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, May 3, 2011

The Real Reality

After Reality, the ‘real’ is not so much an absolute as it is where we decide to make a stand: thus the famous line about death and taxes.  Of course, taxes have become less of an issue for the very rich and the very poor (in a bit of a perversion of symmetry, a relatively fixed number are getting very much richer while an increasing number are getting poor at a relatively common level of subsistence – both have worked out, quite different, ways to pay as little in taxes as possible); death, however, remains clearly high on the list of unavoidable Realities.

Reality, the one with the capital R, can seem very far removed from our daily concerns: the relation of mass to gravity, the velocity-mass-energy relation, the behavior of various atmospheric gases and a host of other Realities guide all regular events, but it seems that we need give them scant attention – they seem to take care of themselves, until they don’t produce the desired result and then we squeal like little piglets.  Just as the proper functioning of our heart muscle is ignored until it begins to fail, that moment is almost always too late to do anything about.  And thus an attentive attitude would be warranted, if seldom given.

But there are so many realities, of the not capitalized sort, to take our attention.  Here is a generalized hierarchy: Big Reality; earth’s biophysical processes; species relationship to ecosystems; effective natural economic unit’s relationship with a specific habitat; relationship of individual organism to the natural economic unit.  An example or three will help.

A tiger is top predator in its ecosystem.  The individual adult tiger is the natural economic unit and so each individual must perform the full range of tigerly behaviors.  Adaptation/evolution functions through the simple success of individual tigers.  Tiger behavior is integrated into the ecosystem especially by limiting the numbers and improving the stock of its prey species, waste from kills and, to a much smaller extent, by its direct physical impact.  Tiger reality is made of the landscape, vegetation, direct sights and smells of other organisms all embedded seamlessly and without exception in biophysical and ultimate Reality.

The lion is top predator in its ecosystem, and so closely related to the tiger that a crossing will produce a liger or tigon.  The pride of lions is the natural economic unit and so various lion behaviors are parceled out among the pride members. Adaptation/evolution functions through the success of the pride unit based on the success of individual animals and their integrated contribution to pride success.  Lion behavior is integrated into the ecosystem by limiting the numbers of its prey species, waste from kills and, to some extent, by its direct physical impact.  Lion reality is made of landscape, vegetation, direct sights, smells of other organisms and the social/behavioral relations within the pride all embedded seamlessly and without exception in biophysical and ultimate Reality.

And now the example of real interest: The human is top predator in its ecosystem which has become the whole biosphere.  The community was the natural economic unit for most of human existence, but has become more and more distorted and is now made up of a great variety of combinations without a clear taxonomy or comprehensible order.  Adaptation and evolution have been almost completely separated as change phenomenon; biological evolution has ceased to function on historical principles since the sources and especially the time domain of adaptive pressure are new to biology; adaptation has been largely taken over by a new system of information ordering and is functioning outside of a presently comprehensible framework.  Human behavior is not integrated into its ecosystem(s), but actively modifies, in complex and various ways, all ecosystems that humans enter.  Human reality is made up of human power relations organized as social, political, economic and, anomalously, religious (this is, ironically, an instinctually based holdover form from primate community organization); also, the “landscape” (often anthropogenic), sights and sounds (can be largely media based).  Human reality is unavoidably embedded in biophysical and ultimate Reality, though not seamlessly and with large, duration limited, exceptions.  I’d say we are a mess.

What is real to us is so different from person to person, group to group, society to society, that there is no ‘us’ at all!  There is just so much… – without description or qualification – just so very very much that the experience of it all must, of necessity, be of disconnected bits and pieces stitched together to make a variety of disorderly wholes [1].  It is here that subordinate realities begin their insidious work; and we have made a fetish of the arbitrary differences.

We often hear that this thing or that thing is the reality to which we must attend: “The reality is that the media is lying to us.” “God and his revealed truth is the only reality that matters.” “It is a reality that universal healthcare would reduce total costs by 1/3 to 1/2 of present expenditures.” “Allahu Akbar.”  “Humans were, in reality, seeded on the earth when the mother planet from which we come was dying.  There, all the living things had consciousness; that is why we are the only conscious species on the earth.” “a2+b2=c2.”  “Sioban Magnus really shouldn’t have been eliminated from American Idol.”

I think that the reader would have varying reactions to these statements of “reality.”  But the position that you take on any one of them, or almost any other for that matter, would be more a matter of ‘taking a stand’ than a capturing of the certain truth.  It should be obvious that such a state of affairs cannot continue for very long in evolutionary time terms.

Of course, there is a terrible difficulty here if there is to be one Reality or at least a limited number of realities within which the human species must live – but be reminded that every other species of life in the nearly 4 billion year history of life on the earth, billions of species, have lived in Reality, have faced every moment of every day the force of gravity, the rain of solar radiation, the working of muscle and hormone: It is life’s bargain with the physical world.  Rationally expecting, even with our remarkable adaptations, that we would be the 100 billion to 1 exception is a bit much.  Believing it, on the other hand, is easy, even though quite mad.

Again of course, Reality doesn’t solve the problem, it only presents and finally enforces the solution.  My answer is, as with our plans for communicating with other “intelligent” life beyond the earth, to begin with and return to the most basic certainties.  If speaking in prime numbers and atomic properties is good enough for talking to other worldly aliens, then it should be good enough – at least in some version – for communicating with each other; we certainly are not doing such a good job right now with existing methods.

The theory behind sending messages in the most basic mathematics and science facts is founded in the assumption that life forms capable of receiving (or sending) such a message would be completely familiar with the information.  I am not suggesting that we humans begin communicating in geometry or plant physiology, but that there are very basic realities that majorities will understand and can respond to.  We are quite clear, and fully agree, that there are “realities’ about which we disagree.

Existing power structures make this problematic; small powerful minorities (by definition insane in the largest sense) could easily delay and misdirect honest majoritarian attempts to assemble a Reality based set of subordinate realities that could reintegrate human life into evolutionary time and biophysical essentials.  But no matter how it happens it will be messy, and it will have to come from the last reservoir of sanity in the human presence: the Great Many, those who still confront the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life with some regularity.  How they are led will also be key [2]: they can be led by those who attempt to energize, collect and organize the remaining species’ sanity or led by the insane power-mongers with whom we are all too familiar.

We may be seeing the stirrings of such a process of change with the popular resistance to elite control in the Middle East and in several places in the US (ignored as much as possible by corporate media).  But these are like the breathing, on its own, of an infant; not even close to the first steps of walking.  As long as the Great Many can be mired in hundreds of separate, competing and arbitrary realities, kept agitated and fearful of others who are just like them except for the cut of their clothing or the language that they speak, then humanity will serve other masters than Reality and its ultimate judgment. The tiger lives in Reality.  The lion lives in Reality.  Humans must also live in Reality; that is just the way it really has to be.

[1] Humans are just not that complicated, so if there is great complexity, then we need to discover its origin.

[2] In any system there must be a controlling design or agency; what or who that is makes all the difference.  Who is to control our social/economic condition; ourselves or someone else?  If it is to be someone else, then by what authority?  If the authority does not somehow arise from the people then no matter how seemingly benign, it is still despotic.

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