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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What We Are

There are two primary and quite different models for how to think about and organize human action.  We humans aren’t really determined by the models since we are what we are and will adapt to the models dominating our thinking so to remain as we are, but models can distort our relationships with the rest of life.  Ultimately we have to be integrated into the larger universe, that is, we have to fit into the narrow space that allows life to exist on the earth.  We have not been doing this so very well; the most basic reason being that our imagining of what we are does not comport with what we are, resulting in the distortions that we presently call real life. 

The first error is the error that every species makes by design – it acts as though it is supremely important.  This drive to live and procreate is an essential part of the evolutionary system – the Living System of Order.  There is nothing at all wrong with an organism acting as though it is exceptional, using all the powers of its adaptations to take the space, material and energy it needs, it is that action on the part of every individual, collective and species, all integrated together into ecosystems, that has created the biophysical space.  Without that drive there would be no life on the earth. 

The issue for humans is that our evolution has created a new adaptation unlike any other in the history of life.  It is an adaptation that restructures information, creates past and future and so out classes all other species in meeting those basic drives that there is no organism, no community of organisms and no ecosystem that can keep up or provide the integrating forces that moderate, and has moderated, every other living thing past and present.  We are a creature completely dependent on the integration of the earth’s ecosystems and uncontrollable within them.  This could be, as the perspicacious will realize, very bad news for everything; unless humans also have the capacity to self-regulate.  And so we come to our models of what we are. 

Setting aside the way religion has variously worked and failed as a governor on the human machine, much of our incentive structure derives from our beliefs about ourselves.  The two models: Are we individuals struggling in an uncompromising world succeeding and failing based on the quality of our effort and good luck (in which I include heredity, accidents of birth and accidents of opportunity)?  Or, are we communities of humans supported by common experience, training, infrastructure and the summary accumulations of detail and wisdom from the past? 

The evidence needed for the choice is in, long in.  But the evidence has not been enough and will never be enough in the world in which the drive to ‘have it all’ is supported by an evolutionary adaptation that can make having it all possible for one or two generations; when the due date for the delivery of consequences exceeds a life time, much of their sting is removed.  

The evidence is in: humans are a community-based organism.  Leaving for the moment that every organism is dependent on every other in a functioning ecosystem, it is possible to imagine a lone digger wasp or a lone leopard, but it is not possible to imagine a lone human.  Even feral humans, whether real or myth, were raised by wolfs or apes.  There is no human without tools, without language, without community, without history.  Even the human that denies community, denies association and even denies the need to recognize these forming influences, is utterly dependent on them for everything that they are and have.  Such denial is literally the same as being driven a hundred miles in a car and claiming that you ran the whole way on foot in an hour and twenty minutes, and so owe nothing to the driver or for the use of the car. 

Hayek was wrong.  Rand was wrong. That whole way of thinking is utter insanity.  It is an artist denying the paint, a sculptor denying the stone.  Individualism as presented by the aforementioned and others, Austrian School and Chicago School consequences, is little more that the infantilizing of the human experience.  Building on a theory of gravity that is false can only create structures that will fail. 

Adults are supposed to become aware of the importance and contributions of others; very young children do not realize when they cause pain.  They must learn by associating their experiences of discomfort with situations that cause discomfort in others – we call it empathy.  It is a property of adults, properly grown and socialized adults; the sort of people with the potential to defeat our tendency to try and “have it all” at the cost of the destruction of other humans and ecosystems. 

It is vital to recognize that a properly formed and functioning adult human being does not make harming other people a normal consequence of his/her actions – no matter what rationalizations are offered.  Fully formed humans harm others episodically in disputes over space and resources; with pride of action and remorse for harm done.  Life is hard.  But our distain for lying and cheating, for sneaking around ‘behind the back’ is real and comes from the adult recognition of the destructiveness of such behaviors to social order and stability.  We reject the mad dog as too dangerous to live with us.  Historically, we have banished those who refused to recognize their obligations to the communities in which they lived. 

Many of these expectations and behaviors have been badly distorted as our populations and our powers have grown, but they still reside, recognizable, within us.  We cringe at BP’s chairman’s “small people” remark.   We realize the humanity (even as some marvel and some disparage) of Sean Penn’s efforts in Haiti.  Most of us can still tell the difference.  But we are confused by the Tim Geithner’s of the world, the Hank Paulson’s and Bernie Madoff’s, the ‘Gordon Gekko’s’ that quite plainly steal from the community and smile, explain, demand and justify all at the same time. 

This breed of sociopathology, these intelligent infantilized actors while not new in the world, are dominating more and more the nodes of power.  The true adult human, the biologically complete human, is being displaced in power and authority by infantilized sociopaths.  And this process is supported, given intellectual basis and cover, by the model of individualism.  

A vast sophistry has formed around an economic model of ‘man’ as individual.  While it has its Godless adherents, they are usually quiet about their godlessness (and even disbelieved), religion is often engaged as a supporting structure; it is now a feature of our social landscape that ‘getting rich’ (at the expense of others, often with con-games) is “Godly” and proof of righteousness.  “God would only give wealth to the good,” is classic crazy. 

The aggrandizement of the individual leads to a variety of logical and practical contradictions.  Most obviously there is no origin for an individual outside of community and biology (and thus the need for a perversion of Christian theology in which individuals are made by God).  There is no place for an individual to act other than in a community with stability and opportunity.  And there are no measures of success outside of community standards (and nothing to lord over!).  Further, there is no comfortable material environment without the products of the ecosystem community and the human community.  While I could go on, these should be sufficient to jog the mind. 

We have been driven to this state of affairs by what we are, by our adaptations and our maximizing of their consequences.  It is now time to adapt to our adaptations – this is a constant theme of these essays, the first step of which is recognizing the specific need to do so.  We have the capacity, in the Consciousness System of Order, to discover informational systems to replace the ones gone destructive (religion, for example) and to create political and economic systems that can integrate with the natural “politics” and economics of the biosphere.  But we must select the correct models with which to think and act.

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