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, January 16, 2011

A New Way of Understanding Our Situation, Part two

Continued from “A New Way of Understanding Our Situation” 

After many years of thinking about and writing about this way of understanding experience, the three systems of order that I postulate in the first part of this essay as the primary order giving principles in our world seem to me not only acceptable, but essential for making sense of where we are, where we are going and, when it is different, where we need to be going. I realize that someone coming on these ideas afresh may not be so confident of their efficacy or importance.  I would like to explain my confidence in them. 

Experience comes to us from a wide variety of sources; cacophony is a good metaphor.  It is deep in the human process to create order from these perceptions.  There must be corollaries to this deep process: one is that organizing perceptions into patterns and operating principles allows for organized responses; another is that the process, as it formed in humans, has been largely veridical.  The question that begins to agitate under the covers of the obvious is: how is the world organized so that these conditions can be met? 

First, it is obvious that the physical world is a system of order.  The ordering principles are the laws that relate one matter/energy form/process to another, whether these are the hard and fast deterministic laws of Newtonian physics, the statistical world of Quantum mechanics or the more “real life” combination of the two conceptual forms seen in chemistry.  Flowing from these ordering principles are probabilities of occurrence: given certain sets of initial conditions some outcomes have very high probabilities and some have very low probabilities; most physical processes are either almost 1 or almost 0.  The physical world is a world of certainties and near certainties. 

But functioning on this physical world is another system of order with very different qualities.  It can only come into existence by meeting the conditions of the Physical System of Order, but when it does, it is its own thing within the prescribed domain. It is the Living System of Order (LSO) and it is not just a special form of the physical system though it is dependent on and must function in the physical system’s consistencies. 

What is the probability in the PSO of an elephant?  If we apply all the laws of physics and chemistry, we would have to conclude that it is vanishingly small.  If we look for elephants in the universe, realizing the conditions required for their existence, we would have to conclude that again the probability is vanishingly small; in the total volume of the universe there are effectively no elephants at all!  Even if we were to calculate the probability for the surface of the earth producing an elephant if every condition were as it is now except that life did not exist, then the probability is still vanishingly small.  But, when life exists in a place the probability of producing nearly infinite varieties of life forms becomes 1.  What is the key understanding? 

Life is a system of order.  It is a design that puts matter and energy into specific patterns by using the laws of the PSO.  The center piece of a system of order is a process of storing the information of and for its functioning.  Life is a process of change in the organizing principles for matter/energy; its central information process has to represent change as well as consistency.  It must respond to events, select what is to be stored as change and it must have methods to implement the information that it contains.  This is a fundamentally different set of processes compared to the PSO.  It functions by its own rules so long as sufficient stability is delivered by the surrounding physical conditions. 

The key to recognizing a full-fledged system of order is that it creates its own probability structure.  In the physical order conservation of momentum has a high probability, as does the response of hydrogen clouds to gamma radiation.  Stars are a certain occurrence is the PSO; a mouse has a probability approaching zero.  In a place where the living order has formed, billions of living things are expected and expected to change over the time that the physical conditions allow the living order to function: “mice” are a certainty. 

What about pottery?  What about rope?  What about toothpaste and space shuttles?  What is the probability of a horse drawn wagon in the LSO?  The millions and millions of objects littering the earth, that have an almost zero probability of occurrence from the PSO and the LSO, strongly suggest that there is an other system of order creating a new probability structure for existence.  I am calling it the Consciousness System of Order (CSO). 

I came to this notion in my attempts to understand consciousness.  Such an attempt is a bit like the stresses created by constipation… until the idea invades the consciousness that just as understanding life has come with our understanding the functioning of the parts seen as a whole, so something similar might work with consciousness.  Then it hit me; it is its own system of order, a new system of order that uses information in totally new ways. 

Of course, there is nothing new in the details; everything that we have to deal with is still the same.  Again, just as life has been being lived for billions of years without a theory of it, having a theory of consciousness doesn’t have to change things.  But, also like the increasing understanding of life, options for good and evil are generated; though in the case of consciousness, we must begin to have a better understanding of ourselves and our processes if we are going to get out of the present and growing dilemmas with our skins. 

The CSO requires its own book or books, but the argument here gives enough to suggest that such a way of seeing the human adaptation could be important, I think essential.  A major conclusion is that the CSO is a new, forming way of organizing information.  Like any new adaptation in the early stages there is no telling if it will be successful or how it will change and develop.  We, who are of it and in it, just know that, as of now, its unfettered manifestation, for all of its wonders, has led us to the brink of the collapse of the human cultural, political and economic systems precipitated by ecological perturbation and potential collapse. 

Just as life ‘rides’ on the physical order, it may well be that the consciousness order ‘rides’ on the living order in an analogous way, though there are humans hell-bent-for-leather pushing to see if it could also be manifest in the PSO.  Just as we need to slow down and take stock of what we doing on the mundane level of just being vast in numbers and consumption of planetary resources, we should also begin to be a bit careful about attempting to manifest CSO qualities in machines – science fiction has long made that prescient suggestion. 

But, it is understanding how the Consciousness Order arose, how its functioning has changed, how it is functioning now and especially the dangers associated with this adaptation that we need in this time.  Don’t get me wrong.  We are all experts in the CSO and many have a pretty good idea what is needed, but as with all things psychological and sociological it is the counter intuitive that tricks us.  Having a working model, even if inadequate, focuses the understanding in ways that gives a better chance of discovering error. 

For the moment it is enough to say that the CSO has become a loose cannon, a powerful adaptation no longer attached to Reality, but remains the tool that humans must use to act in the world. The whole system of order, the design gives pattern and meaning to our experiences, has become self-referencing rather than being limited or guided by any consistent source of reality-based information. 

We tend to have the idea that conscious awareness is a guiding principle, that somehow logic and reason are superior, transcendent qualities.  Our attempts at understanding have so very often sought to discover how a “consciousness” might be the source of order and guidance – and there we stop, satisfied that we have solved the problem: the universe, created by the God consciousness; intelligent design; the discovery of motive in a crime; the ‘reason’ that something went right or went wrong.  

Such a way of thinking will always turn back on itself and, like a snake swallowing its own tail, be self-destructive.  It is very difficult to grasp, but the consciousness order is just as unguided by ‘consciousness’ as the ordered structure of an atom or the physical processes that have sculpted the surface of the earth.  The clear implication of the CSO model is that it is an evolved adaptation with all the limitations inherent in other systems.  The CSO is a very special way of doing life’s business, not a way of avoiding or superceding the biophysical Realities of the PSO and the LSO 

The CSO cannot input the information of reality through its own agency, but must be acted on by Reality and so must be embedded in Reality.  This is a great error that we are making and have been for some considerable time: the idea that what seems real to us is reality.   

The CSO is an incredibly powerful tool that forms experiences into patterns of action; imagines possibilities and then seeks to manifest the imaginings; stores its summations of experience as stories, spreading them in space and time to be used as new experiences from which new patterns and imaginings are formed; creates past and future, mapping the ‘world’ in time and space. And yet the capacity that is claimed as its highest calling, a critical facility, it has not at all.  The consciousness order is as completely at the mercy of the simple dictum, “garbage in, garbage out” as the simplest computer. 

When the experiences that form our patterns of belief and action come only from our previous beliefs and actions, when the Realities rising out of the PSO and the LSO are avoided by failing to include them in experience, then the produced patterns and actions of the CSO processes are absolutely certain to fail. 

Reality is that the earth is a summary of innumerable coincidences creating conditions of stability upon which life formed and now rides.  The variations of life have had sufficient opportunity to produce an adaptation manifesting the most minutely possible principles of a new system of order riding on (or in if you like) a single species.  The magnificence of this occurrence is beyond beyond.  The functioning of this adaptation is problematic given the nature of its origin, and now it is a toss up as to whether the carrier species will discover how to manage such a powerful adaptation before its more dangerous expressions destabilize the conditions that allow it to exist.


Michael Dawson said...

FWIW, you are my MLK Day exemplar for 2011:


James Keye said...

Thank you, Michael. I am so used to these ideas not being appreciated and understood that responses like yours are both surprising and valued.