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.

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