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, November 28, 2009

A New Commandment

(Photo by Dorothea Lange)

There are some actions that only give us a squeamish feeling and there are actions that we believe are so wrong that the community must collectively prevent or reduce their occurrence. And yet these are not universally accepted. We have lists, arrived at by various forms of consensus, that we both agree to and teach to others as the accepted standards for behavior. It is characteristic of all such “standards” that they first adapt to changing circumstances in application and then in actual content.

There was a time when it was acceptable to kill, assuming it was done in a “proper” way, someone who offended you; this in violation of a listed commandment. In many places today a person can be socially sanctioned for even harming an unwelcome intruder into a home; requiring that details of the intruder's intention and capacity be divined by the persons intruded upon. This is not a judgment, just description: both are adaptations to a whole complex of social realities and madnesses.

There was also a time when members of a community where disallowed by social sanction from eating well while others starved. It was assumed that those who were doing well were especially lucky, even if that “luck” derived from talent and that the poorest peoples (possibly the unluckiest and least talented) contributed in their own small part to the overall stability, safety and general welfare of the community. There was a fabric of obligation and responsibility holding the community together. If the poorest one died of starvation, then the most wealthy went to bed hungry. ‘Thou shalt not eat whilst thy neighbor starves,’ has not been on the list for some time now.

We are at the end of the old rules. The modern burst of self-interest theories are only an attempt to use the old ways so fully that they recreate reality (to strictly apply them as a means of overcoming the gathering forces that will eventually overwhelm them). Capitalism cannot replace community. Community is in our cells, in our molecules. We drive it out only with insanity. The biology of our bodies can only be overcome by the constructs of our minds becoming mad. Our consciousness order evolved to support our whole and complete integration into the ecosystems in which we lived, not to destroy them.

Empathy, the ability to recognize and include in one’s deliberations the sensations experienced by others, is a universal human property, even found in its beginnings in the great apes. Empathy has forever been a powerful tool in the formation and maintenance of community (meaning, as long as there has been community as distinguished from the herd); the attempt of certain segments of our society to trivialize empathy and therefore all of its consequences for community order, to emphasize the importance of individual ‘selfishness’ as the organizing and ameliorating force in society, betrays one direction that today’s earthly collections of humans can go. This is both an intellectual construct, an adaptation to our time, and a product of personal disorder; it involves believing that you are either, in one form, a special creation in the universe or, in another form, ‘obligated by existing’ to take from the world all that you can. Ultimately both are insane. That our society doesn’t call them insane is just a measure of how mad the society is.

This is all very difficult for humans. Biologically a community is about a hundred people functioning as a primary ‘organism.’ Individuals as we currently think of them didn’t exist. Only a crazy person acted as though they were independent of the group. Everyone had a place in the social order. All manner of difference had to be accommodated since there could be no ‘critical mass’ of difference to hide within, the community needed every hand and eye and it was adaptively advantageous to have many different perspectives to apply to the life and death decisions that were a daily occurrence.

This is who we are. Hominids have been evolving our behavioral/intellectual/emotional biology in and to this community design for millions of years. The depth of the madness required to dismiss the whole of our biological heritage and construction is staggering; and the consequences will be devastating.

But few people really wish to return to a tribal way of life. The individualization process of our historical time has produced great joy along with the disbenefits. And, of course, we are not really in charge of the trajectory of our evolution and adaptation, but are rather along for the ride. That said, however, the newly evolved capacity of the Consciousness Order has been only weakly tested for its potential to organize material and process. We have been “using” it with little wisdom, primarily to attempt to defeat its benefits. The possibilities contained in the ability to imagine a future and to make that future happen have barely been explored. We have almost no practical experience with how to manage this process beyond letting it run wild in the land like Frankenstein’s monster.

The political detail with which we are so enamored is just the daily expression of our more general disorders. That there are solutions to our dilemmas to be found in those details is the purest of fantasy. It should be more than obvious to an even passingly thoughtful observer that every ‘solution’ creates as many new problems as it solves. We are like someone whose poor diet has led to multiple systemic conditions for which he is multiply medicated and all the medications have complicated and unforeseen interactions; and so rather than stop the medication and return to a proper diet (he is supporting whole industries!), the medication regime is mythologized into reality – and the patient suffers. Returning to reality is not an option; and yet we must.

Since we have always lived by lists of allowed and sanctioned behaviors (even from our tribal beginnings) I suggest that we put the aforementioned to the test: “Thou shalt not eat whilst thy neighbor starves.” Returning to a proper and healthy behavioral diet will, of course, not happen by the addition of one commandment, but it might help.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Understanding Our Dominating Issues

We are deluged with stories of events from the larger world around us, and much of what comes as news is more intended to persuade or confuse than to inform. Wars and suicide bombings, soldiers and civilians killed, money spent, changes in laws, elections in other countries, natural disasters, social and economic dangers, international economic actions and much more. Our personal lives seem to be lived in a reign of terror if we pay even the minimum attention to what seems the essential news of the day.

Our frustration with the news and with actually much more: the way the world is going; so much seems to be either falling apart or slipping beyond our understanding or control; our frustration comes from not knowing how to make sense of it all. Of course, some people know exactly; they’ve locked up a set of beliefs, including what fits and rejecting the rest. But the rest of us need a better model, something broader that includes as much of what is real as possible.

We all want essentially the same things: we want sufficient material goods to not be in want; we want sufficient freedom of action and freedom from interference to feel that we are in control of our days; we want the opportunity to associate with people of complementary values and the opportunity to be with other humans in the closest forms of human communion. We want most of our hours, days and years to be protected from the world's greatest dangers, medical and criminal.

And after we have these things, or sufficient imitations of them or substitutes for them, many people often want more. Some feel the need to have everyone else believe just as they do. Some people want more and more things, much more than they could ever use. Some people want to have power over others and need to be able to tell others what to do. Given the power of uninhibited human imagination there is almost no limit to the variety of potential needs, to what people might require to feel finished, to feel okay.

While it is not especially useful to call what we do today ‘Madness’ -- finer understanding is clearly needed -- the above description sounds both pretty accurate and pretty mad to me. It is useful to understand that Sanity is based on ways of life that are defined by a full representation of species (human) qualities functioning in reality. The absence of human normalcy within reality is what we understand Madness to be. There is basically no limit to Madness; it is only Sanity that is limited.

Madness is characterized by various forms of excess, various forms of unrestrained options of action and attitude. Sanity is clearly dependent on reasonable restraint. Societies or cultures come to have restraint as part of their traditions over several (or many) generations of essentially stable cultural life. From daily experiences come mores, taboos and proclamations: adaptions that limit specific actions as a way of organizing species behavior, and these behaviors are adaptive because they occur within reasonably consistent environmental contexts. Since these intimate and long-term environmental relationships have been replaced with rapidly changing social relationships, this ability to be deeply integrated into the environment finds expression in increasingly trivial and obscure ways, and restraint as an adaptive environmental tool largely ceases to exist.

This is expressed in two social/economic conclusions which seem to underlie our conception of our present selves, our business expectations and our economic science: a) We say that our individual human desire for things is insatiable, and b) that we have to exponentially increase resource use in direct proportion to exponential population and technical/application changes. In both of these propositions, if we truly believe them, can be seen a clinical description of Madness. To blandly accept them as true is also Madness and to live them and to take advantage of them for short-term gain is savagely mad. That said, all of the above seems to be exactly what we are doing.

It is from this place that we confront a handful of dominating issues in our world -- issues which we can recognize, but which are so bound in a complexity of interests, imagined interests, delusional realities, habits of action and habits of thought that seeing them clearly is very difficult.

It is not just that the dominating issues are shrouded in complexity that we might unravel with enough effort, but we are required to eat the ‘hallucinogenic mushrooms’ to get to the essential nutrients; Madness has become a greater reality than Sanity.

So, what are these dominating issues that are really the basis of our news, our daily experience and ourselves, and how are they perceived by Madness and how are they perceived by Sanity?

1) No animal has ever been in the relationship to its supporting environment that is the current reality for humans. We have come to a place where we can change biophysical cycles, where we are using more energy than all other species of life combined, all in a social, political and economic design that absolutely requires that we continue as we are. This means, in fact, that we must increasingly do and use more. And we have absolutely no method to change direction that is not catastrophic.

The very survival of "life as we know it" -- an expression which also intends to say "life as it should be" -- depends on the exponentially increasing use of the earth's resources. If we were to stop, then reverse, "economic growth" the economic and political structure of the world's nations would collapse into anarchy -- at least so the tale is told. Certainly no one has produced a method that would allow the human train to stop for a moment to consider our situation. It is all go, go, go and none of where, where, where!

The relationship that the species has struck with this planet of our origin, originally one of exceptionally detailed and rapid adaptation to changes in environment, has steamrolled into a domination by human numbers and activities that thoughtful people realize must eventually have an end; the form of that end and when it will occur is the only question. Many signs suggest that a major perturbation of our present order is only years away -- one or two generations.

2) Billions of people are becoming increasingly unnecessary to the global money (and biological) economy. When pondering questions of why we are so passionately doing business or religion or science etc., the statements of purpose almost always leave out the poorest, the sickest, the most marginal people. Billions of dollars for war, for space exploration, for social services in rich countries; private billions for our cars and boats, second homes, travel, movies, CDs, DVDs, makeup, etc.: some poor starving wretch in sub-Saharan Africa wrapped in a rag makes nothing, consumes nothing and is nothing in the halls of power. Yet these billions of people are there living on the land, using resources and demanding as well as they can that they not be ignored to death.

Much of the human world lives today in a state of extreme stress; from regional wars and local conflicts, from disease and from economic forces over which they have no control and no escape. Only a minority are largely free of such concerns at any one time and only a very small minority can reasonably control their situations so to be rationally confident that they will remain free of the more dreadful possibilities.

3) The design of our world is ugly and getting uglier, it is becoming impossible for many millions of people to find moments of quiet, to spend even a few minutes a day in meaningful contact with the simplest aspects of the natural world -- a world in which and to which our bodies and minds are evolved. Not just our information and entertainment comes from human controlled and designed sources, but it is becoming our whole life experience.

The human capacity for action, capacity for doing anything imaginable and almost limitless capacity of imagination, tools that were evolved to the needs of a troop or tribal hunter living in immediate contact and communion with the primary forces of the world, can be turned into any purpose when set free from environmental conditions and necessities. In large measure these capacities are now used in a world in which humans are the environment.

4) The terrible distortions of power: Power attracts people who are the least restrained in its application; it is adaptive: those who are restrained, who have very high standards for the use of dangerous tools, will tend to be replaced by those who will use such tools. This is ultimately not good or evil; it is about the simple fact that the presence of a tool or opportunity will gather to it those who will attempt to use it in all possible ways. As a corollary, it should also be clear that there is no standard of truth: those who would act without restraint in the application of power would also act without restraint in the distortion of truth.

There are, of course, many more issues and many variations of these, but much of the variety comes from how we approach the issues; whether we approach them in Madness or Sanity.

Issue one: ‘Madness’ usually begins by denying either the issues themselves or their formulations. For example, the very notion that humans are animals is often denied. Then, it is rejected that humans can have an impact on the biosphere, either followed or preceded by the argument that humans have the right to do with the world whatever we wish since we can (that it was a gift from God or some other nonsense). Since Madness is not required to stay within the bounds of logic and reason -- it is Madness, remember -- none of the rejections, denials and distortions need be coherent or need there be response to the pointing out of inconsistency.

‘Sanity’ on the other hand seeks to understand these processes in a general sense through the study of the sciences, philosophy, history, humanities, through personal reflection and to adapt a way of life that meets the species needs as well as possible in a world that doesn’t particularly support the effort. This is, in fact, what most people do even as they ‘try to be mad’ to fit in. Most people do not have insatiable desires and most people know that living within one’s means is a bedrock of Sanity. But, Issue three combined with Issue four drives the human ‘little engine that could’ on and on without regard to the consequences, and that is Madness.

Issue two is largely ignored by Madness; it is a problem that is taking care of itself by disease, starvation, local wars and genocides. The issue becomes interesting when the region in question has natural resources and the people must be moved (removed), but other than that, interest is only peaked when the people in question gain the power to be heard in military, economic or terrorist terms.

Sanity doesn’t have to be “humane” to be sane. There is the case where honest recognition of the reality of our terrible overpopulation and the literal overwhelming of the earth’s resources by billions of people can lead Sanity to awful solutions. Even if every human on the earth were to reduce their use of resources to a small but “comfortable” level (about 10 productive acres per person: there are about 2 to 4 productive acres available per person for the present population depending on how much productivity is allowed for the rest of the world’s living things) we would still be using the earth’s resources at twice to four times the sustainable rate; more that we are using now. At present the people of industrial nations are using resources at a rate of 15 to 30 acres person (The wealthy use 100 to a 1000 or more productive acres per person to feed their consumption. Wealth also “assigns” demandable unperformed productive use to the wealth holder) while in many of the poorest nations people are using 3, 2 or less productive acres per capita. This is below the level of survival. Never before have so many lived on so little.

Sanity would argue for immediate redistribution of the world’s wealth from the wealthiest nations and persons to educate the world’s billions in birth control and other vital skills and to generate changes in national economic systems and governments that would advantage smaller families. Arguments would be made for the nationalization of foreign held lands and redistribution of lands with strict conditions of use and resale.

Sanity would also argue for a Manhattan project/Marshall plan/Moon Mission level effort to comprehensively understand and design new economic and technical systems aimed at escaping the growth trap and changing direction toward a much lower population sustainable system. It would be understood that such a process would be painful for the poor and the rich.

It is clear that unless Sanity finds expression there will be continuing and increasing catastrophes involving millions and eventually billions of people. This process will also eventually overwhelm Madness. So, as is expected, Sanity would benefit Madness if Madness could only see it.

The expansion of human populations into wild lands and the expropriation of the lands of the few remaining indigenous peoples would have to cease in the clear understanding that we have lost a huge percentage of our native ecosystems and most of the peoples of the world who were adapted to the native environment, and these are losses that we need to realize are unrecoverable, wasteful, and deeply immoral if anything is immoral. The biodiversity of the earth and the ways of cultural life adapted by different human groups should be preserved; their destruction in what is really a biological explosion of unprecedented force needs to be prevented to the extent possible. To lose what we understand is one thing, but to lose what we have no conception of is another.

Issue three: Madness basically has nothing to say here. I am reminded of my children when they were about 14 or 15 years old. I would suggest that their rooms were messy to the point of being a sin against the mind (Madness!) and they would look at me like I was crazy; they saw no such thing. And then we would attempt to go somewhere -- to the river, the pool, etc. -- and they couldn’t find (whatever) and would wail their woes, toss and dig, in torment. Other times they would avoid their messy spaces preferring the neater lands of the living room or kitchen. Madness messes its messes and moves on.

Sanity attempts to clean a spot, often only in the mind, where the species spirit can meet the native world for a daily few moments of communion.

The larger image here, of course, is the human use of the earth in neglect of its exquisite designs. When humans were few they lived within the designs by necessity. Now that they are many they overpower the designs without realizing that they are necessity.

Issue four is where Madness truly shines. All events and processes are guided by the design order in which they occur. Without the design order of the environment to organize the potential of humans to imagine and to act, only limitations on the power to act are ultimately functional; options are essentially limitless and thus in the province of Madness. In this design, everything possible will be discovered and everything discovered will be applied and used. Commitments to styles of design, to Communism, Capitalism, to Democracy, liberalism, conservatism, etc. may be passionate, but they will be fleeting. Power will ultimately overpower.

Sanity in this case recedes into a very dark corner; its cornerstones, restraint and truth, are mushed like turtles on a busy highway; road kill in the fast lane. We have witnessed, over the span of recorded history and have seen in the evidence of paleoanthropology, the unrelenting application of discovered power in fuels, mechanical devices, materials and energy sources. At the same time we have seen increasing numbers of people organized in power based designs that compliment both the human numbers and the physical energies and means of control available. In this region of human action, Sanity only acts within the person since restraint and truth can only function within the person; the power world, in general, belongs to Madness.