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, October 11, 2009

The Natural History of Deception

(Harmless snake pretending otherwise! This is a long essay.)

Daily events present us with a variety of situations that involve questions of honesty. An art dealer knows that a painting can be sold for $10,000, but he tells the person who owns the painting that it is worth $5000; also knowing that the owner paid $1000 for it and will think that $5000 is a very good price. What is honest here? Is it the responsibility of a person to share all the significant information that they possess as a condition of honesty? Is there some standard of honesty that will aid in answering the question?

Suppose the issue is not a painting being traded among ‘wealthy’ people, but is rather a chemical that gets applied to food. The manufacturer of the chemical, the farmer and distributor know, to varying degrees, that the chemical has negative health effects, but its use allows more production per acre to reach the store shelf in a more attractive condition. Is honesty the voluntary presentation of an unbiased summary of dangers associated with the chemical additive? It is clearly dishonest to claim that there is no harm associated with the additive, but at what point does honesty began and dishonesty end? To me an appropriate beginning is to look at the evolution of honesty, or put another way, the natural history of deception.

The underlying process to which honesty applies is exchange or transfer of information. An electron or proton or any other particle represents itself by the exchange of virtual particles of particular properties. An electron in a sodium atom cannot represent itself as a positron in an antimatter oxygen atom; this kind of thing just doesn't make any sense, so at the level of physical exchange the universe is uniformly honest.

Dishonesty begins, as deception, with the earliest life forms hiding what they are within chemical, typically protein, coverings. The evolution of such deception is simple to understand. Organism A consumes organism B, but not organism C. Since the outer covering of B and C contain some similar proteins, those B organisms with a more C-like outer covering are consumed less often than those with almost no C-like covering showing. Eventually organism B evolves to “look” more and more like C to organism A. The inside of B continues to be just as yummy and nutritious as before, unlike the noxious inside of C, but A now responds to many Bs as if they were Cs; it is deceived.

It can be correctly said that the simple deception of this sort is a consistent part of the evolution of viruses, bacteria to other pathogens and parasites. These organisms represent their chemical surface as either that of their host or some other thing that they are not. This form of deception continues on all the way to insects mimicking leaves and twigs, harmless snakes looking and acting like poisonous ones and the various ways that little animals have for looking big. The essence of all these devices by organism B is to get organism A to act in a way that benefits B. This is accomplished not by real toxicity, size, power, chemical constituents or lifecycle, but by the presentation of one triggering aspect of the organisms which actually have the toxicity, size, power, chemical constituents or particular lifecycle. A rattlesnake is avoided based on recognition of pattern and the sound from the rattling tail, not because nearby organisms look inside its head and find the poison glands and delivery system.

What is characteristic of almost all these deceptions is that they are among separate species and that they are integrated into the web of relationships based primarily around predator and prey. Predators hide or appear benign and prey hide or appear more dangerous than they are; which they can do because there are truly dangerous organisms.

This can be analyzed as competition, but the word has many unwanted and misleading associations within many spheres of human activity. I prefer to talk about process inevitability. Just as electrons arrange by the probabilities associated with energy levels, so a process inevitability occurs in the more fluidly constructed energy economics of living things: develop a true protection for 10,000 calories a copy and get a 30 percent survival advantage and this will soon be followed by some other organism developing a mimic protection for net 500 calories a copy and getting a 15 percent survival advantage. It is a matter of survivability; not so much a competition between or among species; it is a matter of the organization of body and behavior getting the greatest survivability per calorie. The environment in all its facets, including all other creatures and their characteristics, is one complete undivided “entity” from the point of view of an organism. Any individual whose body and behavior produces the greatest genetic survivability per calorie lives on as a genetic structure. Chemical, physical and behavioral deception are but natural aspects of that process.

But a dilemma forms in this increasingly complex structure of deceptions. An organism must have correct information from which to act. If, in an example given earlier, A consumes B but not C. Over time B evolves to appear to be C to the perception of A and thus deceives A. For this to work there are several continuing requirements. 1) A must continue to avoid C. 2) B must not be fooled into treating C as another B. 3) C must not be fooled into treating B as C.

Each organism must continue to produce predominantly correct action as response to environmental information. The deception of A by B must be a relatively minor matter for A even if it worked a relatively major effect on the survivability of B. The effect on C must also be very minor. If an organism's relationship with its total environment is such that much of its action is made in response to information arising from deception, then that organism must be under powerful selective pressure to reconnect with accurate information, i.e., those individuals whose action was less influenced by deceptive information and more influenced by veridical information would have increased genetic survivability. No matter how the relationships among the individual species form, the totality of the system must function through an unabridged accuracy of information producing appropriate and proportional responses.

An ecosystem is not 1000 species (or 200 or one million) vying for some dominant relationship. When seen from a larger perspective, primary energy input, conditions of material availability and climate set the limits within which all the species interweave their chemical and physical actions to maximize their adaptation to the total conditions which include all of the other adapting organisms. The evolved relationships are as complex or more complex than climate and weather, which we still cannot successfully model with computers. ‘Mess with a flea over here and find effect in a vulture over there.’ Like a wire-walker, ecosystems have to keep going on even as we mess with their balance: They tend not to wind down, but when pushed too hard they ‘fall off.’

Deception, at this level, is an adaptation integrated into the ecosystem as just another adaptation. Social displays and other more complex social phenomenon modify the effect that a species has on the ecosystem and are adjusted to throughout the system. If one species suddenly declines, the resulting change in energy availability, physical space and physiological product is responded to with growth, death and change, just as always. If one species suddenly becomes ascendant on the “wings” of a powerful new adaptation, that change in energy, space and product will also be adjusted to with growth, death and change among the other species.

An ecosystem is inherently a veridical system in which information is action to which web-like adjustments are made throughout. The model of deception is a special case in which one organism delivers inaccurate information of a limited nature to another and to a specific result. Such behaviors are completely contained within the larger ecosystem structure.

There are two important qualities to note: 1) any behavior including deception which cannot be accommodated within the adjustments in the ecosystem endangers the total ecosystem, and 2) these forms of deception are evolved in the same way as any other chemical, physical or behavioral response to any environmental conditions; they develop out of the consequences of the movements, responses and sensitivities of all the organisms functioning together in a common physical temporal space.

While there are many individual examples of these forms of deception that all function through genetically mediated structure and behavior (the result of nervous systems structure) and are thus evolved through the same processes and principles as a horse cannon bone or blue face of a baboon, this is only true until hominids. With the evolved adaptations of the hominids came a new form of deception as unrelated to the old as rice is to maggots.

The cardinal characteristic of this new adaptation was that events that were no longer occurring could be revisited. And there was no particular time limit on how recently an event had occurred for it to be available for replay.

This becomes difficult to talk about because it is the same adaptation that underlies the reading of these words and that constructs a picture of the world which is inherently a deception. I must construct a very careful language and the reader must avoid too quickly giving meaning to the words beyond the narrow uses I'm attempting here.

First, this adaptation is evolved through the same process as any other: it has conferred increased survivability to the genetics that produced its simplest beginnings as well as its more aggressive forms. It was tested in the living and dying of hominids interwoven in their ecosystems.

I'm calling this adaptation by its primary effect, “dilation of the moment.” All of its consequences to which we give various names are resulted from this physical phenomenon. The moment in which events occur is all that ever exists. All the rest is an illusion. It is an illusion which hominids evolved to exploit in the same way that wings evolved to exploit the air, except of course that the air is real. What is real is that the universe is lawful and this lawfulness applies to the effects of earthly gravity and to the hunger of large cats in a similar way. The moment arises out of the ongoing events structured in lawful order. This allows for the possibility of coding aspects of a complete moment so that they are retained as a coded expression of that moment, retained in a form that changes more slowly than the immediate flow of events. Such a process occurred with the design of the DNA/protein complex (creating the Living Order) and has occurred again with the storage of information in story, a design functioning beyond the individual hominid brain (creating the Consciousness Order).

This quickly gets so complex that we want to say, "okay, okay so we have a conscious mind -- now let's go get a coffee." But then there are some vital things that are missed. One is, as was mentioned, that what is retained of the moment is a very selective collection of perceptible energies that were part of a complete integrated flow of event. Two, the functioning of other retained moments is such that we make little distinction between what is going on in the moment and these retained pieces of moment that we call memory, experience, learning and other things defined by subtle differences in evolved designs for handling information outside of the moment. In other words the adaptation, “dilation of the moment,” is an evolved deception. As part of this adaptation hominids often treat events retained from the moment of existence, in a very partial and selected form, as fully occurring events from the larger universe.

"Okay, okay so memory is faulty, let's go get coffee." If it were this simple we could go get the coffee and be done with it. All of the philosophical difficulties were rendered inconsequential for almost all of hominid existence by a simple expedient: hominids lived in the environment within which the adaptation evolved so that the full subtleties of interaction within the moment included the “dilation of the moment” just as the toxicity of a fungus, the size of elephants and dehiscence of fall leaves were included.

With Homo sapiens, however, came an expansion of this adaptation -- the possibility of living almost completely in the retained moments; and a consequence: the projection of these retained moments into events which had not yet occurred. The boundaries between the full and deep interactive true moment with all of the properties of the real, the retained selected details of what now could be called previous moments (an illusion) and the projected events made up of combinations of selected details of previous moments and often details of the true moment, became almost totally blurred. The “dilation of the moment” was almost complete -- the actual, the true moment of existence, was spread by this genetically derived adaptation into an indeterminate past, to an indeterminate future, with the true moment often receiving only a passing interest.

The obligatory reality of moment was replaced by the possibility of a “broader reality” and the possibility of almost total illusion -- and even the possibility of mixing the two in ways that would make a disentangling of them extremely difficult. Just as assembling a complex machine without a plan is problematic, so making sense of reality and illusion without the plans has a poor prognosis. The plans are in the building: that is, our evolution and the environment within which that evolution took place.

Imagine a machine built into the very building, it supports the gears, the timing devices tied into the floor and walls and ceiling. Imagine that machine slowly then quickly disconnecting from that building and set to run in the open (ad hoc scaffolding thrown together for support). And it runs, but gets out of time, slips various cogs and generally runs ungoverned. Without the building to serve as a guide there would be little hope of setting the machine right. This is a very simplified metaphor for the present human dilemma; we are detachable from the environment, and we are not complete when detached.

In all this a deception of the new form has come to be part of the universe of possibilities. Previously A deceived B by mimicking C. In the hominid form, A deceives A by modifying the primary experience of existence so that A can propose events that have not yet occurred. A then can deceive B by modifying B’s experience of events which have not occurred at all so that B will support A’s proposed future; this can go on and on. This puts a premium on living and experiencing in, or as near as possible to sources of, the true moment if the species is to sustain in the universe of actual events.

It is clearly possible to get farther and farther away from the narrow reality of moment, until the functional pragmatic energies of the universe are violated beyond recovery, i.e., the realities of ecosystem order and interdependence are such that an organism that doesn't fit in can topple the whole structure, wiping out the order which sustains all of living things within the ecosystem. A fancy hominid is no more immune to that possibility than goats, introduced on an island, that eat everything insight and then dies of starvation along with everything else. And by virtue of the reach and depth of hominid adaptation, it is more likely.

Just as with the first form of deception, this new form is powerful, but far more dangerous. Remember that when B evolved to look like C to A, there were conditions of a veridicality that had to obtain for the species to continue: C must not confuse itself with B, B must not confuse itself with C and A needed to continue to correctly identified C. The deception must be limited; in this case A is deceived by B to some degree, but little else is affected.

The natural history of hominid’s new form of deception shows much of the same requirements for limitation. It is clear that accurate information is vital to every organism. In most cases the physical/chemical realities are immediate: temperature, pH, mineral content, all generate genetically mediated responses appropriate to the condition. As the nature of the information becomes more complex, the need for the organism to have well tuned perceptual equipment adapted to evolved algorithms in order to relate action to perception is no less great. The punishment for the failure to consistently function with veridicality is death, first of individuals and then, if appropriate evolution does not occur, of the species.

For hominids "dilation of the moment" was for vast amounts of time contained within the total expression and adaptation of the species within the ecosystem, that is, it did not distinguish itself as some feature of behavior out of step with the rest of the behavior of the organism. The adaptation let hominids function with greater accuracy by establishing a database from which to evaluate novel moments and to respond creatively and quickly to environmental cycles of long duration. While the past and future were illusion (self-deception), they were illusion in the service of greater accuracy and speed of response; there was still a strong attachment to the moment as a powerful primary information source. As human social structure became secure enough there was advantage in some individuals within the group pressing the limits of this adaptation by imagining to the full extent of their ability, so long as the group was fundamentally bound by the minute by minute reality of the environment. Such explorations into new ways of organizing experience passed the ability to change in response to the environment to a storage system of memory and group memory called culture -- no longer were the genes the sole repository of how an organism was to be and sole method for passing on that information. This was a fully functional new system of order that I am calling the Consciousness System of Order.

But there is a caution to be discovered in the genes. Great energy of process and genetic change in chemical architecture are spent on protecting the genetic code. Evolution is, regardless of the theories followed, very slow compared to cultural change: slow not only because environmental change is slow, but slow because the thrust of genetics is, in a paradoxical way, to avoid change while at the same time incorporating mechanisms that are based on, and even amplify, the unavoidable changes that take place.

Culture needs to be seen for what it is, a new and untried genetic adaptation based on an inherently risky design of using illusion to increase the speed and accuracy of adaptation. There is little analogous in this method to the complex multiplicity of DNA protections which guard the cell’s information. And without the environment as an informing and inhibiting substrate, the illusion aspect of the "dilation of the moment" seems to overwhelm the process of change, until today we live in a largely baseless world in which there is no -- not one – primary source of veridicality.

Cultural sources are the primary source of information today. We even appeal to cultural sources for information about the environment. In a most bizarre example we watch the weather Channel to see if it is cold outside. Just think of it; can you name one cultural information source that is uniformly believed by all humans in the manner of the following example: There is a certain squeak given by almost all little birds and mammals that results in all of their type diving for cover, we could say that this means “hawk” to them. Chipmunks don’t trick sparrows with it, sparrows don't trick bluebirds with it, it is uniformly “believed.” Humans are not incapable of belief -- uniform veridical belief -- it is just that we do not now live in the world that either produces or allows it, when once we did. And it is that world that we must, using all the tools at our disposal, recover essential aspects of.

Plato suggested, rather powerfully, that our perceptions are illusion. I am suggesting that our illusions are ultimately self-deceptions of which the intentional deceptions of others is only a minor form. It is of little use to ask for others to “tell the truth” when the substrate is illusion to begin with.

I believe that this form of deception needs to be recognized for what it is and that in this first little step we might re-appeal to our natures as a means of slowly rediscovering some sense of basis for our lives. What follows is a partial list of some things that people need to do. I don't see these things happening quickly, totally or even at all. All I know is that unless something like these happen we will carry present madness into extinction, or at least major catastrophe, for our species and millions of other species.

There are two categories of things that we must do: the first are primarily activities and the second have to do with a reconsideration of worldviews.

Group one:

1) travel by foot -- walk a real distance from point A to point B as part of a regular routine -- in all weather -- every day is best. (1/2 a mile as a minimum distance—depending, of course on physical factors)

2) spend quiet time -- listen to the wind and other sounds made by nature. As much as possible find a time and place free of airplanes, trains, cars etc. This also needs to be regular; once every three or four days minimum for 15 to 30 minutes. (carefully done this can be combined with number 1)

3) some form of meditation every day -- there are several forms of meditation that have been practiced by humans for thousands of years, a form related to Zen Buddhist practice is what I recommend. The thinking behind this is explained elsewhere.

4) explore some new place -- the cityscape if nothing else is available, but wildlands are best; irregular ground, new shapes and views, new sounds and smells. This also should be regular every 10 to 20 days with something dramatic occurring in the process every half-year or so, like getting lost, going hungry and thirsty, pushing to some limit; physical, mental.

5) some regular form of exercise -- to give the body and brain some regular experiences that are related to the environment in which we evolved. As you do them you can adjust amounts and circumstances to your increasing awareness of what you need.

6) spend time in conversation with others -- especially talking about daily events. This is tricky because of the pre-existing designs that use these occurrences for the support of cultural goals rather than personal ones.

Group two:

1) Begin to consider the effects of your actions on the world. Other species don't do this and don't need to: evolution functions to measure those effects and balances ecosystems using the ultimate consequences of life and death, speciation and extinction. Since humans are in the culture bubble and separated from primary evolutionary forces in the short frame of human generations (but not in the long time frame of ultimate consequences) we must create culture-based controls on environmental actions to avoid devastating ultimate consequences. The simplest of these is for each person to ask themselves what the effects of their actions are, and to follow the questions to their conclusion with courage and information acquisition.

2) We must consume less, not more with the obvious corollary: population must be reduced. Reduced consumption and reduced population fly in the face of present money economics and capitalist economics especially, which are only functional under conditions of economic expansion. All the underlying understandings of present economics need to be reconsidered. It would be nice if there were in-place some understanding of how, and an appropriate willingness, to reduce consumption without economic collapse, but the cart may have to lead the horse on this occasion. With all that is powerful vested in economic growth and therefore the ultimate destruction of ours and many other species of life, the people (individuals and small groups of humans who understand the ecological reality) need to begin now regardless of cultural consequences. It is as if we were on the sinking ship and bailing out the water was cultural anathema -- there will always be some clear sighted enough to see through the “social form” to the physical reality. In other words, there are people who have maintained their relationship with environmental information sufficiently that they are less deceived by the illusion of culture.

3) We must slow, then stop and then reverse the human domination of the landscape. We must not pave over the world. For most humans in the industrial countries, the world is paved and gridded already. This has created a great cultural lie: the non-industrial countries are second or third-rate for the very reason that they are not square grids and asphalt. Yet these countries are destroying themselves as fast as they can under the tutelage of the industrial West. Since the industrial world has a predator-prey relationship with the rest of the world, which increasingly supplies raw material and labor (true wealth -- material and labor -- is forcefully extracted from the non-industrial world by the industrial world which is less industrial these days and more power based, controlling [ultimately with its military] the machinery of trade and money), we can only do this individually by refusing as much as possible to be part of such domination and speaking our conviction to others.

4) We must begin with ourselves by creating personal conditions that allow us to see the physical reality and to sustain us in opposition to the dominating culture bubble and then act in personal ways to support a sustaining of life on earth as the final personal condition that sustains our specieshood. There can be no expectation that our individual actions will change the larger world, but we can change our own little world into one that honors our biological nature and those millions of hominids that did the evolutionary work to get us to us. We are a remarkable creature best recognized in the manifestation of our evolved design. Life in the culture bubble minimizes our biological power, so hard won in the humorlessness of evolution. In evolution a creature must be all, the most full expression of its evolved potentials, that it can be to survive. In present cultures the role is to be as little of your biological nature as you can get away with--a result of there being so many of us in such distorted relationships to power and survivability.

In these ways we can reconnect our adaptation, "the dilation of the moment," to some part of our environment and mitigate against the pure illusion of it all. We evolved these abilities and tools within a context and we must be in that context to function properly. In our present situation we're like a giraffe in a lettuce field or the beaver in the concrete pond.

The illusion and deception that we participate in and experience today has no solution in all of our attempts through philosophy, science, law, religion and "good old commonsense" to discover one. Without a steady contact with an environment that brings its ordering properties to structure the illusion which underlies our primary adaptation, that illusion, self-deception and deception of others is essentially boundless and structureless.

An organism that does not live in the reality of evolution's rules is doomed. Homo sapiens is the only organism that is testing that proposition in a big way. In my view we are riding the power of our adaptation to an end just as a “mindless” creature would. The human “world” may go the way of the many that failed in its ultimate adaptation to life. But I am not obliged to be what the present madness defines, I am in the business of discovering how to be a member of my own species in the fullest sense possible so that my life might account for something in the great biological playground the biosphere. And I am in the business of trying to make what little I've learned available to my tribe -- those who feel the same impulse. I, we, will not remake the world; the larger world is a shot from the cannon and headed to the target, an explosive shell unrecallable. But we can remake our lives to more closely resemble the creature evolved to life on earth. We will be following in the footsteps of the millions upon millions of our hominid forebears who were promised nothing by their births other than the chance to be a member of their own species in the struggle of life. It is this basic promise that is denied by our illusions and consequent deception, all resulting in far too many poor human-like shells filled with feelings of not being right in this body and world and, ultimately, very little else.

And to end, I return to what should be seen now as trivial, albeit the daily fair of examples of honesty. The questions of value of a painting and the knowing addition of dangerous chemicals to food are deceptions that disappear when the illusions created by acquisitiveness are dispelled, when the standard of adaptation to long term survival within the limitations of the biosphere are recognized as substantive and not utopian. The human generated world of illusion will not change, but each of us can make the decision to begin to act in ways that will support honesty in our own lives as a necessary precondition for being a member of the human species. Illusion and deception have a place in a fully functioning relationship with the environment as part of the hominid adaptation, but are destructive of the species when environmental relationships are lost.

No comments: