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

Friday, January 14, 2011

A New Way of Understanding Our Situation

We humans1 are lost in the great movement that was started by us, but that we lost control of almost instantly – another meaning of the word lost. (Lost has 4 related meanings: 1) ceased to retain, 2) unable to find (our way, an object), 3) fail to win, 4) reduction in amount of money.  I point this out because of the importance of all 4 meanings in the present.) 

We are lost in the great movement; we have lost our way.  We don’t know where we are or how to appropriately act.  The events of the world have multiplied in both number and power, driven by the summation of the mostly small individual actions of millions and billions of people; the summations are incomprehensible, and yet they form the great movement of human life and action in the living space. 

It is possible to gather together some picture of the moment, the way a person lost in the wilderness can see quite plainly the adjacent hills and woodlands without knowing which way to go.  We have been living in such a localized picture of our world and have lost the sense of being lost, even as we moving on internal guidance only, with powerful consequences, through an unperceived larger Reality. 

The situation: The earth has a limited productive capacity, limited by its available physical space, the fertility of soils, the distribution of water and other resources and the energy flux of the sun.  This productive capacity has periodically been reduced briefly by catastrophic events: volcanism and extraterrestrial assault (meteors and comets). And the productive capacity has, slightly and very very briefly, been raised by human discovery and action (fossil fuels, radioactivity and increased capture of solar energy).  But ultimately the capacities of the earth are fixed by its size, composition and location.

The distribution of the products of that capacity has been, for billions of years, controlled by evolutionary process; a process poorly understood by most people, even poorly understood by well-educated people.  It is primarily the action of a phenotype (a grown body) on the immediate world, the success or failure of that phenotype to gather sufficient material and energy to remain reproductively alive and the adaptive changes forced on the genotype (genetic information) by the survival of particular phenotypes. But this simple description leaves out the wholistic nature of this process.  Every salient event or process is recorded in these actions; nothing can go unrealized or unrecognized.  While the simple statement sounds in the English formulation to be a competitive process, it is only competitive at certain points were that is the functional option.  The total effect is a cooperative design of monumental structure: nothing is more cooperative in form than an ecosystem. 

The incentive structure of evolution, the essential design of individual organisms, communities and ecosystems, and thus life itself, is to get the greatest effect from the least possible material and energy.  Two organisms in approximately the same niche compete for a variety of environmental qualities and quantities; if one is 1% more efficient in the conversion of energy into activity, the two organisms don’t have to interact directly in obvious competition for the more efficient one to replace the other over evolutionary time.  

They are competing to use less, not more. They are competing to have less of an impact on the environment, not more.  The more an organism impacts the environment, the greater the cost to the organism, the more it must both respond and adapt.  This is fundamental to the Living System of Order, to evolutionary process.  Every organism on the earth lives in this paradigm.  Every organism with the exception of post hunter-gatherer humans. 

With Homo sapiens (I have renamed the species for my own pleasure Homo aminus meaning ‘fidgety man’ rather than ‘wise’ man) has come an entirely new way of handling information that I call the Consciousness System of Order (CSO).  This new system of order is distinguished from the Physical System of Order (PSO) and the Living System of Order (LSO).  A system of order selects, stores and implements information.  Storing is the central process.  In the PSO storage is the matter/energy itself, physical law is the base form of information that informs every interaction in the universe.  The LSO is a special case that under very particular conditions of stability stores information in specialized molecular systems and implements structures that while not impossible in the PSO would never exist in the universe without the mediation of a specialized information management system.  Here on the earth the DNA/protein nexus is the information storage system and determines the manner of information collection and implementation through the process that has come to be called evolution. 

The CSO is new to the universe.  Like the LSO its information handling designs are very different from the systems of order that underlie it, yet are still key to its functioning (I might say, ‘to it’s understanding,’ but it is the CSO that is doing the understanding; paradoxes and ironies abound).  The information nexus of the LSO is quite concrete, though complex.  The CSO’s information nexus is amorphous and self-created.  It has taken the forms of verbal tradition in poem, song and story; it has been written and drawn on skin, stone, wood, cloth and paper; stored mechanically, magnetically and optically, all with the final function to be a dominating influence on the brain of a single species; to be one of the two controlling influences on the behavior of humans. 

The methods of storage powerfully influence the selection of information to be stored as well as the implementation of the information as it expresses in human action and belief.  Marshall McLuhan was attempting to explain this with his cryptic “The medium is the message.” 

It is essential to step back from what we think we know and understand.  Realize that the CSO is new way of doing business in the universe; what is so normal and ordinary in our everyday experience is the most powerful design of information management yet to form.  And it is out of control. Worse, we are on the brink of trying to release it from the little bit of control that it still has because it is functioning in a biological system moved by other powerful influences and develop it in purely electronic and optical systems without even the limited inhibitions of the LSO, but that concern for another time. 

Try not to think of Consciousness Order as awareness; it is much bigger than that.  Awareness is like an organ in the whole system.  It has a function in the overall process, but is not the process, and it is the process of the CSO that we disparately need to understand (using the tools of the CSO!). 

It began as an adaptive advantage for the human species. A primary function of the CSO is imagination – the bringing together of experiences from different times and locations, out of context, into new relationships that would never happen in typical LSO instrumental learning systems.  The imaginings could be tested against the realities of the ecosystem and changes in behavior made in minutes within an individual, then transferred to others in space and time by storing the new experience in a language based device, Story. 

Adaptive changes that would require generations in the LSO could be made in months, days, even minutes with the CSO.  This allowed whole human communities to adapt to the most obscure details of an ecosystem ten, a hundred, a thousand times, faster than another species. 

Originally the CSO functioned to adapt human communities to the subtleties of complex ecosystems.  Stories (verbal tradition) were the information nexus.  Experience that could not be recorded in Story was either lost or was captured in newly forming elements of story like metaphor.  Implementation presented another problem: in the LSO behavioral implementation was accomplished with genetically fixed neural designs that we call instinct and with hormones to drive the action.  The CSO adaptively attached to these processes through story by exciting the emotions already part of the Living Order. 

The primary and essential information source, for many thousands of years, was environmental detail with the social detail of the community as a fully integrated component.  The CSO served admirably as adaptive device.  But this was just the beginning.  Before very long the behaviors guided by and motivated by the CSO became part of the ambient conditions responded to by the CSO – just like the LSO integrates the physical and the living components of ecosystems.  But there was a vital and essential difference. 

LSO adaptations had to function through the rigidities of the DNA/protein nexus and the “less is more” paradigm briefly mentioned above.  This has led to the cooperative behaviors characteristic of ecosystems.  Inhibition is a powerful part of every biological system from the negative feedbacks that control physiological processes to the instincts that protect infant organisms from adults and well armed adults from seriously harming each other when they argue over territory and sexual rights. 

The CSO burst onto the scene so fast and with such a new design that it has no inhibitory pattern build in.  For many thousands of years the natural integration of CSO and LSO served the inhibitory function: since community behavior had to be integrated into the environment, the stories generated by the CSO were often inhibitions on the powers of the community to dominate an environment in which was stored all of the communities needs and which needed to ‘left alone’ to replenish what was taken. 

However, as human communities began to store more of their needs (as imaginings of new possibilities were implemented), the adaptive process of the CSO responded more to the social, economic and political designs of the experiences, creating Stories intended to guide, spread and maintain effective behaviors in space and time.  In other words, the Stories became less environmentally based; the CSO began to reference its own previous creations in greater and greater percentage compared to the constant and organizing biophysical reality.  There was no part of its nature that allowed for or even recognized the difference – but there was a difference and the LSO’s contribution to the human condition did begin to notice. 

I will continue this with the next essay. 

[1] “We humans?” There is little question that monumental differences exist between and among people these days.  An acquaintance studies the structure of protons using the most exotic and expensive machines on the face of the earth. I know a kid who robbed houses and can barely read.  I once associated, in a menial capacity, with people who had black Amex cards, came and went in private jets.  And while I have never seen poverty as deep as it gets, the structures called houses and the struggle for basic sustenance in parts of the American south where I grew up were at least evocative. 

“We” is a stretch! But ‘we’ all begin the same and, truth be told, are ultimately the same in biology and psychology: identical in birth, identical in death and only different in the middle by the machinations of the great movement – the great artifice – and the madness that ‘we’ have accepted to live in.

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