in this country like it was a real question.

JHC! William Kristol!  His derangement begins at the beginning and just goes all the way through.  And I fear that this may be true of Christopher Hitchens too. 

JHC! The economic commentators are just realizing that the bank bailout was a robbery.


It is just not that difficult to pay attention.  We have a number of folk sayings and stories involving naked kings and ducks to remind us.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sanitizing Economic Exploitation

(I had forgotten this little ditty from 10 or more years ago; it is, unfortunately, still timely.)

No area of human intellectual pursuit has developed a more sanitizing language than economics (except perhaps modern warfare, but that is not a complete language system--its more like a commercial).  Contained within bland terms such as 'production of capital' are the starvations and outright murders of millions.  The very center piece term of modern economics, 'growth', swings like the grim reaper's scythe through the species of life; thousands (millions) falling, forever lost from the earth, from the universe, in the 2%, 4%, 6% growth figures of national statistics.

You would think, to hear, 'capital formation', 'savings and investment', 'productivity', 'material well being', 'market economy', of the clean shiny lines of a new automobile or morning light streaming through the windows of a spotless modern kitchen.  But also contained in those words are lung sick miners dying at 30, malnourished stunted bodies of child laborers, families torn apart by the dictates of a 'money economy', every bit as separated as they would be by the dictates of a slave owner.

The words don't make it happen.  We make it happen, but the words set a tone and cushion us from the realities.  The words seem to say that all is right and well, and finally necessary; we need not concern ourselves with the messy details.  'Capital formation' is the correct understanding--the rest is medical or political or some other more janitorial concern.

It is as though since we have the concepts and definitions it's all right now.  We need go no further to discover some other way of "doing business".  Obscenely wealthy individuals and obscenely wealthy nations can rest comfortably in the protection of 'economic incentives', 'mechanisms of growth' and the certainty of hard economic realities.

Doctors once did surgery without anesthesia and even struggled against its employment; the same with antiseptics.  Economics has its theoretical side, but like medicine it is also applied as an art.  Economists are well pleased with themselves for "understanding" why the pain of inequity is necessary (explanations which flatter and absolve wealthy individuals and nations) rather than looking for methods to reduce inequity, reduce pain and heal long standing wounds.  'Economic dislocations' will continue to happen, but it is time to begin looking for how these changes can occur with dignity for all the participants; a practical salutary economics rather than an economics which provides intellectual cover for what has been and continues to be a remarkably brutal assault of human on human and human on the rest of the living and mineral world.

Having viable alternatives to forcing the 'savings' for 'capitalization' from the poor will not guarantee that amoral greedy people will use them, but such alternatives would create great pressure for their use were they generally understood.  A beginning step would be to challenge a central premise of present market economics, that is, that humans are greedy.

Some humans are greedy; most are not.  A simple look around will prove that (and it is not that every human who doesn't covet wealth is lazy or otherwise infirm, the vast majority strike some reasonable balance).  What humans are is self- interested, but self-interest is not synonymous with money interest or greed.  Self-interest is synonymous with what a person understands as best for them, and this goes way beyond the simple accumulation of material advantage.  We need to replace the assumption of greed with the recognition that we have the responsibility and the right to discipline the greed of those few of us who are truly greedy and who express their self-interest to the disservice of us all.  We are simply not required to supply an environment in which one small group of people's narrow acquisitiveness has precedence over the broad range of human needs and concerns (which includes a healthy self-sustaining biosphere). But this is exactly what we have allowed.

Robert Heilbroner, in his book, The Making of Economic Society, wrote that if the workers of the industrial revolution in England had been paid twice as much per week, they still would have lived in poverty (what he does not tell us is that the wealthy could also have still lived in relative luxury) and that it was necessary for the workers to supply, by their 'reduced wages', the 'savings' which were used in the 'conversion of labor' to 'capital' (you see how sterile and clean that sounds!).  However, just a few pages earlier he wrote that at one point the average man's wage was 8 shillings a week and the cost of living (or better put, the cost of not dying) was 14 shillings a week, and that it was this difference that sent women (at about 4 shillings per week) and children (1 or 2 shillings) into the factories (women and children working outside the home is not new and the reasons have not greatly changed!) .

While a man receiving 16 shillings a week (or 14) would not have raised a family out of poverty, the people might have at least lived with greater dignity.  And the industrial revolution could have steamed on, supplied with 'savings' for 'capital formation' from the somewhat less impoverished worker, and from the somewhat less wealthy industrialist.

But even such mild equity was not in the public mind (a public mind still awash in the habits of thought from feudal times), and it was the absence of such generally accepted principles that allowed the 'wealth of nations' to be extracted almost completely from the labor of impoverished people; people whose only choices were to work in the conditions, and for the pay offered, or to die.

It is time for another leap forward (or backward) in human thought.  We have gone beyond feudal social organization and beyond feudal manufacturing technologies; it is now time to go beyond feudal thought in economics to a salutary economics that has as its goal discovering ways to increase the equity and dignity in 'transactions of exchange' rather than only explaining how it is that inequity is not theft and in what way impoverishment is really a virtue.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What Would a No-growth Economy Look Like -3

and when would we need to function in one? – Essay Three

How would humans have to live to again become part of the biospheric ecology?  It is sophistry to argue that since we live on the earth, we are part of the ecology and thus whatever we do is “natural.”  The Consciousness System of Order always puts us in the paradoxical position of being of nature, but not a part of it since we can, with consciousness, violate the biophysical principles under which all other species labor.  And yet, we have no choice but to use the CSO to reintegrate with biospheric order. 

As Jared Diamond and others have understood, we planted the seeds of our present economic and social systems with the beginning of agriculture. To shift metaphors: the die was cast.  It was not genetic change that allowed and formed the agricultural habit, but a new application of the consciousness order, and ultimately the complete reliance of the human individual living state on the machinations of consciousness derived designs.  These are designs of processes and events that would never occur (have a vanishingly small probability) without the action of a new system of collecting, storing and implementing information. 

But in only one sense was the die cast.  What happened had to happen, but, especially because the source was consciousness order, it does not have to continue to happen. The essence of the functioning of the Consciousness System of Order is that imagined objects, processes and conditions can be made to exist in reality.  

The “impossible” can become a certainty.  A human might, given the biological design of the forelimb, throw a rock with some accuracy and hit a small animal.  The energy and material input as a consequence from such abilities would help to structure the economic and social order.  The human rock thrower would have a level of maximum proficiency and effectiveness, But WHAT IF those efficiencies could be improved to, say, 90% over distances of 30 meters and 50% over distances of 50 meters?  Today that ‘what if’ has produced the ‘impossible’ ability to hit with certainty a target the size of a human city on another planet or pinpoint a target moving at twice the speed of sound from 40 kilometers or more.  These abilities also structure the economic and social order. 

While there is great value in examining the process of transferring our primary economic and social designs from living order origins to consciousness order formulations, there is little chance, and it would not be desirable, to return completely to pre-consciousness designed conditions – the option of being forced there by total economic and environmental collapse is the least desirable of the possibilities that confront us.

Indulge me a metaphor: Imagine a train on a track.  The riders and crew of the train are not so happy with where they find themselves at the end of each day’s travel and so they get together to find a solution to their problems.  They study the maps of all the tracks they can find and from these design a plan of travel to what they assume, from the best evidence available, will be a better place.  This is using the consciousness order, but not to its fullest.  Consider removing the track and rebuilding it ahead in a new direction.  Consider finding a system of track that is not connected to the one you are on, taking the train apart and reconstructing it on the other system.  Consider leaving the train altogether. 

The actions that an individual needs to take to be healthy and happy are relatively simple in basic design, but often extremely difficult to actualize in the present situation: a sufficient amount of high quality food, a sufficient amount of clean water, some protective structure to store goods and that allows for the modification of ‘climate’ to human comfort levels, protective structures and behaviors that mitigate the more dramatic physical and medical dangers, opportunities for personal expression, opportunities for relationships with other humans at a wide variety of levels, time for reflection on and contact with the forces of the Real biophysical reality as a means of keeping the powers of the consciousness order organized in reality and inhibiting its tendency to self-reference into madness. 

We are “buying” the first five by giving up the second four.  This is totally unacceptable; especially so since the loss of the second four is allowing us, without serious thought, to deny the first five to billions of humans with just as much biological ‘right’ to exist as we have.  What those billions do not have, according to our present madness, is the economic right to exist. 

How we move to the next position in our changes will be of incalculable significance.  It is my view, and the view of others such as Dee Brown, that the genocidal origin of the USA has tainted the national psyche.  It is a simple fact that Europeans acquired unfettered access to the American continents by killing off the people who lived here.  Millions of people and hundreds of cultures were killed in a process that ranged from accidental to the most tortured and bloodthirsty plans.  This fact has, I believe, helped lead us to be a nation without history – or rather a nation with a cartoon history that prevents honest historical reflection and thus denies us any chance of living in even the pale reality that is accessed through historical reality.  How the human species will proceed if a select segment designs the extermination of billions of humans as way of saving itself is unknowable, but it might not be worth doing.  If the Stories that arise as the designs of the CSO are to be the “societal DNA” for future generations, it would be best for humanity and the earth in general that we find our way out of this cul-de-sac in some way that begins the process of reintegrating Story with the Living System of Order.  This would also have the consequence of slowly (very slowly) reducing the total suffering, created by human excess, experienced by those living things that can suffer. 


For humans to live in a no-growth economy the ‘profit motive’ [1] will have to be replaced with other motive bases.  The most obvious are to be found in meeting the 9 needs listed above with personal action.  If humans had to feed themselves, had to clean their own water, had to build their own shelters, if these behaviors were the expected social standard, then a variety of issues would be resolved.  If the expected rates of “technological progress” were far slower, at least generational in length rather than monthly, yearly or decadal, then the focus of life could be on living it and less on the addiction of newness with no regard to consequences.  There is no advantage to there being great changes in transportation, communication, entertainment, medicine, construction, etc., if life is rendered into madness as the trade off.  These legs were made for walking. There is sanity in walking.

Milton Friedman [2] was right about what happens during a serious shock to expected designs of order; people go with the ideas that are in place to be used.  It doesn’t matter very much that an idea would have no chance of being listened to or implemented prior to such a shock, what does matter is that it appears comprehensive and less scary than no idea at all.  And so it doesn’t matter that there is not a chance in hell that most people can even hear now such ideas as these.  As the shininess of the madness tarnishes and the social order is more and more obviously insane, people will be looking for something that sounds possible.  Many will go to the even greater madness of present “religions,” but many will not. 

I am confident that reassociating the Consciousness System of Order with the Living System of Order is essential and that daily practice in the details of the living order is a requirement.  I am also certain that there are several forms that this can take, though only a tiny few, and all related, compared to the unlimited possibilities of madness.  

The essential change is that human global society must not continue to be a separate “ecological” structure in competition with the natural ecology.  For that is what we have become.  The Consciousness System of Order has organized species of behaviors, environments of structures and processes, economies of relationships, all of which can seem quite independent of the biophysical reality – but, of course, are all completely dependent on every action and process of that reality.  The failure to be integrated into the actual forces and processes that sustain life on the earth is madness from which there can be no recovery. 

There is no reason not to maintain large amounts of our technological wonders.  There is no reason not to continue with scientific study and philosophical investigations.  In fact there are very good reasons to do both.  But the social, political and economic design that separates individuals from the daily activities that sustain the individual life must be replaced.  And population levels would have to be deduced appropriately to such a design.  Everyone would feed themselves (produce some significant proportion of their food) as a social expectation as powerful as the expectation now that people are responsible for their own actions.  I would assume this could be done in small collectives where minimal economies of scale could function, but the large “economies” of scale that are destructive of the living order would be socially and scientifically rejected. 

Travel would be restricted by the amount of energy that we could devote to it – an amount arrived at by study and political compromise (and this would be true of other things).  If we are to avoid giving our control back to the not so tender mercies of the LSO, then we will have to reengage one of the early functions of the consciousness order: the sensitive (intuitive) social constructions of Story that inhibited the fullest expression of our capacities for acting on and changing the world immediately around us.  These processes functioned adaptively in a time frame much faster than biological evolution, but much more slowly than the change rates that we currently experience.  Therefore, we must discover the means to bring inhibiting processes in to our deliberations and actions.  The “native” conservatism of looking before leaping is a principle lost.

The sciences are just about our only reliable knowledge base from which to accomplish these things.  And the key to the use of the sciences as a social foundation is a well-informed population.  This is not as misguided as it might sound at first blush.  Science is universal; there is no Indonesian science separate from French science.  Science, in combination with philosophy, can offer well-founded cautions; if you do this, then there is about an 80% chance that that will happen.  The basics of science literacy is no more difficult that baseball statistics or auto mechanics. 

Institutional religions intuitively recognize this challenge to their ancient role of human guide and will fight back, but even here I see movement to accept certain inevitables: the reality of the biophysical cannot be denied even by a madman when it begins to consume him. 

The other side of using science as a universal knowledge base is the development of a spiritual structure formed on a similar model to personal sufficiency and integrated with it.  I do not think of this as religion, although I see only semantic reasons not to, but as the cognitive/emotional designs that attach the person to the universe in which our improbability exists.  For most people such a connection could be largely devoted to the activities of self maintenance [3] and supported by the Stories that form around these activities, while for others a more philosophical and literary depth could manifest and make them the creators of Story. 

The key to all of this is the grounding of life in the actions of life; the reintegration of the CSO with the LSO.  The suggestions above are only random thoughts.  A rededication of daily life to the biophysical reality is the model in what ever form it might take.

[1] This is not to say that motive is not necessary, only that the profit motive is a disembodied motive for abstract gain and as such tends to function as a positive feedback rather than as a homeostatic feedback design.  A motive that cannot be satisfied, and worse that gets stronger as it is met, is a very dangerous one indeed.  It is vital that the general motive structure for human action be of a homeostatic design, if it is not we will remain in a cycle of exponential growth and catastrophic collapse.

[2]  Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”  The problem with this idea is, however, that the ‘solutions’ are always for conditions that either once existed and do not exist now or for conditions that have never existed except as some ideology and never will.  Perhaps the best we can do is to have tried in practice, and supported by some consensus, a variety of options.  There is always the danger of a narrow ideological self-interested group taking advantage of troubles as presented by Naomi Klein.

[3] The lack of self-sufficiency is the great political and economic sword hung over our heads.  If it were the social expectation that everyone were 30%, 50% or 70% self-sufficient, the “economy” could run on the remaining percentage, but could always be rejected when its productions were destructive of life – and daily lives would also supply that measure in an immediate way.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Would a No-growth Economy Look Like -2

and when would we need to function in one? – Essay Two

There are two ideas that are directly opposed to our current Story (the controlling agency through which our information flows): one is that, just as every other species, humans must use a homeostatic range of energy extracted from the environment in a way that compensates the ecosystem for the extraction, and second, that the extracted energy and its consequences must be spread through out the population by some designs of equity. 

 The first arises from basic environmental biology and physics.  On a world where the physical order and the living order conspire in complex algorithms to maintain stable conditions allowing the living order, where hundreds or thousands of individual species composed, often, of millions or billions of individual units are integrated through their actions to produce complex biophysical outcomes, no one organism is or can be separate from these processes.  Every action has a consequence on the whole.  The systems allow and even depend on there being many small destabilizing events that move the eco-homeostatic averages slightly as the individual species change and shift their relationships in the whole, but these are slow changes that occur within the capacity of the DNA/protein information system to respond.  The effect is that the use of available energy gets maximized over evolutionarily effective numbers of generations.  Every stable ecosystem is approaching maximum effective energy use, and all relationships among species support this outcome in a dynamic balance of numbers, behaviors and metabolic products. 

Large disruptions to stability call off all arrangements and it is every bacterium for itself for a time as the stability is resumed in new designs.  But these will also follow the rules.  Before long, in evolutionary time, the new stable systems will be approaching energy use maxima. 

Humans have brought a perturbation to the biosphere in the form of a new system of order that creates whole new systems of probabilities for behaviors and products (“metabolic” and otherwise).  At no other time in the history of the planet has a biological adaptation had such large scale and disrupting consequences[1].  It is vital that a significant proportion of us recognize this basically simple reality.  It is vital because this new adaptation, the Consciousness System of Order, is very powerful and because it doesn’t change the rules, it only allows them to be violated in large ways, and more quickly, than has been possible in the history of life.  The biophysical principles that allow life to exist on the earth are not changed at all by the human adaptation; our adaptation only allows us to imagine that the rules have been changed. 

What has not been established is the amount of energy humans can reasonably take from the available supply.  But, there is no question that our consciousness adaptation has allowed us to very rapidly (outside of evolutionary time) take vast amounts without any regard for the natural compensations that stability requires.  We are not defeating nature, only perturbing necessary stabilities (I always think of margarine when I say this).

We have added to the energy mix fossil chemical energy and radiological energy as a way to add to our total take.  These have fueled a great expansion of numbers, behaviors and products – and fueled the huge perturbation that is about to crest against the shores of our cultures (if you can stand such a literary metaphor!)  We cannot live with and we cannot live without the additional energy that we get from fossil fuels and uranium, and we cannot take from the yearly energy solar flux enough to replace these extra inputs – and we must begin to consider (seriously consider) the compensations to the ecosystems from which we take energy and materials. 

There is only one response for all these intractable concerns: greatly reduced per capita energy consumption and a greatly reduced “capita.”  This leads to the much more complex and difficult second issue: The distribution of energy and material in the population. 

Here we are not supplied with the clear living order and physical order guidance as we are with the first issue.  In the first case, the human species has to fit into the biophysical order; it doesn’t now; it will have to.  Plain and simple!  But how the species will ultimately be organized and the role of the consciousness order in that organization is not clear at all. 

It may be that CSO as manifest in the human species is proving itself a failed form of this system of order.  I believe, however, that it is a little like life itself: once a foothold is established in an environment of sufficient stability this new system of order will continue to change and adapt in its own forms and to modify its substrate organisms.  We are approaching a seminal moment in this process. 

Equity, altruism, love, empathy, anger, vengeance and other qualities are primarily of Living System origin; academic economics is a CSO product like toasters, 767s and hydrogen bombs.  We commingle living order process and consciousness order process since we have no natural way to separate them, but they operate on entirely different principles and we had better get a handle on those differences very soon. 

For humans to live in a no-growth economic system, a formal economic system that is integrated into the natural eco-nomics of the biosphere, the Living System of Order qualities need to take precedence (not to the total exclusion of CSO qualities, but be the forming basis) for the distribution of energy, the population levels, consumption patterns and amounts that must conform to ecologically sustaining designs.  In other words, the Consciousness System of Order must adapt from being a device in opposition to the natural order back to its origin function of being a supporting element of the natural order. 

At this point in the development of the CSO there is no inhibiting basis or ordering principle that allows or requires a veridical relationship with The Real.  The living order must reproduce its units on a regular basis.  Each unit carries its own description and thus living vs. dying measures the efficacy of that DNA/protein information.  In the origin of the CSO the living order contained the primary ordering principles, and the appeals to reality were all handled in the living order design.  But we now live in CSO created cognitive structures.  These are structures only weakly inhibited by reality since we have largely removed the testing of them from direct life and death confrontations.  I believe that we might be able to find other ways to reinstate a reality basis for our cultural life, but if we cannot there is always life and death; and we would need to be more closely associated with the living order’s judgments in any case. 

We have come to this point because most considerations of wealth depend on keeping the frame of reference limited to having vs. not having rather than broadening it to the whole structure of the relevant system.  We would not, could not, consider only the design of the second and third floors of a house and only assume the first floor and foundation.  And yet, that is what we have been doing.  The biophysical/ecological base for our energy and material supplies have been considered, by especially western culture/religions, both unlimited and our own property.  This Story is naturally ascendant since it justifies and uninhibits the use of biophysical resources.  A Story that conserves resources may sustain a society, but will fall to a Story that allows or even requires that resources be used up as fast as possible – this when the resource base is large and the society is willing and capable of rapid change.  It would be inevitable that out of the many cultural forms and Stories associated with human variety that such a Story would form and dominate for a time, until the apparently unlimited resource base (and not just arable lands, fossil fuels, etc., but the whole plethora of environmental “free services”) was strained. The confluence of Greek thought, Christianity, and European tribalism produced such a Story and the rest is, as they say, history. 

Our present Story will result in great damage to the living earth.  It is also producing the greatest suffering that the world has ever seen measured by any utilitarian calculus.  It is this Story that must be changed in the face of an incredible momentum to sustain it.  Stay tuned for the next essay.

[1] About 2-3 billion years ago a bacterium began to directly extract energy from light by combining CO2 and H20 forming simple sugar.  A by-product of this process was a powerful metabolic poison called free molecular oxygen.  For many millions of years this free oxygen was rapidly taken out of the water and atmosphere by chemical reaction, but as more and more organisms used this device, free oxygen would have been a life changer all over the earth’s surface.  The CSO is an adaptation with such a potential.