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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reality and Illusion in Human Experience

We humans are very clever in our attempts to gain immediate goals – some of us can even play a move or three ahead.  This is easy if the main opposition has its hands full with Reality [1] and the schemers are only concerned with the detail of the moment.  A simple metaphor to illustrate: it is easy to stab the helmsman in the back especially when the seas are rough and the way uncertain; the helmsman’s attention is on larger issues than pilfering the cargo.  Of course, it would be foolish and ultimately disastrous, but when focused on immediate gain and encouraged by the ease of the stabbing, there have always been those who would do it.  

Moving away from the metaphor; we are in a time when great divisions are again forming, rich and poor, educated and illiterate and, vital to this time, those who have some sense of Reality and those who are obsessed with the many and varied illusions that the species has accumulated in the brief history of the consciousness adaptive device [2]

It seems that human attachment to Reality is a sort of random process in the present world; with the greatest social forces working toward illusion.  The Consciousness System of Order has no natural tools for recognizing or acting in the Real.  Unlike instinctual behaviors that are completely embedded in biophysical Reality, Consciousness Order generates behaviors out of the bits and pieces of experience strung together by the order that surrounds the moment, if that ‘order’ is accidental the result will not comport with any continuing Reality.  

When the surrounding world is consistent and Reality based, then the consequences of Consciousness Order processes are ultimately Reality-based regardless of the ‘oddness’ of some of the expressed details [3].  When the world of experience is itself almost entirely the actions of Consciousness Order processes and not seated in biophysical processes, then the content of experience becomes more and more random and illusory.  Most people grow up in that illusion, but some have enough of ordered experience formed of biophysical Reality that a kernel of the Real is planted in them.  It is difficult to define exactly what those conditions are, but they must have something to do with consistency, the natural world, loving, compassionate humans and the primate-based genetic ‘expectations’ being met in some threshold amounts. This list is not the typical experience of most humans.

Only Reality-based humans are in a position to be the prime movers – the helmsmen – of humanity toward ways of living that are integrated into the larger flows and structures of the living earth.  If that sounds a bit highfalutin’ to you, then you may have been compromised by the backstabbers: being integrated into the material and energy economies of the living earth is the first requirement of any living thing; the failure to do so is always a death sentence.  And in the case of humans, given our great powers, a death sentence for many other species as well should our large enterprise precipitously fail – we will not go gently. 

There is only one Reality: the biophysical Reality.  And the options for living sustainably in that Reality are quite delimited.  There are, on the other hand, many ways to organize the bits and pieces of experience strung together by chance: there are unlimited ways to believe and act when one’s ‘reality’ is supplied primarily by human societies grown distant from the consistencies of the physical and living world.  Add to this that even with biophysical Reality immediately at one’s door, humans are still animals of opportunity and immediate gain.  When channeled through community interests and supported by community integration into ecosystem realities, such talents were generally beneficial.  But denied the guidance of Reality, let to run wild, the ‘anything goes’ design of the Consciousness Order has created a great number of people who have no other option but to be devoid of Reality habits and narrowly self-interested. 

I don’t know if the 5 to 15 percent of people who have some serious Reality-based habit structure can sufficiently lead (or herd) the 85 to 95 percent of often powerfully energized ‘crazy’ people through the desert to come, I have serious doubts, but I do know that that is the only way [4].  It is also true that such Reality-based people are not currently a significant part of the world’s leaders at any level or location of leadership; a most troubling bit of reality to ponder [5]

The biophysical world is not the world of a compassionate or even vengeful God with the emotions of a person.  It is a world of action and reaction, of precise measurement and absolute thresholds.  It is utterly uncompromising.  Our societies have been moving toward the uncompromising treatment of humans while expecting that the physical world will somehow bend to our will.  This is exactly and tragically backward.  

Humans must live in communities that support individual lives with compassion, with community effort and effectiveness; these communities are then adaptively organized in the uncompromising biophysical world.  That is reality! The illusion is that the accident of great riches confers special powers and creates an artificial community that can and should be as uncompromising on the rest of humanity as physical reality is in actuality.  This is a recipe for disaster! 

Our powers to create what seem to be ways around physical realities have given us a distorted view of both the nature of the biophysical world and ourselves.  It is like taking a direct path by pulling back a branch that is in the way; it seems that we have, in a tiny way, defeated nature, but the branch snaps back.  The laws of physics are immutable, while we can put off certain of the immediate consequences of Newton’s laws of motion with the application of energy, we can only do so within the restrictions of the laws themselves; meaning that eventually the consequences will always occur. 

The failure to understand that we are subservient to nature’s processes has led to the foolishness that we can create our way out of every dilemma and need not, therefore, consider limits to either our actions or our powers.  We have only been pushing the branches out of our way, and they will snap back; a wise traveler considers this [6]

[1] I am using the word reality in basically two different senses.  When it is written, Reality, I am using it in the sense developed at length by Alfred North Whitehead: the way the universe is made and works quite beyond and independent of human understanding.  Reality in this sense is the controlling agency of all event and process.  Small case reality, sometimes as ‘reality’, is the dominant influence of the moment.  Such reality can be completely compelling, but ultimately these forces are of limited range and duration.  It is Reality that must eventually be comported with even as we deal with the immediate effects of reality; reality cannot be allowed to challenge Reality, that will fail. 

[2] Educated v illiterate is not the same as reality v illusion.  A person can be fully educated in the detail of illusion or connected to the Real by immediate experience and have little of the secondary experiences of education.  Or any other combination. 

[3] The strange antics of a tribal medicine man may seem foolish and illusory, but they are adapted to excite the powers of the patient to effect his or her own cure – one of the most powerful tools, ‘in Reality,’ that the healer has, and one of the few available before science began discovering nature’s rules. 

[4] I used “crazy” here in the sense that insanity is defined as the failure to act and believe in recognition of the restraints of Reality. 

[5] Realpolitik is not Reality, it is highly structured and tortured illusion; it is the application of uncompromising principles of domination and control of the human space as if it were run by the immutable laws of physics.  And so for the time of its powerful effect, it creates a doomed bubble of reality.  Realpolitik is an adaptation to illusion. 

[6] A brief aside: once (upon a time), many years ago, while mountaineering alone in the San Juan’s of southwestern Colorado I was injured and had to rather quickly get to help.  It took two days, 15 hours walking and an unplanned bit of near vertical unprotected descent on the first day, forced march (or stumbling shuffle if truth be told) on the second day to make up for getting lost the evening before.  As I was approaching the rail line where I could flag down the narrow gauge I walked under a branch and pushed my way through rather than lean over more.  The branch caught in the top of my pack and, snapping back, flipped me violently to the ground like a turtle on its back.  Getting up and walking again was a chore.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Property, The Language

Before the ideas of private property and ownership can be profitably discussed a nomenclatural issue must be addressed: ‘property’ is a word like the word ‘slave.’. One cannot discuss slavery with clarity using only the word slave for those in bondage; the word assumes a subservient position or worse, the inherent denial of fully human status.  If the argument is not allowed to ask, “Is it right to hold human beings against their desire in conditions defined only by the other human beings doing the holding? Is it right that those humans held in bondage be required to do whatever they are told with physical abuse and death as consequences?”, then how is the argument to be made?  To say that a slave is held in bondage is a tautology; to use the word slave in the above questions is an inherent acceptance of the condition.  Calling a human object a slave is very different than calling him or her an independent person. 

Consider for a moment how the status of ‘human being’ is changed by using the word and idea of slave.  The US Constitution defined slaves as 3/5ths of a person – a remarkable assertion on its face.  In the American south slaves were tallied along with the livestock and often thought of and treated similarly; it was the general assumption that slaves were inferior to full humans in most ways.  Male slaves were ‘boys’ or ‘bucks’ and never called or considered as men.  It has been generally true that slaves could have their lives taken from them at the whim of those who claimed to hold them in bondage.  Try substituting human being for slave in those statements. The word slave did not cause these relationships, but supported them [1]

Property is a similar word.  We seldom consider its implications or even to what it might refer.  It is not difficult today to see that a human being held in bondage may have options in behaviors and desires other than those of the master; most, today, realize that to deny those options and desires in another, purely for one’s own desires and benefit, is wrong.  But we don’t see that a piece of land may exist in ecological relationship with adjoining land, that the functional relationships of ecological cycles, nutrient movement, water purification, living relationships of hundreds, thousands, even millions of organisms are part and parcel of that land.  Much of what we call ‘property’ is its own thing, has its own existence and relationships with a functioning biosphere.  

It is not that these are obscure relationships.  They are easy to see and understand, but we have allowed language to cover them, and in our desires for ease and excess we rationalize them; just as slaveholders rationalized holding other fully human individuals in bondage to support their own desires for economic and social achievement.  

That slaves might be fully human and deserving of all human rights of self-determination was incomprehensible to all but a few white Americans in 1860.  That much of what we call and treat as property today should and must be left to its own functioning ecological relationships is just as incomprehensible to most of us.  And again the language makes seeing reality more difficult; we will never get to an appropriate understanding using present language and attendant comprehensions. 

Furthermore, once ‘property’ is established as an unquestioned concept, its ‘privatizing’ is an adaptive outcome, that is, if it is property, then it can be assigned to individual humans and be used in their exclusive interests.  Accepting and using these terms makes arguments opposing such views – and thus real understanding – impossible. 

Again as with slavery, an economic system has become seemingly utterly dependent on a conceptual framework that must be challenged; the language of property gives the continuation of the present framework great momentum and persuasive force.  I apologize in advance (and retrospectively) for some of the seemingly tortured reasonings as I try to construct an appropriate approach to language and conceptual frame out of the even more twisted but wholly absorbed reasonings that we take today for the natural order. 

First and foremost it needs to be realized that the way humans, as a species and as individuals, relate to the objects, processes and spaces of the world around us are adaptations, not finalities that we are in the process of perfecting.  All actions are related to the consequences that follow from them.  That we have come to see the objects and spaces around us as only extensions of our needs has dangerously narrowed and dimmed our vision of the world. 

If our powers to control and dominate the world were as limited as they are for other species, then the fullest demonstration of our power would be, as it is for all other species, completely overshadowed by the vastness, depth and completeness of ecological action [2].  But we are like 4 year-olds with fully automatic machine guns in a glass factory – it has been right to say that we require inhibitions on our behaviors; we need our superstitions, mores, rules, commandments, regulations, laws.  However, the way that we have come to these controls on our incredible powers has been haphazard, and hazard has been the result. 

We have not done such a bad job of designing ways of living that work for some groups and individuals – not such a good job either considering the poverty and suffering in the world – but for larger concentrations of power in institutions like religions, governments and corporations, the limitations and restrictions are almost nonexistent.  To a very large extent this fact has driven and been driven by the very narrow and simplistic view that humans have come to take of the objects, processes and spaces of this world. 

We have created the conception that we can do anything that we think of and wish to any object or place, that only other humans and their wishes need to be considered, and that this is often a power relation; opportunity and action goes to who can bully or fight with the greatest effectiveness.  Objects and spaces that are within our region of power are said to be controlled by us, that we can do with them as we will.  The relationships of objects and spaces to other functioning systems have typically been ignored as irrelevant since the responses of those systems to our actions have been so slow compared to our almost instantaneous speeds; that these systems respond glacially, in both meanings, slowly and overwhelmingly, is only beginning to influence the public mind too long accustom to religious interpretations of the consequences of our actions on the environment. 

The relationship that we call property is really a very narrow interpretation of the objects and spaces so claimed, the idea that an ‘owner’, in the Blackstone sense, can have more than a vanishingly small understanding of the full expression of the object or space is absurd. Yet, without any real understanding of a thing that is called property, the owner claims the right of total domination and the exclusion of all other influences; picks out some characteristics important to the present human condition and uses that characteristic without regard to the consequences to the object or place as a whole. 

Humans, as do all other organisms, need things. They can, with various behaviors and devices, control certain limited aspects of some things.  They can make many things happen with and to much of the world.  What they cannot do is know enough or be powerful enough to be, for more than a short time (evolutionary or ecological time) and with unsteady hand, in control of the world.  Our control up to now has been the control of a home invader, the illusion of control based on an apparent asymmetry of power.  Property is both a consequence of and contributor to that illusion. 

Of course, we must use the world, its objects and places, there are some who use that simple reality to justify our present language and action [3], but there is no inherent reason that we cannot use the world as does the rest of life, the billions of species over billions of years.  Since it is our use of objects and spaces that is ultimately the issue, then it is a use-based understanding that we require. 

While other species also use environmental offerings in selective and narrow ways, their adaptive response systems, based on the genetic consequences of their reproductive success, are responsive to an infinitely broad range of environmental changes.  Biophysical processes in their finest detail – including things about which even today we know nothing – mold and adjust the physiology and behavior of all living things, from bacteria to blue whales.  Such is the nature and function of Living Order evolutionary processes.  Our Consciousness Order adaptive processes are orders of magnitude faster than the evolutionary/geological time frame, allowing us the illusion that we can, and even have, overcome nature.  This illusion is the central source of our difficulties. 

The kind of order that the human species needs and wishes to live in should be the driving motive for how we relate to the world around us rather than having how we live decided by habits of language that force us into narrow conceptions and options of understanding [4].  We need to stop talking about ‘property’; replace that easy and illusory concept with use-based language: not ‘the field is my property’ – that tells us nothing – but rather, ‘I am planting the field with vegetables and some clover.’  

The politics and economics of exclusive property rights need to adjust to the reality of use.  But first, less illusory language and ways of thinking about the use and assignments of space and objects need to begin to invade the public mind.  Without such changes the cycle of ‘concentration of exclusive privilege, then revolutions resetting the egalitarian clock and back to concentration again’ will continue until the world’s ecosystems so tire of our antics that evolutionary process prevails in our serious humbling. 

I have great concern for the suffering that humans would have to endure in such a humbling, but am even more deeply concerned that the damage we are capable of doing to the earth’s living surface as our systems of support fail can only be vaguely imagined, that our most dire projections will fall short of the true devastation of the living order. 

(The other essays in this series: The meaning of Property;   On Property, A Prologue;  Property, The Biology;  Property, The Religion) 

[1] Huck Finn could not accept Jim as a human being until he began to see him as having his own existence and not colored only with the concept of property.  In the same way we must see the full functioning and independent existence of objects, organisms and lands. 

[2] Ecological action is fully embedded in and informed by the Physical and the Living Systems of Order.  If a change in neutrino flux were to shift an environmental stability, that shift would resonate through ecosystems.  If a gene mutation modifies a protein that changes the metabolic efficiency of an organism by 1%, the whole system adjusts to accommodate. 

[3] Butler Shaffer argues that territoriality and resource protection is the biological basis for private property rights.  While I agree with him that there are emotional and behavioral connections spaces and objects, the leap from needing and creating a region of use to total domination of property is a leap into illusion and madness.   

[4] This falls into the ‘easier said than done’ category.  Learning how to live effectively in the world is not even a present goal.   But there are forces gathered and gathering against the eventuality of such a goal since it would involve an honest appraisal of taboo subjects like social justice, inequities of wealth, power and opportunity, nation based murder and many others. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Walking and Writing at the Same Time:

Delay of Property Essay 

I find that I write the way I walk.  There is a place that I walk in: a great high desert landscape, over 100 square miles of juniper and cactus.  A single gravel dirt road loops through it. A number of car tracks, 2 parallel dirt ruts, run off in various directions and animal trails wander between the places that, for their own reasons, they choose to go.  But all around are vast spaces, like the trackless ocean, that are the place itself.  Only there in the cactus meadows, rocky outcrops, dry washes and cliff faces is the place itself. 

When I first walked there, many years ago, I followed the roads, car tracks and animal trails, but quickly began to venture out into the in-between spaces – soon realizing the arbitrary irrelevance of the established paths, established ways; that there was no understanding, or appreciation, of the place from the roads. 

When walking in the great everywhere I could go anywhere, the roads and tracks were but arbitrary crossings, more about human uses than the place itself.  By wandering across the trackless everywhere I began to know and understand; and also began to understand the roads and tracks as well.  I won’t trouble you with marvelous finds and experiences from beyond the dust-eating loop road, but they are now the place for me, not the clumsy repetitions of the same path through a changing world. 

Many times I would be lost and yet was less lost in the vast spaces than someone on the road who knew where they are going – I may not have known where I was, but I could find my way to everywhere.  The people on the road knew exactly where they were, but could find their way to almost nowhere. 

I have been writing about property and ownership; beginning on the main roads of Locke, Hume and Marx, and then to the 2 rut tracks of Mises, Butler Shaffer, Richard Wilkinson and others.  While walking in the vast spaces in the high desert wildlands I realized that just like understanding this landscape, I was beginning to wander into the untracked spaces of my studies, that there was much more to be experienced and discovered than could be seen from the roads.

I had hoped to have the next essay in the property series posted by now, but it will be a bit longer.  There are some vast spaces to wander in yet before it makes sense to return to the main and possibly arbitrary roads.