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, December 28, 2010

Driving Through a Foreign Country

I have just come back from what turned out to be a foreign country.  All my major traveling recently has been by motorcycle – pretty Spartan stuff, camping at night, no radio, TV or media beyond a handheld communication device – but this Christmas I drove by car to Arkansas from New Mexico and back: an 800 mile one-day affair one way.  I sort of knew that the nation’s midlands were home to a tribe of nominal Americans calling themselves conservatives and I decided to see if I could find and observe their native dances and songs as I drove through their region. 
Turning on the car radio I soon discovered that whenever the static cleared and the language was English (I can understand a bit of Spanish, but the intensity of concentration distracts from driving) various shaman of the tribe I was seeking were right there singing and dancing their little hearts out. 

In fact, there was nothing else to be heard (other than the closely related Jesus shows, the occasional sports show and the aforementioned Spanish music stations).  I scrolled through stations from Albuquerque, Clovis, Tucumcari, Amarillo, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Denver, Fort Smith, Nashville, Cincinnati, Cheyenne, St. Louis and other places that were not identified during the time that their signals sounded through with some clarity on the moving target of my car radio. 

I was shocked, shocked I tell you that there was gambling going on at Rick’s place…  But I was really shocked.  I had not heard conservative talk radio for more than snippets since the mid 90s when I had listened to the Limbaugh for an hour or so 3 times a week on the only station I could get as I drove to town.  The meanness level had gone skyscraper along with uninformed and uninforming, angry, frightened and hostile; and most of all it was speaking its own language: death panels, freedom and liberty, president Urkel.  Angry, confused callers were led by the shaman to speak the language, to ring out the truth.  

One caller debunked what she saw as the global warming fraud by pointing out that she had heard on Fox News that an earth sized astronaut (sic) had hit Jupiter and lowered the temperature of the whole world 2 degrees.  The shaman-host thought this quite reasonable, figuratively patting her approvingly on the head. (No, I haven’t a clue either how the pieces got strung together.) 

Another caller, an IT guy, misguidedly thinking that the discussion of net neutrality might be improved with facts, was led repeatedly back to “ but it’s all about human freedom and personal liberty; now isn’t that true?” after being told that he was putting the audience to sleep by suggesting that the major concern was that media companies could be paid to decide what content would get priority.  I could hear the incredulity and confusion in his voice as the shaman-host rejected his informing detail. 

After many hours of listening I think that I can summarize what I heard thusly: blah blah blah, free market! Blah blah blah, freedom and liberty.  Blah blah blah, president Urkel.  The callers fell mostly into two categories: those who knew the rules and called to chant the cheers along with the cheerleader-shaman and those who were genuinely frightened and confused by the evil liberals who ‘are trying to destroy America and take away our liberty.’ 

This summary, however, does nothing to improve our understanding and so I set about to try to make some sense not depending on an assumption that conservatives are stupid and evil – though I did find myself, embarrassingly, yelling at the voice coming from the radio in just that vein. Here is some of that effort:

It is the oldest of human philosophical concerns: how to know what is true, what is real.  Clearly, knowing what is real is more effective in guiding action than ideas that are false – that is, at least it seems so on the face of it.  But the problem is deeper than that.  For example, ghost and spirits are not real, but a belief in them can be an effective way of guiding the behaviors of a village, adapting community behaviors to the Realities of a complex environment vastly beyond the detailed understanding of anyone and everyone. 

Living things have to ‘act on the future’ to be successful; and the summed transactions with the environment have to be “right.”  There is a right and a wrong measured by survival, and it is obviously important to be more right than wrong. But there is no prior knowledge to measure by; there are only consequences.  And it is from these consequences that the Living Order, in the form of instincts, and the Consciousness Order, in the form of story, designs behaviors that function as anticipations of events and their outcomes.  Thus the importance of stability: it is only from the constancy of previous events and the ways that they and their outcomes have been perceived and stored that subsequent behaviors form.  

Unstable conditions result in behaviors adapted to previous events being the only behaviors available to respond to new events.  When things go badly, that is, our behaviors in response to new events being less than effective, it is the habit of an organism, like us, that evolved within geological/evolutionary rates of change, to dig-in and stay with what we know, habits that have worked in the past; this is the most effective strategy in a stable world.  This doesn’t mean that humans don’t change; they do and can change very quickly.  It means that the way they change is by trying not to change; by clinging to an established habit: its failings are made clear and new behaviors are forced forward.  This process is messy, seemingly wasteful and all that is possible.  
And we can think up new behaviors, speculate on their outcomes and try them out with awareness.  It is just that not every person in the community needs to have these skills in identical amounts to be successful, in fact, the method works best when some people are the repositories of established habit and some are the creators of new behaviors, all functioning together in synergy. 

The result is two primary life stances: absolute certainty anchoring one end of the continuum and unaddressable skepticism at the other.  For the rest, imagine a normal bell shaped distribution of these qualities with most people functioning in the middle, neither rigidly certain or unremittingly questioning of everything.  But as one approaches one end, attitudes harden toward total confidence in the positions held and, going the other direction, all statements are modified by degrees of probability. 

This design was effective in human communities for many tens of thousands of years and is apparently codified into our biology, but has become less and less effective, finally becoming a problem in its own right as people are not arranged in broadly heterogeneous communities, but are more and more likely to gather into like minded groups that gather power to themselves by holding fast to only half of the process that previously was integrated with its “opposite number” as a means of arriving at the most propitious outcomes. 

The ‘certainty’ continuum is different from the knowledge—ignorance continuum, though the two are often confused.  Looking out from deep inside the total certainty camp gives the impression that those who don’t agree with you are ignorant since you are “absolutely right,” and ‘they’ think otherwise.  Similarly, looking at those who hold ideas as completely true or false, the failure to recognize degrees of truth is seen as ignorance from the probability point of view. 

Clearly some people tend toward one habit or the other, and some dramatically so, but the two approaches are not symmetrical or equally appropriate.  In human history confronting the uncertainties of existence beneficially combined these habits into a process that led most reliably to community actions that were successful, that is, allowed life to go on.
Certainty arises from a different set of processes than assignment of probability.  When conditions are constant the processes that generate certainty result in useful guides for action.  The hard-won intuitions can combine with varieties of influences, recognized and unrecognized, refining community behavior to exceptional accuracy.  But when conditions are changing quickly the details of response to events become just as quickly inappropriate.  With relatively constant conditions certainty is supplemented by research and skepticism, which is often viewed with some distain.  ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix’ it is the base principle. 

Certainty arises from unanalyzed accumulations of experience mixed with all the coincidental events that, by whatever chance, have come to be attached.  This is fine and even best when the surrounding conditions are stable; relationships of the greatest subtlety can eventually be adapted into the behavioral repertoire.  Real relationships have the time to become intuitive and the greatest complexities can be unraveled without an aware knowledge of their actual detail.  This is how instinct evolves in the Living Order: it is a form of certainty embedded in the genes. 

But in human societies there is great advantage in the novel, in the new untried action – and great danger.  In a community, some people can be allowed to explore different ways of doing things without endangering either themselves or the community if other groups of people implore that most things are done according ‘to the rules.’  Societies fail when either changes are driven faster than the people can meaningfully adapt to them within their biological natures or when narrow ad hoc practices are taken to be ‘God’s truth’ and inviolable. 

People who have no final answers, who look first to collecting information and who, by their natures, never come to absolute conclusions, are always moving toward the truth, though never reaching it, these people are less easy to understand in general.  But it is from their efforts that we know almost all of the detail about our world.  Certainty does not discover, there is no need when the answers are already known! 

The human world has become more and more unstable over the last several thousand years as a result of human agency: our discovery activities, technology and increasing numbers have increased the rate of change year in and year out.  These changes have also changed the synergy between the advocates of certainty and the avatars of discovery. 
While not being absolutely divided along these lines, conservatism is primarily populated with those who champion certainty and liberalism contains many who appreciate and practice novelty and discovery.  The added spice (or if you like, poison) in this soup is power and the designs functioning on this model to attain and sustain it.
Power is best served by certainty and challenged and frightened by novelty and questioning (though power also covets novelty so long as it can co-opt it).  A result is that ‘the conservative movement’, really a conspiracy to control as many people as possible, sees its audience as stupid and uninformed.  And it attempts to maintain their ignorance, guiding it in ways useful to the elites of the movement (who are not necessarily conservatives at all).  This allows the movement to say and do anything that will gain the short and mid-term objectives.  The “truth” is in the goal of power and wealth; what the masses are told in order to achieve that truth matters only in its result. 
The so-called liberal movement also sees the masses as stupid and uninformed, but rather than seeing this as an opportunity to manipulate, it is seen as a need to educate.  The elite-driven conservative movement says, “You are smart if you believe as I tell you.”  The liberal movement says, “You are ignorant and must learn this seemingly difficult thing.” 

I see no way out of this dilemma in the present functioning of the world.


Michael Dawson said...

It's a shame we really don't have a "liberal" movement. We could sure use one.

James Keye said...

A problem is that, as many have pointed out, liberalism is inherently disorganized. Devotion to novelty and discovery doesn't bring the order and uniformity of idea needed by a movement. Certainty is movement.

Certainty was reliable as a behavioral basis, but no longer. The habits and ideas delivered by certainty are deadly for the future.