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.

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