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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dowd on Palin

Maureen Dowd, in a NYTimes OpEd,  decries the raising of ignorance as laudable, reflecting the present crop of political ignoramuses in Marilyn Monroe’s mirror; Ms. Dowd, uncharacteristically, almost completely misses the salient issue.  Palin, et al, may be ignorant and dismissive of the set of learnings and experiences that Dowd finds important for societies leaders, but Palin and her acolytes have requirements for what to know about, what to believe and how to act that are just as demanding as Dowd’s expectations of familiarity with intellectual classics or established constitutional intention and letter. 

The standards for the Palinestas, since they don’t have a standardized history, are more intuitive – more like the Mean Girl Chic; you know them when you see them.  But, you really do; know them when you see them.  It is in the style of making fun of the expectations of another, expectations that you do not share.  It is in the form of the diminishing attitude toward things that don’t seem important to you personally. 

These behavioral affectations are what are being approved and copied.  It is these affectations that are the source of momentary power over people who come to contest ideas only to find that they have joined a pillow fight with the occasional brick slipped in. 

If the people who do not know and have not read the Bill of Rights were a solid voting block, it would win every election.  If added to those were people who have read the Bill of Rights and perhaps the whole constitution (all ‘one’ page of it), but who don’t remember it in detail – and who don’t understand that almost all of those who claim to know it reread, every time, the sections that they are going to discuss so as to be sure and to reaffirm their understanding – if we add these people, then would be included almost every person except for the most ardent constitutional scholars. 

Anti-intellectualism is the natural product of the use of complexity of ideas to confuse and control people.  But this cannot be simply about not knowing or refusing to know; it must also be about challenging intellectual knowledge with other systems of process and experience – challenging not on playing fields familiar and comfortable to the intellectual experience, rather the creation of fields of play that weaken the power of ‘knowing the answers’ and enhance the power of a particular physical and emotional style. 

Palin is pure style: the bouncy step, the sexually healthy look, the beauty queen intonations, and the cheerleader expression of ideas.  She has the moves of a great wide receiver.  And she understands these things with a depth complementary to Stephan Breyer's understanding of the constitution.  She is not trying to bring people to an understanding of law, economics, political process; she is going to the people’s understanding of being on a winning or losing team, of the far more common experience of high school sports – she even wears the present version of a cheerleader outfit. 

If she wants more than the job of head cheerleader, she is taking a real gamble;  Cheerleaders are not let to play quarterback.  Of course, national politics is not high school football, but it is for Palin and her supporters.  I don’t say this to diminish her or them; the high school sports experience has a much wider and deeper resonance for most Americans than constitutional law and must be considered as part of the political process.  Its rules can be complex and nuanced, and not everyone can bring them under full and competent control. 

If the full variety of the human condition is added to this mix (for example: xenophobia, social dominance drives, sexuality, general fearfulness of the unknown, the limited range of interest to the more or less immediate in time and space), then the power of playing to all these human aspects becomes more clear; and clearly more dangerous.  

Rather than claiming the superiority of intellectual elitism, the argument can be made that people truly need to know about the forces that influence and control their lives.  But, the education required to be even minimally competent in biology, electronics, psychology, economics, history, political science and practical politics, chemistry, physics, math, literature – on and on – is so time consuming and demanding of societal intention that it is not going to happen; and it certainly, even if moved toward, will not happen quickly. 

That people need to know about these things, at least to a level of self-protection in a world that creates all of its “pointy sticks” from them, seems obvious.  And yet it is our nature to leave much needful responsibility and action to others.  In much of the past the process of selection of leaders has been marginally satisfactory; an up and down process to be sure, but perhaps tending more up than down.  Some great thinkers have thought so anyway.  Looking at today’s world, I suspect that selective forces were at work in the past that have dissipated in the present time of peak population, peak energy, peak economic development and peak biodiversity. 

Unless or until people, in general, take on the challenges of learning enough to be effective and powerful forces in their own lives, then the Palins of the world will have, using their own form of elite skills, a ready audience to cheerlead for.  And I would not be happy in a world run by elite cheerleading; it would be too much like high school.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Property, The Religion

In the beginning, the river was for getting water, for washing, for fishing.  The land was for living on, walking on, for hunting on, to contain the workings of life.  The plants were for all the various things that plants and their products were used for; for food, for materials, for shade, for hiding behind, for the simple pleasure in their presence. Animals like-wise: definers of place and habit, food, materials, partners in the living experience. Each thing had its own existence: the stars, sun and moon; the sky, the earth and all the rest. It had always been this way. 

Today we know that it had been this way forever; that is, forever beginning with the earth’s assembly from space dust 4.6 billion years ago and the geologically ‘immediate’ formation of ‘living’ chemistry as the nearly unique liquid water physical stability of the earth’s surface began to manifest out of the freeze of space and the nuclear fire of stars. 

The living manifestation evolved its billions of slightly different forms of expression.  And eventually one of them was capable of perceiving and storing in an evolved biological structure, a brain, vast amounts of detail from its environment and its own experience. 

Then something happened.  The human capacity to adapt, using the mechanisms of the newly evolved Consciousness System of Order, generated a new design to both carry the information of experience across space and time, and including devices to fit and moderate human action in the environments in which the communities lived, superceding the Living System of Order processes.  This new design, that I call Story [1] became formalized, and like the DNA of the living order, stored the community’s information, incorporated changes and supplied new generations with the information for orderly relationship and action. 

For the stories to have power, they needed to contain a source of power and so was created the ‘special story people’ who could be seen as ‘giving’ the information.  Those entities were said to possess special wisdom and other special capacities, omnipotence and omniscience, powers of creation; all in the service of Story, to make Story more influential and more protected from the vicissitudes of daily randomness.  

One of the consequences (among many) was the magnification and modification of the idea of obligation into a new form of the idea of ownership.  In the form of syllogism: the storied creators of our world have special control of what they have created.  They created not only the world, but us as well, and have therefore control of us.  We have an obligation to the creators for our existence.  The world, and all that is in it, is therefore the product and property of the creators and we owe them obedience as an obligation for living in this world. 

In this construction people’s actions in the world around them are not greatly changed, they still use the needed space and resources, but a new idea is forming: that more than the simple production of one “man’s hand” can be his or hers and exclusive to him or her.  The world and all that is in it is the product of the creating entity’s hand and all of it is exclusive to that entity.  Once such a idea forms it is no great distance to selected humans acting as the agents for the creating entity and claiming “power of attorney” for the Storied Creator.  It is from such humble beginnings that we have molded the complexities of religions… and of our ideas of property. 

Religion has been an important part of both the idea of property and ownership and the processes of change of that idea.  The next essay will look more closely at the functional form that the idea of property has taken in recent times; in this one I am primarily concerned with setting the stage from which Enlightenment notions of property arose. 

Recorded history is to a large extent a working out of the details of how the supernatural “owners” of the world pass aspects of that control to humans – it is the story of the intermediaries: Pharaohs, temple priests, God-kings, oracles, all manner of royalty and their relationship to the sovereignty of the personal body and space.  More cynically, it is the story of how segments of societies and individuals have used (and some would add here, misused) the beliefs that both motivate and adhere to the adaptive behaviors of a changing humanity. 

Two traditions have, since the origin of religion as a supernaturally driven rather than an environmentally driven institution, been in conflict: (1) everything is owned absolutely by a creator that can parcel out rights and privileges or (2) nothing is owned in an absolute sense, all uses are mutual obligations for the maintenance of the system integrity.  

For a hundred thousand years these two ways of relating to the world were one and the same in a simple balance of both action and idea: the world is one creation, we are of it and must give as good as we get.  But as some human communities grew in size, material wealth and complexity, property relations became more difficult.  Religious views and God’s spokespeople were a ready solution.  And we have largely been under the influence of the institutional religious model ever since: God is the absolute owner of the universe and has given the surface of the earth to humans to do with as they will.  Therefore humans have absolute dominion.  And, by the way, God takes care of all the gears and motors so we need only deal with what we want to deal with – those things that make some of us more powerful in relation to others for example 

Property, and our conceptions of it, is both a driver and consequence – chicken and egg – in this process.  John Locke (1632 – 1704) was one of God’s (unofficial) spokespeople, with a difference.  Locke was embedded in the Royal tradition of ownership and so spoke of privatizing property, not from the public commons, but from the universal dominion of the King.  The commons for a European in the mid seventeenth century were royal lands held by religious authority.  This was tradition for almost all of recorded history. 

King John and the Barons worked out, in 1215, a deal that they too should have some authority of dominion and in an enlightened gesture included English citizens in the bargain.  Though, in large measure, property continued to be thought of in the same way.  Blackstone’s statement of the meaning of property in 1760s clearly shows that [2]

Ultimately, in the religious model, there is no authority for the holding and use of property other than force.  I will argue later on in this series for another model, but for now it is the notion of absolute dominion broken into smaller tradable pieces that is the basis for how we view and act with property. 

Locke sought after the ways that property might be assigned its portion of God-given dominion with such devices as priority, use and need.  And the business of law has followed the pattern ever since.  Capitalism is based on this notion of absolute dominion. 

In a typical adaptive twist, today Locke’s argument for private property and its needful separation from the (Kingly) commons has been turned into a rejection of the public commons.  This is, no more or less, than the attempt to restore the Kingly commons under the title of private property.  This is a natural consequence of maintaining the notion of absolute dominion. 

The other model, that nothing can be absolutely owned, that there is only forms of relationship with mutual obligations, has had a continuing presence in minor philosophies, small human communities and as a Zombie in capitalist horror movies.  But for now it is still the old absolutist model fueling our rush toward the ecological crossroads. 

[1] Dawkins and Blackmore call them ‘meme’, but I am wary of the attempt to follow the analogy of gene so closely and fearful of the directions that such thought might be led.  So I, for my own thinking, have chosen an ambiguous term that I must reconsider every time I think or write it. 

[2] Property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”  John Locke’s view interpreted by William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 – 1769)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Property, The Biology

The ideas of property and ownership seem so completely obvious that at first blush there seems to be nothing much to consider: ‘This is mine, that is yours and that is pretty much the end of it.  Sure, there might be a dispute about a particular thing, but it is still a dispute about who the thing belongs to, not the nature of ownership itself.’ 

Much of, especially, the western world has come to believe that all manner of things can be and should be owned by individuals; many people, often those who own very little, become genuinely frightened by the idea that private ownership may not be absolute.  And there are those who are benefited by periodically tickling that fear. 

The idea of property and ownership is a fundamental way of relating to the world around us forming the most basic designs of our worldview.  From a purely intellectual position it can be realized that such views have histories, are only the present state of our ideas and will be replaced in the future with other ideas.  Such a recognition can be uncomfortable, but is necessary. 

First, what are the origins of our present notions? What is the idea of property and ownership anyway? Human behavior is an incredibly complex amalgam of the Primate Pattern of instincts and behavioral propensities and the products of the Consciousness Order processes – often in conflict [1]. This is where we must begin. 

Every organism must protect the space in which it lives and which provides its essential needs.  The many designs of such protections are fascinating in their own right from secretions put into the soil by plants that inhibit the growth of other plants to the evolution of the male lion as the very essence of territorial and community domination.  These designs also establish the basic functional conception of property: the organism has the use of the space and resources that it can protect, either passively like a tall tree collecting sunlight before it can get to the shorter plants or actively like chimps guarding their frontier from the intrusions of a neighboring clan. 

Humans bring with them the Primate Pattern of behaviors and the instinctual designs, now acting as behavioral propensities, evolved over the millions of years of our history.  We are no tabula rasa.  While many of us have come to prefer thinking that humans are independent of the rest of life, we are really another phenotypic expression of 30,000 or so genes evolved for certain ecosystem relations.  The failure to consider these basics will result in wrong conclusions every time; like trying to tune a piano while ignoring (or denying) the harmonic relationships of the strings. 

What humans bring to the equation is an outsized capacity to protect space and resources.  In addition, humans have adapted their communities to many environments changing not only the relationships between individuals, but the size of communities, the ways of acquiring essential needs and the adaptive designs of their belief systems that record and pass successful behaviors on from generation to generation. 

A result has been that the idea of property has been through many iterations, many different adaptive forms, that function to relate community behavior to the ecosystems in which we have lived.  Of course, each community culture has held its view to be natural and correct, and even sometimes seeing other conceptions of which they become aware as incomprehensible, silly, subversive, even evil. 

When communities were the primary source of order and power, property was primarily communal.  As technology gave individuals greater capacities, and property could be protected by individuals, more aspects of property could be privately held.  But this simplifies too much. 

I have read a number of economists touting the private property behavior of “primitive peoples” as though this proved the correctness of their post-Lockean conception of property while not understanding another dimension of property as relationship.  Just to mention it here with further consideration later: private property can be thought of as a relationship and as such we should realize that relationships can be of varying qualities; some are abusive, some are fructifying, some are distant, some are expansive and inclusive, some are narrow and rejecting.  That a piece of property (real or personal) can be identified with an individual tells almost nothing about the social habit with which it is held. 

As humans expanded their capacity to protect space and resource sites, both as communities and as individuals, they produced behaviors that organized how these community properties were to be used.  In today’s conceptual structure we call these behaviors religion or primitive religions or pantheistic religions. 

The original role of what we (confusedly) call religion today was to serve as a device mediated by the Consciousness System of Order to adapt community behavior to the environment, to select, store and pass on effective community actions.  Obviously a very important part of these belief systems were the community, family and individual relationships to the land space and resources of the land space. 

Since there were many different environments lived in and many different relationships adaptively designed, the concept of property has, over time, taken many different forms – all “correct” for their occasion.  However, when humans discovered agriculture, and population and power exploded, new forces began to drive concepts of property; faster and always in ways that expanded human capacity, but not always in ways that maintained sustaining human adaptations to the ecosystem.  The consequence has been that humans took on the concept of overcoming what were now seen as restraints of the environment rather than as information about how to sustain and use its natural beneficence. 

In this new world, property took on a decidedly different form eventually becoming in the West: 

Property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”   John Locke’s view interpreted by William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 – 1769) 

How this happened and what it means for us today is vital for us to understand to take on challenges to our very survival.  How we think about property is pivotal.

[1] The Consciousness System of Order is an essential concept.  Discussions of this idea are sprinkled throughout these essays.  It is considered more fully in The Madness – Part Four