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, October 31, 2009

The Human Dilemma [1]

I don't know what to do! Pollution, overpopulation, consumerism, political and business collusion and corruption, youth crime, white collar crime, starving children in third (and less) world countries, new epidemic diseases, government sanctioned genocide and terrorism, civil wars where both sides are technically right and kill thousands of innocents to prove it… When a little girl who lives down the street looks at me with a combination of suspicion, guilt and hopelessness, I feel a terror for those lives lost in perversions of drugs, sex and even stifling wholesomeness trapped behind the closed doors and drawn curtains on every street, in every town.

My brother, a lawyer and arbiter of some of humanity's sorriest behavior, said that he thought that the human "dance" had not changed very much for millennia. I agreed with him, but added that where the dance is done makes a difference: in a ballroom with a band, in the parking lot, in the middle of a busy highway or on the edge of a precipice. I feel the hot air rising from the hellish depths below the edge.

It is my species choreographing the current high drama. Once it was others, but never on the scale of my own. We are special to be sure. No other species has foreseen the machinery of its end and, as a natural consequence, possible solutions to it's dilemmas. (In fact, each dilemma generates several solutions, and each solution creates opportunity and advantage for someone or some group.) And as we have no shortage of dangers, we have no shortage of suggested fixes: recycle, "clean" energy, education, environmental protection, environmental exploitation, geo-engineering, economic growth, economic cutback, population growth (local, for self protection), population reduction, technological development, return to the land, medical research, income redistribution, increased protection of personal income and freedoms (mine, if not yours), peace-keeping wars, spiritual awareness, religious freedom, religious and culture uniformity, moral relativism, moral absolutism. All these get lumped together as if they were of equal importance, equal possibility, because we really can't tell the difference. We only know that someone says a thing "must" be done to solve a problem. The plethora of self-interested solutions becomes another of our dilemmas. It is part of our self-protective denial that we seem unable to sort through our troubles and find the ones that create and drive the others.

What does it mean if our essential troubles are the same as or are created by our essential biological nature? For surely we have an essential nature, as does graphite, tick weed or the painted wolf. The very way that we argue around and about what we are as a species is decided by what we are. What language is for us is what human language is. What rational thought is for us is what human rational thought is. The limpet attaches to a rock. So does the mussel. They do not argue about which one does it right. The waves crash and the organisms not broken or washed away survive. Our way is our way.

The problems we have have come about through what we are. And any workable solutions will have to be based on what we are. There is no question that we can think of actions beyond our powers: If I could run 45 miles an hour I would not need to worry about gas prices! If my neighbors only understood what a great guy I am they would not prejudge me. If "everyone" could understand the danger of___________, then they would organize and take action. Humans have a maximum average foot speed. Humans prejudge as a matter of course. Humans understand, as does every other organism, what is before them in terms that are sensible in their experience. And humans have consistently been frustrated by the fact that very often other humans disagree with them.

We must look on what we are as the tool kit from which we select the ways we attempt to solve our problems. If we look at what we are as obstacle there can be no solutions. The hawk may not identify soaring flight as the essence of its troubles since the hawk is soaring flight. The rabbit may not identify timidity and intense attention to danger as the essence of its troubles since the rabbit is timidity and intense attention. For humans the matter is more difficult; we do not know who or what we are.

We have, for that eternity called The Past, used our non-human acquaintances for guidance as to what we should do and how we should act. We were intimate with the ways of the wolf and the hawk and the rabbit and the bear and the beaver and the owl and on and on. They had purity of action; they did what they did! Humans were the behavioral chameleons, seeing the model for and the essence of perseverance in the ways of one creature, courage in another, wisdom, cleverness, sexual prowess, honor in yet others. These were models that could be counted on. The beaver was the same year in and year out; a worker, a self sacrificing protector. The hawk always soared. The raven did its magic.

In becoming human, humans had given up being something definite. We could copy any creature: woolly like the yak, dangerously toothed like the tiger, swift killers like the cheetah, patient like the snake, deceptive and clever like the hunting dogs, but just being like ourselves was beyond us, was not us! We had become manifestations of aspects of all that was around us.

Where is the guide now? Is it the lemming, the honeybee or the ant? We are breaking new ground. Pervasive so recently in human experience, the courage of the lion, the strength of the bear, the cunning of the coyote; these things no longer serve us. We no longer know these animals personally – assertions about their gifts and characters have no meaning. But perhaps of equal importance, they are discredited by our outdoing their strength, courage and cunning, finally removing them from the earth as a force.

Today most animals, plants and the physical effects of geology and climate are experienced only as parts of a pervasive electronic media and are mixed with all manner of creation that has as its only basis the machinery used to make it. In a seamless sequence of images an elephant herd might amble by a car floating over a rugged mesa which turns into a can of beer!

Only a miniscule percentage of people today have lived in the presence of the creatures of our myths, lived with them as equals and intimates to be respected, understood and watched with care. At one time all of us did, and in their company found the answers to the questions that we had not yet even asked.

We could use some answers this day. We could use some help in getting our questions straight. The hawk soars. The deer runs to cover. The badger turns in its hole presenting claws and teeth. We have, as a species, always appealed to the order of nature for our ordering principles, comprehended in vision quests and the daily experience of life. Today we have no experience of life, so we study and research, engage in massive amounts of vastly available vicarious experience, seek spiritual connection and wonder what to do. One thing we must not do is look only to ourselves and the answers that come only from human self-interest. This is difficult when we know and ultimately respect nothing other than ourselves.

[1] Every now and again I run across an old essay, long forgotten, in a folder in a folder called something like ‘trans folder Dell 450’ – and I know its from a long time ago. These files have lost their time stamps and I am left with human memory to place them. I remember working on this in longhand sitting next to a swimming pool where my kids were swimming; a man walked by and saw the title scrawled at the top of the notebook; “provocative title,” said he. My 21 year old daughters were about 5! I know that 9/11 "changed the world," but these old essays remind me that it didn’t change mine.


Anonymous said...


I have four distinct epiphanies with nature which has changed me in an absolute way, not completely there yet but at least walking what I consider the correct path - they all involve the eye. No doubt in my mind it is a high level knowledge transfer mechanism.

The first episode, and the only one I'll mention here, was some 3 decades ago when driving one winter's night down a Black Mountain road I hit a fox. It looked at me the instant before it was struck and I felt something "put into me", no other way to describe it. Despite my searches after the accident I could find nothing of the poor creature.

That spirit(?) has manifested itself in so many ways; walking in the Inari shrine in Kyoto, Japan many years ago I found my self alone and in the dark of trees in the middle of the day and standing still to take it in many foxes suddenly appeared at sat looking at me from maybe 10m away, not moving: similarly, while walking in the mountains of northern Tuscany, Italy I came across a female wolf and two cubs who again sat passively while the cubs frolicked; a wild feral dog ran at me in the Australian bush 1o yrs ago and stopped and laid down like a domestic pet.

I'm not trying to laud myself here, just confirm the tenor of your article that there is a spiritual connection between the worlds' inhabitants and I for one have finally tapped into it.

Cheers ... ron

James Keye said...

Ron, Thank you for this story. The human species' relationship with other living things has always been deeply intimate. The disconnection of our time is staggering.