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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Being Made Human, Again

Each organism acts out its daily routine and the summing up of those actions creates, for all the individuals of the type, the effect of that species; the summing up of all actions of all species creates the total ambient effect of life in the biosphere.  At least, this has been the reality for all but the last few thousand years of life’s total 4 billion years.  It has been possible to consider each species as integrated into a system of other living things, as participant in a variety of, more or less, clearly defined roles as consumer of material and energy, as supplier of material and energy to others, and on to more subtle interactive forms of relationship. 

The source of the whole process is, as suggested, the daily routine of each and every organism: each individual bacteria, meadow vole, red tailed hawk, Virginia oak, slime mold..., tens of millions of species and millions of trillions of individual organisms, each and everyone doing what is evolved into it as physiological and operational behavior.  

Two million years ago a Hominid species – Homo erectus will do as a name – began to incubate a new form of relationship with the environment.  Rather than being an environmental participant that responded solely within an evolutionary framework, erectus began to store information in a new form, in ‘story’ and in manufactured objects.  It is unlikely that erectus had language in the sense we understand it, but it is certain that he/she had very sophisticated communication systems, a consistent tool industry and used complex, highly adaptable hunting/gathering/scavenging strategies.  These behaviors were supported by genetics, but, vitally, were not stored and passed on by DNA.  The processes, new to the earth, by which such information was stored and spread through space and time were in development. 

The incubation lasted until about 50 to 70 thousand years ago when various groups of Homo sapiens began to construct objects with the specific intention of recording experience, presumably for personal recollection of detail and incidentally to spread experience across the time gap of generations.  It is likely that spoken language made major changes during this time adding, to a primarily present tense structure, the speculative tenses; and in so doing increasing its power as a tool for recording, storing, communicating and adapting experience.

In this process Homo sapiens hatched into the universe a completely new system for giving order and structure to information; became an organism that no longer had a reliable behavioral routine; an organism that no longer relied on biological evolution to adapt to the salient events of its environment, and that even reinvented salience altogether.  

I have named this the Consciousness System of Order (CSO) and define it in relation to, in my design, the other two systems of order: the Living System of Order (LSO) and Physical System of Order (PSO).  The CSO is not to be thought of as awareness consciousness, but as a system with its own devices, residing both within the human nervous system and beyond it as the many forms, each with their own properties, by which we select, store and implement our experience.  Just as we have come to accept life as a state of order with remarkable properties, so consciousness can be conceived in a similar way. 

One of the consequences of this new way of organizing and disseminating information has been the exponential increase in possibility; there are now literally millions of ways to do things that were never even done at all a few thousand years ago.  And there are also many new ways to think about and understand all of these new ways and things. 

What has gone missing in this process is the guidance of the CSO by both the LSO and PSO.  It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that all actions in the universe must comport with physical reality generally and biophysical reality on the surface of the earth (or any place where life is to exist, like a space capsule).  Yet it is possible, using the properties of the CSO to imagine processes and behaviors that violate biophysical rules.  Some of these processes and behaviors that ‘cannot happen’ can, by supplying energy or designing ‘work arounds’ be made to happen, at least for a time. 

Humans can’t fly, but can build a device that meets the aerodynamic requirements, can power that device and fly in it for a time until the fuel runs out.  We have come not only to accept that there are biophysical limits that we might exceed; we have come to expect it.  In a general way we have disconnected the CSO from the environmental information and limitations that created its form and function in human communities as it evolved.

This new system of order for collecting, storing and organizing information has gone from being a tool guided by the environment, with the ability to make very rapid adjustments, to being a largely unguided process capable of creating its own standards of judgment as to efficacy – the Consciousness Order not only imagines options for action, it also imagines the conditions that decide the correctness of the actions.  This design never worked for my children, though they certainly tried; and on the much larger scale, it ultimately cannot work for human communities. 

This is the primary human adaptation that gave us great survival success, but it is an adaptation that we must now adapt to.  It was the environment that gave design to the novel products of the CSO; it is time to figure out (using the CSO as tool) how to return the environment to that role.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Religion is Not An Institution; It is a Process

(A recent essay I posted at Dissident Voice brought up a variety of questions for me. This is a response.)

I have written a fair amount about religion: belief systems that organize and motivate behavior are vitally important to understand, and none are above the basic evolutionary, natural history evaluation appropriate to the behavior of any organism. Much of what I’ve written, if read from a natural history perspective, clearly argues that the institutional religions of today’s world are extreme distortions of an essential human “religious” process. I want to speak more directly about the major religions to which humans are presently attached.

Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and variants of these and others are all story based systems with one original bio-consciousness function and a variety of political, social and economic functions attached as power migrated from community structure to political and economic institutions. They are all incredible violations of the Reality within which our species must live: they are not true in any way.

It essential to understand that they are not supposed to be true, we are only supposed to believe that they are true. Psychologists call this crazy-making, but that is how religion functions: simple compelling stories that organize behaviors [1]. The stories are not intended to be veridical reality; they have always only been intended to guide the massively powerful and largely directionless capacities of the genus Homo. The only way for that to work is for the people to think the stories very important. The Consciousness System of Order supplies the tools.

But we have outgrown this simple formulation – in fact, we have been outgrowing it for at least 10 thousand years. For most of our time on earth, nearly 200,000 years, our close environmental attachments gave our behavior and biophysical reality a veridical relationship, religion was like the string tied to a finger to remind us to do the right thing. The environment had the power, behavior had its function in the environment and religion organized and motivated the behaviors across communities and generations.

Today our behavior is the power and it is still guided by stories and beliefs, but now it is deadly dangerous that our stories do not have a veridical relationship to the Realities that control the world. Once the form was: belief in the story led to behaviors that were adapted to a sustaining environmental relationship, and the details of the story really didn’t matter in reality so long as the action was functional (though believing in them is what made them work!). Today the form is: belief in the story is the measure of social acceptability; the actions generated are considered correct only so long as the story is supported and this is where it ends; there is no systemic feedback design with the biophysical Reality of the environment; in fact, it is often specifically rejected. The result is that the aforementioned contemporary religions are madness; real insanity. Buddhism is the least mad from the list, but its practitioners make it about as insane as the others.

It is the insanity of these religions that their critics are responding to, and have conflated with religion as a process. It would be correct to say that we must rid ourselves of religion’s insane content, but we cannot rid ourselves of religion since it is the structuring of belief systems in the community and society. When the environment was the mediating source for the designs of belief, the details of our stories were of little significance, but when disconnected, details take on importance; societal madness is the outcome.

Virgin births, returning from the dead, miracles of all sorts, 800 year old people, reincarnation, grandfatherly despots living as spirits, infallibility of the written (and multiply translated) word, absolute necessity of following a certain code, convoluted sophistries of trinities into unities and back again, devils and demons, reverence for a piece of cloth, and literally thousands of other details of belief and story that are measures of worthiness and action: all of these disconnected from the biological and ecological realities that sustain the living condition and the living space. There are actually people who would see the whole world burned to a crisp if they believed their God told them it was the right thing; it is difficult to imagine anything more insane than that.

And so, to the extent that it is the insanity of religions that we eliminate, I am on board. But we must continue to believe and act from summary generalizations based on very little direct and personal knowledge. Also contained in all of the insane religions are accumulated human wisdoms, stories of how community order and stability are maintained; stories of how we are to treat other humans, other living things and the earth in general. And perhaps more importantly, there are the basic stories of why we should or must follow these prescriptions. If the insanity of religions is removed, the sanities of belief and organizing designs have to be replaced.

There are billions of people who are so thoroughly trained in the societal madness of insane religions that reaching some critical mass of human numbers with belief systems based on a veridical relationship with Reality seems unattainable. But we must try with the clear understanding that most of humanity will go to their graves or cremations with the beliefs that they hold at this moment, with the understanding that that is how religion was evolved and adapted to work.

Whatever we do, it must not be only attempts to create competing insanities. Religion began as the way to act with accuracy in the natural world; it has now become one of the most distorting influences. The deepest understandings of science are now the only source for how to act with accuracy in the world, but we must correctly understand the functioning of religion and not make the mistake of dismissing the process of religion, another of our realities, as we try to free ourselves from our accumulated insanities.

There are no Gods. The physical events of the universe occur as a consequence of physical laws; the living process functions through the machinations of the Living System of Order and the information nexus of DNA/protein; humans operate in those spaces and with the Consciousness System of Order, a new information system that creates new probabilities for what can manifest in both physical objects and behaviors. Somehow a critical mass of humanity has to come to grips with these Realities. Adaptable belief systems must grow from them using the religious process so that much of the rest of humanity can effectively engage the real world that our species faces.

Religions seem to promise a meaning for life; it is often said that a sense of purpose can only derive from Christian (Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, etc,) faith. But any gathering of humans in activities of common purpose is purpose. Institutional religions allow, actively perpetuate, the illusion that the religion is supplying purpose and meaning when it is only the gathering of people devoted to an apparently common action.

A search for truth can look to the work of modern scientists and philosophers just as well as it can look to the writings of bronze age mystics – should be done in both ways. The unchallengeable belief can be in the primacy of scientific, historical and philosophical method rather than in the “mysterious ways” of an anthropomorphic creator.

Belief has always been an adaptive behavior. Religion’s requirement that belief be turned into absolute faith has been largely a political act to support political and economic power in the face of obvious evidence, evidence that without such “faith” would lead to adaptive change. The belief in hard and fast facts has always been dangerous in a changing world. Belief in a process that guides adaptive change in the most reality based directions possible seems a better choice.

We will always create religions from our belief systems. For most of our tenure on the earth the religious process functioned adaptively; it is only for the last brief few thousands of years that it has gone off track. We are now up against the terrible and dangerous consequences of our general failure to adapt successfully to our great powers, one of which is the power of religious process to guide behavior. It is going to take a general change of belief to avoid the most drastic form of those consequences.

One need only imagine the response to this essay in the little Baptist churches of my southern youth, much less in a Mosque, to realize the chances. Finding a receptive person would be less the issue than getting out alive.

[1] Crazy-making when the behaviors no longer comport with reality. When the stories of religion led to adaptive behaviors, religion was just another part of daily life. When the stories ceased to produce adaptive behaviors in the biophysical space something had to go and it was reality.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Simple, the Complex and the Devastating – The Devastating

There are questions that need answering. Not the ordinary questions that seem to be basic on the human list; like: Is there a God or Gods? Or are humans good or evil? These are silly and ultimately unworthy of us. There is no actual God in any sense that humans might mean and we are an animal almost like any other; as such not evil or good, just in an adaptive process relationship with the world around us.

And so, the first real question: In what ways, specifically and functionally, are we not like the other animals? There have been answers to this question for millennia, answers self-conscious and uncertain, answers designed to support, sustain and explain our Exceptionalism, but this is not enough and finally wrongheaded. We must use our most remarkable adaptations to see ourselves coldly and dispassionately; we must finally adapt to our adaptations.

Three thousand and more years ago, as people began to record their thoughts with a degree of permanence beyond the decay rate of the verbal tradition, one of the earliest questions was: “What is the right way to live?” The Book of the Dead, the Vedic texts, I Ching, Tao Te Ching, “Greek” philosophy were all primarily concerned with how to live correctly.

There is only one reason to devote effort to this question: there must have been reason to believe some people, perhaps all people, were not living correctly compared to some standard that was still acting on their minds. If there were only a few such people, then the issue would not have been how to live well, but how to bring the outliers into line. There must have been considerable doubt [1].

If large numbers of people, even most, are suspected of living in less than the most beneficial ways, the fault must lie either in the people themselves or in the conditions in which they are required to live. Parsimony would powerfully suggest the later, even though we have long assumed that our conditions of life are a standard given no matter what they are and that any faults must be in ourselves. Our religions have certainly argued that case in the most bizarre ways.

The very notion that one species of life is so special, and so sinful, that it must be dominated by an imaginary universal power is a perversion of the species in general and the function of religious process in particular.

A second selection of non-trivial questions are: What is the functional nature of the human adaptation? What is the origin of the human adaptation? How is the human adaptation functioning in our present relationship with the only planet, in our knowing, capable of supporting life? (The Consciousness System of Order (CSO) is discussed in many of the essays on this site – see the madness part 4)

As abstract and difficult as these kinds of questions are, they still create the foundation from which all the rest of our understandings are built. There are many things going on in the world that an aware person should know about – know that the events have occurred and that some processes are on going. This is not a matter of political philosophy or ideology; everyone (almost) would agree. However, what one concludes about the events and processes, now that is another matter.

There are US military forces in the far middle east, shooting at and killing people and being shot at and killed in turn: fact. There is crude oil from an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico pouring, unchecked, into the water at a rate of about 20,000, perhaps even 100,000, barrels a day: fact. Major financial corporations in the US and around the world have been allowed the power to create money wealth, without oversight from the governing entities that are supposed to have the popular and public interest in mind, with the consequence that the economic system has become dangerously unstable: fact. The city in which I live and its school district have budget shortfalls in the millions of dollars; people are losing jobs, services are being cut: fact. Yesterday, two blocks from my house a young man was killed in a gang shooting by 2 other young men; I heard the shoots as I stood at my kitchen sink rinsing a dish. They had called each other names!: fact.

The facts, global, national, regional and local can be put together into a very long list of things that a responsible person would know about, but the knowing is actually less than half the issue; we must also have an opinion. We must be in favor of this and not that. We must decide what we wish will continue, what we wish will change and how it will change. To do that we must have a theory of life, a metaphysics, a system of belief that not only has moral and community implications, but is also comports with Reality.

First as individuals and then as a species our underlying relationship with Reality must be both reestablished, humans have had such a connection in most of our existence, and established in new and unprecedented ways, our human adaptations have never really been ‘adapted’ to. If such a reordering is impossible we will continue on into the various horrors provided by futurists, and if it is possible, it will not come easy.

Biophysical Reality doesn’t offer second chances. There is only the present and the probabilities of the moment. Human individuals and communities have the capacity to adapt to the forces unambiguously before them. But we do not have the native ability to recognize Reality in the first place; such a skill was not required when our every moment was wrapped in the biophysical Reality. It is the simple and devastating fact that we must finally understand ourselves with the same principles of accuracy that are demanded of the Periodic Table of Elements or of the Laws of Motion.

This means that almost everything that almost everyone holds as their central values and beliefs must be recognized and realized to be untrue: this is what we will have to do to survive as the dominant species on this planet. We have come to be a major part of the biophysical process and as such the totality of our actions must comport with Reality, beginning with our understandings and beliefs. The model for our “progress” that depended on ‘defeating’ nature is over and, for that matter, never was more than an illusion.

[1] It is a deep mistake to assume, as we have for so long, that we are progressing “out of the darkness into the light.” What we are doing is adjusting to the great changes that our vast numbers and outsized technologies have mandated. There has been in that process some enlightenment to be sure, but not Enlightenment. There has been some comprehension, but not Understanding. The greatest changes have come from the loss of connection with the essential biophysical Reality upon which sane specieshood is based. The summary human condition today is people reasonably well adjusted to Madness; people swimming with some skill in a cesspool. And ultimately they know it; there is just no way out.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Simple, the Complex and the Devastating – The Complex

What are the beliefs and policies that are the major guiding and motivating forces today? Where do they reside in the society, and how are they given impetus? These are critical questions; and must be answered before sense can be made of and effective actions created for our present difficulties [1]. We are all too ready to assume that what we believe personally, and institutionally, is the right and only way; and that those who oppose us actually have the same understandings that we do, but are perverse in their beliefs, desires and doings.

This is, of course, nonsense; with the exception that almost everyone believes himself or herself correct and so we all really do believe the ‘same thing’. But getting past that little bit of sophistry, it is clear that groups of humans have whole and internally consistent organizational systems that are complete mysteries to other groups of humans.

When groups are not required by either time or space to have more than passing relationships, such differences can be seen for what they are, adaptations to ecological and social structures, often with long histories, and can be easily gotten around with mutual adaptations at the points of contact. But when the human groups are embedded within the same larger system, when they live side by side or in deep mutual dependency; social aspirations, prescriptions and prejudices need to be understood across the human divides. Today we all have come to live side by side and in deep mutual dependency – even if many don’t yet understand or believe it.

We are still living in an Us v. Them paradigm that prevents the ‘us’ from recognizing and understanding the beliefs and values of ‘them’; yet even worse, prevents ‘us’ from realizing our own beliefs and values as instrumental and not absolute. That paradigm, all too often, is part of the design of the mental shelving on which we store and from which we obtain our ideas and values; it dissolves in various concentrations into all of our thoughts and actions. It poisons those thoughts and actions as radiation poisons, unseen and unfelt, until the consequences become unavoidable.

The whole structure of our social, economic and political world is in flux, and has been for sometime, as the Us v. Them paradigm bubbles up increasingly in unprepared for ways; and, as already said, colors all the other forces driving the increasing disintegration of the human capacity to organize and function as a single species in the biosphere.

It should be remembered that what makes this especially devastating is not that Us v. Them is wrong – given the space and resources for true independence, Us and Them is a reasonable adaptation – but that there can be no ‘Them’ anymore without the exponential growth of power for domination. The only way around this is to convert Them to Us and Us to Them. For all the words spilled supporting such a goal, it is still at least one major worldwide tragedy away from serious consideration.

With this as a background condition, like strong and gusty winds, what are the other beliefs and values that are flapped around and whipped up to noisy fluttering in our present world? As with a hurricane, it is not so much the wind that is to be feared; it is the pieces of metal siding and tree limbs being blown by it that get you.

* * *

Whether master or slave, elite or wage slave, people, all people, are looking for guidance to bring order to their lives. Such guidance is not inherent in the body and mind, though both body and mind create some of the conditions of the need, but is supplied ultimately by the environmental order; that order can be of greater or lesser quality and coherence. The place to begin is to look at the variety into which humans are born and within which they grow up. The human entity is not, however, a blank slate, but more a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ slate; we still take our most basic guidance from our biology.

But people can only take on the sets of guiding behaviors and principles that are available to them: the extant social world of expectations and certainties is determining. This world is also always in the process of adapting to the changing forces within which it resides and, crucially, the changes made on Reality by its own actions [2].

This last has a long history in biological evolution – the organism evolves to function more efficiently in a given biophysical space and in the process modifies that space so that it, and every other organism in the system, must evolve adaptively to the changing conditions. Since every organism is evolving, the whole system is in slow symphonic adaptive change. Purely physical environmental change continually prods the system, but even when the physical environment is almost consistent for geologically long times, adaptive patterns of change move through the ecosystems like the interactive harmonies of bells ringing each other.

Today human communities – the active unit of our species – have become like a radioactive element; they periodically disintegrate from the random disorder of their designs. This greatly accelerates the process of change while not – complementarily – giving increased direction for adaptive process, i.e., adaptive patterns become increasingly random; but none-the-less must be taken as social reality and used as the guiding principles of individual and community life (and still require an internal consistency that gives the appearance of systematic order) [3].

So while labeling and listing our beliefs, values and understandings is useful, without first being clear that this is not an exercise is determining who is right and who is wrong such a list is not a benefit, but only a prelude to more conflict. We need to see ourselves with considerably more honesty than we are presently able to bring to our social reality.

But today, there is no reason to tell the truth if you don’t have to, especially if it weakens your position. People receiving information have no way to independently check on what is said and so ALL presentments can be contradicted or denied with impunity. When only the opinion of a majority or significant minority matters, and that opinion is a function of what people are told – and importantly, when told what they wish to believe – then truth is not what matters; being in control of the telling does matter.

We need a reason to have veridical relationships with each other and with the biophysical world. It seems that such veridicality only comes from immediacy; which leads to the next essay: The Devastating.

[1] I am not going to make a list, though will unavoidably hint at elements of the one I am forming. It is time that we all begin to do the metacognitive work of seeing our underlying structures.

[2] This opens whole cans of solipsism and nihilism, but finally is not especially dangerous on its own.

[3] The increasingly rapid changes in political parties and forces, the rise of gangs as social structure, the extreme separation of the elites from everyone else and hundreds of other similar processes are example.