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

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Making Sense of Things

There are various ways of ‘making sense of things:’ sometimes a schematic drawing that shows the relationship of parts and their interrelated motions is the answer; other times ‘sense’ is found in a concept like “charge” of an electron; and other times ‘sense’ comes with a metaphor, of an experienced process or event, drawn for processes and events that are too obscure, too intellectually compromised or too vast to bring comfortably into our normal living space.

It is this last that seems the only way to make sense of the human condition from the cacophony of human action in the world; and a ‘sense’ of this we most desperately need! Many of us can see where blind process is leading, and it is not where the going to is safe or even survivable. Some ‘sense’ of what we are about is required.

We have largely accepted, without question, that the way we live is the way it is to be done: more is better, bigger is better – newer, shinier, more powerful… Yet, something essential escapes this formulation. First and foremost, we can blithely admit that such simplicity is not true and then go right on more or less comfortable in and driven by these principles. We ridicule and laugh at these “values” in caricature: the fake fur bedecked pimp in a huge gaudified piece of Detroit iron; the social climber with the right car, the right clothes, but the wrong accent and wrong address. These are trivial as activities and potent as symptoms.

Since output is the consequence of input, product is the result of consumption, I am led to an analogy with food consumption: food is not just about eating. After air, food is the most vital activity of any living thing [1]. From food comes all growth and maintenance, and virtually all structure and behavior is organized around acquiring food [2]. It is the ultimate reinforcer for instrumental learning and the ultimate source for the success or failure of the particular brand of DNA carried by the organism. Ergo, physiology, structure, instinctual behavior and instrumental behavior are primarily formed with food as the central agency in the integration of a species into its own “skin” and into its environment. It is the primary model for consumption and products of that consumption.

A complex living thing requires many tens of thousands of different kinds of molecules, all functioning smoothly together, to remain alive. Most of these parts are made in-house from raw materials consumed, but a few of these vital molecules have been so ubiquitous and abundant in the organism’s food that non-plant organisms have lost the ability to make certain necessary molecules (plants must make them all and are therefore the ultimate biochemical innovators). Heterotrophic organisms (food “eaters”) have only to follow a simple rule: consume sufficient calories to support all living activities and the ubiquitous and abundant chemicals that can’t be made will take care of themselves. The genetically based instinct then, if some essential nutrient is in low supply, is to consume more in general. Under the conditions to which the organism is evolved, this will work almost 100% of the time.

Once the enzymes that mediate a physiological pathway have been lost from the genetic structure of an organism, there is little chance that they can be recovered – imagine losing your copy of Finnegan’s Wake and then needing to reconstruct it from a few of Joyce’s poems! If the food environment begins to change, the capacity to taste the difference between certain vitamins may evolve for certain organisms, but organisms are not very good at targeting more than a few specific nutrients, depending rather on increased consumption.

So, what does this analogy have to do with the price of a Ford Focus in China (or any other alliterative auto)? We humans not only consume food for raw material and metabolic energy, but also consume sensation as raw material from which to construct our designs of action and we consume sensation as a source of order and relationship that create the context for action. And just as there are biological bases for the types and uses of food, there are biological – and more complex – bases for sensation (perception) and how it is used to bring order to the actions of individuals, communities and societies. A person who eats only fish will smell of fish (with less trivial consequences throughout the metabolic system). A person who consumes only nonsense will smell of nonsense – again with many and deep consequences through a whole life. The rule is simple: a bucket will contain only what is put in it.


Our behavioral systems depend on the quality of the information consumed in a directly analogous way to our physiology depending on the quality of our food. But what are the ‘vitamins and essential amino acids’ of our perceptual consumption? The simplistic notion that we just perceive what is there, that we are the sustaining center of action, is not, and never has been, true.

This is a more difficult question than identifying essential nutrients – and that has not been easy. First, we cannot easily look for “perception” deficiency disease and possible cures, but must rather examine our evolutionary history to see what perceptual conditions were once abundant and ubiquitous; wisely speculate on their roles in relating biologically needs to the ecology; recognize the place of the human adaptation, Consciousness System of Order, in superseding instinctual methods of adapting behaviors to environments (the new sensitivities and information flow systems); and, finally, construct testable hypothesis from such a theoretical basis.

But in the meantime – as the science blunders its way along, as social sciences are wont to do – how can such an understanding be put to use?

What a bit of study makes clear is that, just as with nutritional disease, people have been recognizing the symptoms of the deficiencies in perceptual diet for a very long time. The earliest philosophical writings are about how to do living well – such questions only arise by contrast with not doing life well. The Tao Te Ching is a treatise on the Way of Virtue and more especially the perceptual requirements of being of the ‘Way.’ Plato’s Socrates considers many of the same sorts of concerns (it has long been a fantasy of mine to arrange a colloquy between Chuang Tzu and Socrates – they lived only a few years apart in time).

There has been, in certain circles, much talk of ancient and lost wisdom as though peoples of the past had “the answers” and that today we do not. It is pretty clear that the last part of this formulation is correct: we do not have the answers. If we look at the USA: almost half the people show the signs of serious nutritional disorder – obesity primarily, but many other food diet related pathologies. And certainly the majority have a perceptual diet that insanely disconnects them from biophysical reality and knowledge [3].

What is a reasonable food diet? It is quite simply the great ape diet: lots of vegetables and fruits supplemented with sufficient animal fats and protein to make total calories relatively easy to gather [4]. And the analogy continues strong. The most desirable perceptual diet is also closely related to the form of our experience with the environment in which and to which we evolved. Just as nutritional availability formed our metabolic physiology, so environmental order formed our combined behavioral physiology and Consciousness System of Order.

Of first importance to understand is that the Consciousness System of Order formed with total dependence on an abundant, ubiquitous and stable environmental order. The environment supplied the CSO’s powerful tools with the information consumed, but more importantly, created the ordered design of its functioning: like trails laid over a landscape. The CSO was not evolved to supply its own information or its own structure, but to consume both order and detail from the environment; it is in that sense part of the information environment attached to the human biology in an analogous way to the chemical and energy components of the environment being attached to human physiology through food.

The power of the CSO is the combining of elements of environmental reality that are separated in time and space; it has very limited capacity to fact check on its own and depends on collecting information from what is real at base. In the origin of the CSO, biophysical reality was the ubiquitous and abundant perceptual “nutrient” that it did not have to make on its own. It was perfectly safe for the CSO to ‘imagine’ any possibility since it was constantly checked by the immediacy of Reality. Flights of fancy that comported with the biophysical gave humans increasing power. Imaginings that reduced effectiveness were quickly replaced. This led to a rapidly expanding repertoire of effective cultural behaviors that integrated human action into biophysical reality. The behaviors were supported by Stories that carried the designs of the behaviors in ways that did not require scientific understanding or description. What mattered was that the Story was memorable, portable and effective in organizing behavior. Story itself had an adaptive design and almost certainly an interactive relationship with the formation of language: language told Story and Story created designs in language (this is like, in certain evocative ways, the relationship of DNA to protein in the Living System of Order).

To begin to make sense of our present it is vital to recognize that Story as exploded into a malignant “reality” that for a few thousand years has competed with the biophysical reality for our attention – and since Story is our own creation, we have increasingly lived in its domain. Once a large enough part of the environmental order had been described in Story, the CSO began to rely on Story as information source (became self-referencing) and therefore lost its essential and grounding reference – the loss of perceptual “vitamins.” The CSO and Story became so powerful and fast, as designer and device, that they have been successfully dodging the bullets of biophysical reality. Rejecting and defeating Reality can, however, only be a short-term strategy.

This leads to two conclusions: 1) The “facts” with which we are now living are almost entirely Story fabricated by a process that is almost a complete mystery to us. Our present Stories, which are too big to fail, are coming under increasing pressure from the biophysical reality. And 2), that there are other ways that humans have lived and can live again, to some extent outside our dominant (and mad) Stories, ways that comport more closely with biophysical and species’ reality. Rediscovering how to live in greater communion with reality sidesteps many of the issues that seem so vital in our “normal” view, such as, how do we fix the problems of ________? (fill in the blank with population, consumption, energy, pollution, economic inequity, basic survival, etc.) Because, quite frankly, we will not fix them from the perspective of our present Story – our present Story is based on them – and our present Story is our reality no matter how crazy it might be.

Once we realize that our present Story contains all of our essential presumptions and that these presumptions are almost entirely the product of many cycles of self-referencing, only occasionally tested by biophysical reality, then the choice of ignoring specieshood and submission to Story vs. reinvigorating specieshood along with adaptation, from a human perspective, to Story is a stark choice.

But this is not a new choice. For thousands of years, since the very beginning of mismatch of the perceptual diet to the essential order and detail needs of Consciousness Order, people have been struggling with how to maintain what I am calling specieshood – the essential elements of being a member of the human species.

We have so perverted these ideas that our Story says (taken from a recent David Brooks bloviation): “…human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.” This is about as exactly backwards as an idea can get. Rather, flawed artificial systems have so distorted human behaviors that they live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their complete disconnection from their passions. Humans must be reconnected with their passions and human interests by rediscovering the balance inherent in daily intimacy with biophysical reality.

To make real sense of our present we must reset our ‘instruments’ to their original measures: we must establish and live in a perceptual diet that more closely resembles the sustaining and order-giving diet of our origins. This can only be done by individuals – Story will only adapt in large scale processes – and eventually small groups. And, it can only be done for benefit of their lives, not to save the world.

If the world is to be saved, it will be by those who are only, and effortlessly, trying to live in their own specieshood and not by those who support Story by directly confronting it. Lao Tzu and Socrates would understand perfectly. This is not to say that destructiveness should be ignored, rather, each seeks to not be destructive. If in seeking to not be destructive, there is a constructive result, so be it, but that cannot be the intention. While this may make no sense in the context of our present Story, it’s only because Stories become self-preserving and to fight a Story by its own rules only sustains it.

Living in the specieshood that manifest in the Paleozoic, as useful as understanding that time is, is neither possible or desirable, but living in the distortions of the present madness is destroying both human life and the biosphere. The only sensible thing to do is to discover a perceptual diet that is as supportive of specieshood as possible. By making one life a part of biophysical reality you will be joining the vast community of living things that have for billions of years sustained the improbable design order of life. And you will join the millions of men and women who have over the last 10 thousand years quietly and unceremoniously realized their specieshood and sustained Consciousness Order, not in its mad self-referencing, but as the most rare design of order in the universe and the most remarkable.

It is from such a place that the insensibility of the world makes sense even as the great motions currently in place are recognized as inevitable. But it has always been this way.

[1] Water is also vital, but since water is both consumed as part of most food and since water is also made metabolically as part of food’s use as an energy source, I am thinking of it loosely as included in food. Water has very special properties that mediate life, but for this analogy it is not special.

[2] Sex comes to mind as a potent force in design of both structure and function and this is certainly true. But, these designs are laid over primary designs for food acquisition, storage and use.

[3] Most people from industrial countries have perceptual diets with almost no contact with landscape, weather, soil or other supporting elements of our relationship to environment. Interest in environment is often considered foolish or effete depending on the source. A ‘spiritual’ relationship with the plants, animals, rocks and soil in your immediate surroundings is, in our present madness, considered to be madness.

[4] I like especially the cruciform vegetables and fish from as low on the food chain as possible, and gathering native plant foods when I have the time. Today’s food realities, for all the apparent abundance in the US, are pretty stark.

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