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

Sunday, April 26, 2009


The arguments around torture have been stupefying.  It like listening to an argument that orange juice gives you the runs…because someone once drank orange juice and later had the runs. 

Let’s evaluate torture in a simple declarative dialogue: 

Torturer: “Tell me about the bomb.”

Torturee : “I don’t know about the bomb.”

T—rer: “If you don’t tell me about the bomb, I am going to hurt you really really bad.”

T—ree: “I don’t know about any bomb.” 

T—rer now hurts T—ree really bad (saving really really bad for later)

T—rer: “You can see now that I am serious.  Tell me about the bomb.”

T—ree: “I don’t know about the bomb.  I never heard of any bomb.  If you know about a bomb, you know more than me.”

T—rer: “I can see that you are not going to cooperate, so I am going to hurt you again.” 

There are three possible prior states in this situation. 1) T—ree knows all about the bomb and doesn’t want to say anything.  2) T—ree knows a little about the bomb but is not on your side and often also afraid of the people who know all about the bomb. 3) T—ree knows nothing about the bomb.  The other possible prior states would most likely lead to some other outcome than torture, but not always. 

In our present understanding, if T—rer hurts T—ree without being certain that T—ree knows about the bomb, then T—rer is ruined as a human being and the culture that supports the action is ruined as a culture.  The first condition of “successful” torturing is that the questioner knows many of the answers already.  The only, even remotely, acceptable reason for torture is when the T—rer is completely and verifiably certain that the T—ree has the information desired and refuses to give it. 

A rational question is then; if potential T—ree certainly knows about the bomb, what are the most efficient and quickest methods to get the most accurate information?  If, “tell me and I will not hurt you; don’t tell me and I will,” were a reliable formula, then I say use it when you know for certain that the potential T—ree knows the answer and will be a ready correspondent under such a persuasion.  But, and this is of the utmost importance, if such a device will not produce information of known quality, then it should not be used. 

Every interrogator should have raised children into adulthood; there is not one parent in 100 (1000?) that has not been lied to by a child in situations where only the child has the answer and when it is very important to know the answer.  There is a powerful truth in these situations: the more painful the punishment, the more desperate the lie. There is only one guarantor of truth and that is the relationship between the two parties. 

If truth is the goal, then torture is not the method.  If torture is used, then truth cannot be the goal and therefore something else is.  That is our real question: what is the goal of using torture?  

There are only three goals for torture: 1) to get someone to say or do a thing that you wish; that is, the Torturee is told the goal and is tortured until they comply. 2) The torture is publicized so that others will be frightened – terrorized – into complying with some general directives.  3) Torture meets some need or desire on the part of the Torturer.

And just as the truth cannot, rationally, be the goal of torture, then the consequences of torture are often not those that appear to motivate the torture in the first place.  Here, we need some historical perspective from occasions when torture was used as part of culture. 

From David Scheimann’s account of torture among the Iroquois (captives were often taken when a misfortune fell on a village): “There are definitely reasons behind this torture that do not extend into metaphysical domains. The initial beating obviously broke the spirits of the captive and ensured submission. The act of battering prisoners to break their will is no isolated policy of the Iroquois alone, but of nearly every race throughout history. At this time the Iroquois also mangled a prisoner’s hands, a brutality performed so that the captive could no longer wield a weapon. After returning to their village, the Iroquois used the gantlet to further break the spirits of the captives and to serve as a test of endurance and physical tolerance. The Iroquois would execute without ceremony those captives who fell and did not get up, which indicates disdain for mental and physical weakness. Indeed, the Iroquois expected even those captives who underwent subsequent lethal torture to stand strong and not cry out—the warriors would disgustedly dispatch a captive who lost his composure. As the night went by and the prisoner remained silent, the entire tribe would become more and more frenzied until the sun came up and the prisoner was killed.” 

From U.S. History Encyclopedia describing Plains Indian ritual:  “Male dancers were pierced on both sides of their chest and tethered to the center pole by means of skewers attached to leather thongs; during some point in the ritual they also might drag buffalo skulls tethered to skewers imbedded in the flesh of their backs. Participants actively sought and often experienced powerful visions that were life transforming. Animal-calling rituals and pervasive buffalo symbolism focused on ensuring that the buffalo would continue to give themselves to the people as food. Sexual intercourse sometimes took place between women who had ritually become buffalo and men who had also assumed this role, establishing a tie of kinship between the humans and the buffalo people.” 

These two examples illustrate the two principle uses of torture, and neither one has anything to do with interrogating for the truth: domination of others and personal experience.  The Torturer becomes a part of the personal experience – is as much a party to the power of the experience as the Torturee – and performs the torture for that purpose.  Self-torture and sexual experience have long been commingled in the human experience. 

We have certainly been told great lies about both the reasons for and the consequences of the torturing of men and women during the most recent unpleasantness.  The personal needs of people like Dick Cheney, George Bush, David Addington, John Yoo and others to dominate others emotionally, physically (and I would suggest, sexually) have been conflated with the national interest.  We have all been invited into the perversions of these men and we have accepted the acts ordered by them in our name.  

It is difficult to absorb the depths of the madness here, but we can begin by demanding that those who diminished us all answer for both the crimes of record and the societal crimes against the decency that we have left as a people. 

(You should read Frank Rich’s NYtimes essay on torture)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Groups of Communion

(Written in 2005)

Is it possible to consistently have the experience of close communion without its actual occurrence?  This is a very serious question in the present world, a world that has fragmented human life and experience to such an extent that the communion which was a species-defining characteristic is, for most purposes, gone.  

There are essentially three ways to have the experience of communion:  The first might seem obvious, that of actually being in a relationship of close communion with other human beings, but in our present world this is the most dangerous because its basis is almost always compromised.  Of the remaining ways, attachment to reliable, nurturing aspects of the world is best, and very difficult.  The last is madness, that is, taking on the illusions of communion from the many sources bubbling up out of a needy society. 

There are many sources of madness.  What we today call religion began at a time when the communion that we seek now was the norm of life, and then served the primary purpose of culturally adapting the powerful behaviors of the human group to their environment.  Animistic religions are about how to correctly live in a particular place, defining when and how things might be done and the various “prices” that must be paid for the doing.  These religions prescribed behaviors that sharpened the focus and the courage for actions in the environment also; a balance of inhibiting and activating functions very like physiological homeostasis. 

In our formative prehistory human communion was like the air, it was there to infuse the body and life through the simple act of being live.  A natural and non-malignant from of what we call today co-dependence suffused the group.  People knew where they ‘began and ended’, but also felt continuous with others, shared the experience of life absolutely: existential ‘isolation’ had not yet grown from the fragmentation of life. (This is not to say that was no loneliness or that individuals couldn’t experience isolation, but it was done from a base of communion, rather than as is the case today, from a base of separation.) 

As human population increased, as ways of life began to change around new technologies – invincible hunting and killing tools, agriculture, secure shelter, etc. – both the group closeness of shared experience and the role of religion began to very slowly change.  As group closeness diminished [1], religion gradually became the artifice to fill that place in human need and design.  Rather than functioning as a system of adaptations to the environment that worked on top of the primary communion of the group, it began to prescribe specific behaviors and fixed forms of relationship which compensated for the loss of communion.  Religion is then the prototype madness of the human species; patriotism and all other abstract loyalties are its children. 

This is essential to understand since to try and solve the title problem of this essay, given religion is the most common approach, and is also the most dangerous to private goals and public goods.  Today religions offer neither a satisfactory communion or an adaptive relationship to the environment; quite the opposite, they have become destructive of the full biological person and pursue environmental relationships that are ruinous [2]

Religion, when it attempts its originating functions, does so in complete madness.  A couple of examples out of the thousands possible should suffice:  It is the belief of many religions that other religions are wickedly false, often it is believed that the practitioners are subhuman and unworthy of human consideration (the political value of such madness is obvious).  It appears that a number of people from the Bush (43) administration believed that by their actions they might hasten Armageddon and the second coming of Christ by making war in the Middle East (again political and commercial interests use such beliefs cynically).  If such ideas were presented free from the cover of religion, the proponents of such views would be considered delusional and probably a danger to self and others – the formal condition to be hospitalized. 

So religion is ‘sold’ as providing integration of the person into life and providing communion of spirit (and place in the universal), functions which it did not have in its origin, but were provided in the structure and communion of the group.  However, its most consistent function is to organize people into groups, partly meeting their needs, that serve a political purpose. 

The loss of group is the underlying human loss.  It has been long and widely recognized that one of the great paradoxes of human existence is that human closeness decreases with increasing population: in a land with a population at the biological carrying capacity, i.e., almost uninhabited by industrial standards, all the humans are gathered together into family and superfamily groups.  In the industrial world millions of people are isolated and alone in little (and not so little) rooms all across the land, and more are isolated within their private experiences among hundreds of strangers in public places.

I realize that this sounds like a value argument, but is intended to be descriptive only, at least at this point.  And it goes on, the young are herded together in large numbers, the old are segregated into their proper places.  The active adult ages are put into their places of work, recreation and entertainment.  There is no place of communion in this listing – no place where people go to be in communal groups, where everything is open for discussion, where life is exposed and explained.

I saw something of the spirit of this idea (in the sense of a ghost of the idea) when I was 4 and 5 years old:  the Grange meetings at my grandfather’s house in farm county, Ohio.  The men, unsophisticated in a sense, just talking about their worries, troubles, hopes and successes.  The women, in the diningroom, kitchen and back yard, were talking the same range of things with different details.  The children, like little forest creatures, creeping from room to room listening, then bounding into the twilight for lightening bugs and back again listening as much to the play of emotion as the substance of concerns.  And then just when the differences had been expressed and hung heavy, out would come my grandfather’s banjo and always a guitar and often a fiddle.  Songs would be sung and set piece stories told.  And women and certain of the men would blush and hide their faces. 

As I look back at those Grange meetings, I see that it was a combination of sameness and difference that energized them.  There was a “we” and we were all in the same boat as clear as day.  The same rain fell and the same pests attacked, machines harvested, cattle gave or did not give milk.  A day’s work was an intimate connection all round.  But there were teetotalers and drunks, people of different faiths and no faith at all, hard workers and slackers, and if it were tested in detail, communists and capitalists, honest folk and crooks – all singing, “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes.”

Yet, compared to the family groups of our human youth, the Grange meetings were among strangers.  And I have experienced no group since that comes close to the intimacy of those meetings, not in my birth family, not in physical relationships, not in therapy; I think that many others would agree with this cruel judgment.

So, I return to my statement: the loss of the human group is the underlying human loss.  I would add that it is also an unrecoverable loss in the present world; it is to some extent like losing a language or a culture.  There are too many people too alike in the wrong ways and too dissimilar in the right ways for groups of communion to exist today.  In an almost Zen paradox, people who most desperately need to be in groups can’t form them and disintegrate those that their need draws them into.  An effective group of communion cannot be formed by effort, but must form by the movement of the people in the environment. These are not the conditions in today’s world. 

One could argue that groups form all the time and that the foregoing is the silliest tommyrot.  That’s OK with me – as an argument, that’s OK.  It is just not so! Ad hoc groups form and disintegrate at an astonishing pace.  People are always coming together for this or that and equally often they hope to somehow make the group more – well, more human – and as soon as they try the groups begin to fall apart.  So a new project is required, a new trouble is to be addressed.  This not to say that projects are not needed and troubles are not real, but that forming of groups is also a motivation and a strong one. 

What then are we to do?  I have argued that the essential forms and functions of human groups of communion are extremely fragile in the present world (like a salt crystal grows large and perfect in the undisturbed solution of the right concentration and temperature, but poorly and deformed in a contaminated solution being tossed about).  And yet, the human group is an essential part of human design; like our thumbs, posture and brain, i.e., an essential part of what we are as a species that is denied us.  However, with knowledge, effort and practice, we can recover in our individual lives bits and pieces of this experience in ways that are not too destructive. 

It is very important to avoid the major pitfalls that society and our biology have dug in our various and unsatisfactory attempts to meet this need.  There are two major pitfalls: an ad hoc collection of people is not a group of communion (even if they look like one) and the subordination of the self will not automatically generate a group (nor will the superordination of the self).  All the components of effective group formation simply do not exist in the right proportions or occur in the right order in the present world.  And so the first practical step is to paradoxically avoid being drawn too closely into groups. 

It is a bit like the difference between heroin and broccoli; one gives a powerful sense of well being as it kills, the other is an excellent sustaining nutrient that you must work at to benefit from.  Present day ad hoc groups are like heroin. 

The second step is to look for bits and pieces of the primal group of communion experience.  This is difficult since there is no guide and will to some extent differ for everyone.  The basic model is this: identify those occasions and circumstances that produce a sense of well being especially the so-called oceanic feeling. Try to recall the sensations and look for reliable devices that generate these sensations. 

A personal example: Many years ago I came into a relationship that created feelings with which I was not familiar; it was a great love.  Many of my basic behaviors and feelings changed. It was a most potent new reality.  I began to realize that these were the feelings of love and communion that might be similar to the kind of feelings that I saw demonstrated among materially simple people I had read about and seen in film.  The relationship suffered from the disconnections and fragmentations of our time and ended in the way familiar to most readers; I was left with a gift of feeling and model for feeling of unprecedented importance.  I can never reproduce the communion by finding that person again (or one like her) or changing the world or myself to make a match of her qualities; I can find daily activities that create or allow some of those feelings and practice them, and recognize the activities that diminish those feelings and avoid them. (This is related to the perceptual diet idea discussed in other essays). 

This is, quite simply, a life’s work.  There are many experiences that come from momentary immersion in the primal group space.  That is so because we are attuned to those experiences.  It is just that the group or groups don’t either exist at all or for very long in reality.  The sensations from the occasions are, however, real and come from within us.  There are ways of doing life that will sustain them if only weakly – certainly better than not having them at all. 

In our original state humans were born into and grew into a group of communion and grew as a part of the communion.  The strength and sustenance of that group immersion can’t begin to be imagined in today’s circumstances, but the need for it still exists and all the capacities to benefit from it and to respond to it comes new and complete with each new infant. 

I can’t say that we would even “do communion” in the primal way if given a real opportunity; there are trade offs.  One of the great patterns of change in human expression as a species has been increasing individualization: complete communion has minimal individualization, complete individualization has minimal communion.  Part of the capacity of our consciousness system of order is to create consistent generational changes in our behaviors that could never happen in a biological system. 

But though we may, if we had full access to all possibilities, change how we form and function in communion, I am confident the we would still value it and be drawn to it at a deep species level.  The loss, in our time, is that this kind of communion with our fellows is not a natural and pervasive part of our lives.  It is something generally recognized as an undefined sense of longing too often taken advantage of in our fragmented world, but still recoverable in certain small measure. 

 [1] Forces diminishing closeness: disturbance of time and space relations, changing patterns of movement, invention of ‘work’, fragmentation of experience and corresponding fragmentation of relationships, all happening too quickly for even cultural adaptive response.

[2] Politics was originally contained in the communion of the group.  As communion deteriorated, religion began to assume political functions.  It became conflated with politics as agriculture became important and is today more a tool of politics than an adaptive guide or a source of spirit – another word for communion.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Human Need and the Economy

Human economies have no separate existence; they are not some universal latent design waiting for the human substrate to be displayed.  We ask the wrong questions with: “What is wrong with the economy and how can we fix it?”  Our first efforts must be to understand the origin of how we have come to exchange materials and behaviors, and then to ask: “Is this how we want to do our exchanges and what are the consequences?”  It may seem a monumental task to retool the present way of assigning value and doing exchanges, but the current depth of troubles are pointing more and more directly to the conclusion that our present economic structures have run their course and are placing us, and the earth’s living systems, in the greatest peril.  

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have begun as a classification of the internal motives of human action and the order in which they dominate our experience of life, but they have become a ‘selling’ list for the entrepreneur.  A most basic biological tenet is that an organism is to be in primary control of the behaviors, environments and situations that meet its essential needs; that is to say, it is to be well adapted to its environment.  A basic tenet of the entrepreneur is that no human need should be able to be met by the simple and direct action of the person; a way is to be found to intrude into the space between need and the behaviors or the material for the need’s satisfaction and to extract some amount of the energy in the transaction.  And that is to say, a defining quality (as I have drawn it here) of the entrepreneur is very similar to the biological definition of parasitism. 

In today’s human environment people do not directly meet their own needs, they purchase the terms of need satisfaction with abstract tokens that are intended as representations of energy or work.  Such tokens only have power when a large enough number in a population honor that representation.   And here is the tricky part: once people, structurally, have no means to meet their own needs by their direct action, then they must have a design or device that will move others to meet those needs.  The consequence of this ‘reality’ is that ad hoc systems of exchange have transmogrified into economic structures.  This is understandable, but what is not clear is why humans would see such tertiary, quaternary, etc. designs as primary… with magical properties.

Actually, it is not so mysterious; once we came to depend on these Rube Goldberg systems for the movement, storage and protection of abstract tokens of exchange, imbuing them with magical powers was a very human thing to do.   This leads, ultimately, to a conflict of global proportion.  The primary biological directive: ‘stay in direct control of need meeting behaviors and situations’ is challenged by the economic realities of an overpopulated and abstracted world where no need can be met without tokens of exchange; need-meeting opportunities all now have tollbooths. 

We are at a place where the loss of faith in this Madness can destroy millions of lives, human and non-human.  If we stop and wonder at the efficacy of existing money systems, if we even ask that they be examined or re-examined against biophysical models of reality, there is a great cry of foul, the threat of “economic failure” and even physical force.  Also, those most vulnerable to perturbations in the system are actually harmed by the very suggestion of concern. 

This is not to say that we are discouraged from giving attention to economics; it is understood that the designs of exchange can be a compelling study.  How the tokens of exchange are given stable tradable value, how items and behaviors are given value based on the stabilized token values or where and how these tokens move or are be stored and by whom, these are all questions that generate real, complex and fascinating options.  But when such processes are seen as essentially immutable and more important than life itself, then a high level of insanity, strutting as authority, is doomed for a fall. 

In our present situation this thinking leads to powerful contradictions: people are consuming less, which is a good thing for the biophysical reality.  If this were to become habit and expectation, we just might be able to begin letting the planet heal itself, slow the loss of biodiversity, restructure human-environment relationships and just maybe begin to discover how to act in recognition of our outsized powers as change agents.  Everyone would discover how to do with less, much less, than we do with now. 

But…  people are consuming less, so ways must be found to get people to consume more because the designs of the economic system require that consumption increase over time.  If consumption slows, then the movement of the tokens of exchange slow and the designs that stabilize the value of the tokens and that assign token values for items and behaviors are perturbed.  Trust is lost in the tokens and the whole structure becomes endangered.  Since the only way to deliver essential needs is by the efficient functioning of the economic system, millions will suffer from even the slightest doubt or concern about its efficacy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is nuts. 

No one is of the opinion that humans can increase in number and use of earthly resources forever.  It is clear, even to crazy people, that a bucket can be filled and then can hold no more.  Sensible humans recognize that we have been for sometime now trying to overfill our place on the planet.  This is bad news and most people do not like bad news, but then again most people prefer bad news to worse news.  

Sensible people must continue to hammer away with the ‘bad news’ that material possession is a drug delivered by a pusher economy, and that devoting time to avoiding the ‘tollbooths’ is more species verifying than working for the tokens to pay at them (I don’t think it bad news at all, since a simple life has proven for me to be far more fulfilling and purpose filled than the “economic” life).  

We will only be able to change the present total domination of almost every detail of our lives by an exchange token economy by being able to meet the most essential of our needs with our own efforts: that is the bad news.  And it is also good news since there is nothing more rewarding than to be in real control of even a short life compared to being the disenfranchised observer of a life owned by an economic system.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Who Runs America: part three

If you have the read the first two parts of this series, you can surmise my prejudice:  Humans are not a neutral agent under the influence of external forces, but have species’ characteristics that form the basis for their organized responses to the environment and their responses to their own self-referenced “realities.”  The Consciousness System of Order has been increasing its expression in the designs of our adaptations to the major effect of increasing technical mastery of biophysical reality and increasing population – this last a blend of native biological design and the vast energy availability from technology.  A response to both population growth and the increasing need for and opportunity for systems of exchange has been the abstract economy with its nearly endless detail of action.  From the manipulation of these details great stores of materiel have been collected and, more alarmingly, great ‘accumulations’ of the abstract tokens of exchange have taken on even more importance than real materiel itself.  We are essentially a hunter-gather of hugely outsized capacity thrown, by a new adaptation, the CSO, into complexities beyond our biology; but denying our biology in response has been tried and found wanting. 

It is from the vantage point (or distorting lens) of these ideas that I look at the detail of our present situation.  The first two essays spoke to the larger and longer view.  This one will speak to the more specific and, I believe, more inherently incorrect and confusing view since we tend to be drawn to the personalities rather than the form of the behaviors.  

I do not believe that sense of the present can be made by looking at the methods by which the Rothschilds (or the Windsors or the Rockefellers, etc.) acquired such terrible power or the absolute and utter Madness with which they use it, but there is something to be said for calling the present economic order insane and explaining why.  It is only by clearly seeing the depth and breadth of the madness – and its full penetration of our lives – that we can hope to escape a few of its distortions of the life that was born into our cells from the beginning. 

A common, if not typical, view of our economic/political situation sees a few prescient humans fighting their way to “the levers of power” from which they run both economic and political events.  Some are basically good (on our side!) and some are not (out for themselves or favoring those who disagree with us).  The rest of humanity is just along for the ride and usually follows the leader, at least for a time.  Sometimes the powerful act blatantly in the interests of the powerful, ignoring the masses, and come a-cropper against a general refusal to follow instructions. 

Our present villains are the economic and political elite whose interests have always been very different from those of the grubbier classes – those who dig in the ground, put things together and similar work.  C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite, 1957, considered the history and sociology of the changing patterns of power that is well worth revisiting (selected reading here).  While this was written in 1956-57 it is clear that Mills, had he lived (Died 1962 at 46 years old) would not have been surprised by our present – but might be surprised at our weak understanding of it. 

The unapologetic arrogance of the economic elite – men (mostly) who only communicate within the circles of their power – clearly demonstrate that these are ordinary humans; they, like almost all people who are isolated in the parochial details of a cloistered life, are hopeless in a cross-cultural environment.  Their pet politicians could not protect them; it was unimaginable to them that the ‘ants’ could bite.  It is not necessary to consider Geithner vs. Paulson or to look into the soul of Greenspan or Summers.  They function in a niche, they play a position on their team.  It is the description of the niche that we need, not a psychological or behavioral history of the person. The ‘inside baseball’ detail of their differences would be useful to those who needed to deal with them, otherwise they are a role to be filled, not a person. 

Madoff filled a niche to Ponzi scheme.  The niche was created by legislative action in response to the entreaties (and bribes) of the bankers and investors so that they could unprotect previously protected wealth.  It is what they do.  And some “they” will continue as long as the niche – or “they” – exists.  The vast economic structures are just niches wherein people of certain talents and willingness can do things.  They are not required.  Quite different arrangements would still move essential materiel around. 

I have made my call: the economic and power elite is the cave bear.  They are big and dangerous, but unlike the bear they absolutely require the masses; we do not need them.  If we are willing to take the consequences of living without the services of the financial “wizards,” then they and their niche will disappear and, by virtue of the reduced importance alone, be replaced by a tamer version of an economic model.  If they are allowed to stay in place they will have us for lunch.  They have resigned the species in favor a self-referenced madness that we cannot imagine, but have seen glinting from the cold-blooded reptilian stares from the CEO parades.  

I know that this a projection of my distain, but when Rick Wagoner, Ken Lewis and others look out of the screen or photo at me I feel a haughty and haute resentment that the little people dare to perturb their universe, that they believe absolutely (and madly) that the real world is theirs and that the Great Many are productive fields that they plow and have every right to plow.

For millions of years hominids gave up a few extra calories and extra sex to their “leaders” and the leaders gave back leadership – which was in many ways mostly a place to stand so that everyone was looking in the same direction.  We have been fooled into thinking that we want lots of stuff, that it makes us complete and better; and we have been fooled into believing that we too can be part of an ‘elite light’ by possessing an ipod or a condo in Hawaii.  The greatest obstacle to our passing through this time is our own (deeply biological) acceptance and desire for ease, for convenience, for the most calories for the least effort. 

As long as humans will live and die for an ‘easy feed’ we will generate niches from which it will be delivered with all the consequences that are so plainly before us if we will only see them. 

Who 'runs' America, who 'runs' the world? Humans do; at least for a time.