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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The True Nature of Property and Ownership

There is the general presumption that places, objects, processes and even ideas can and should be “owned.”  Two important omissions occur in this presumption: one is that what it means to own something is clear when it is not and, two, that the very nature of what is meant by ownership is changed when something is assigned to different forms of social organization, from individual, to small group, to institution, to the society as a whole.  And, of course, the most basic presumption itself may be false.

Ownership implies that something is held in a protected condition, i.e., the thing is “protected” from association or use by a selected group of, or even ‘all’, others.  Another implication is that permission is not required, or selectively required, to use the thing owned.  Private ownership, private property, is an extreme form of this in which it is presumed that there is the right of forceful protection and absolute control of the thing owned; that no permission is required for ANY use by the owner.  Private ownership presumes isolation of the thing owned from the system of influences within which both the owner and the thing owned reside.

The polar opposite of private property or private ownership is not public ownership, but is non-ownership.  Ownership, in this view, is clearly an artifice.  It comes first in the form of territory ‘claimed’ and protected chemically by simple living things, moves through various stages in which all organisms evolve a variety of devices to protect physical space and resources from selected others, while at the same time evolving various devices to defeat the protective devices of others.

In this process no organism can act as though either it or that which it protects exists in isolation from surrounding influences; quite the opposite, all of its adaptations are in response to those influences.  In a very real sense the adaptive protection and use of space and resources by living things is not ownership of territory and resource by the organism as much as it is a form of permission being obtained, by adaptive response, from biophysical reality. 

The arrival of living things on the earth established a new relationship with space and ‘resources’, actually created the category of resource, but ultimately created only a quasi-form of ownership as relationship; living things remain the ‘property’ of the living system rather than the other way round.

The Consciousness System of Order (CSO), when structured by biophysical reality, adapted to the Living System, comprehended it and functioned within its influences with ease and great efficiency.  When the information organizing capacity of the Consciousness Order initiated the ‘escape’ of the CSO from the immediate influences of biophysical reality, the CSO became self-referencing, was only marginally limited by reality and so created many ‘realities’ that it was no longer able to distinguish among.  Groups and individuals clung to various forms of these ‘realities’ as one would cling to bits of floating debris from a shipwreck – and they fight to hold to them with the tenacity of a drowning man.

One of these ‘realities’ was a perversion of ownership and property.  In the long forming and present iteration of private property, property is not supposed to have a place in the flows and patterns of influence.  “Mine is mine and has nothing to do with yours.”  Since this has come to be so deeply believed, it makes the actually functioning of much of the world around us appear incomprehensible.  And it makes the most insane arguments appear rational.

“Since mine is mine and yours is yours, then I can do anything I want with mine and it should not matter to you – if it does, then something is wrong with you.”  This is, of course, crazy.  My use of space and material, my waste, my wealth, my actions, even my simple existence influences you, and you influence me.  Rejecting or denying the vast ecology of influences sets the stage for misunderstanding and inappropriate action on a grand scale; we call it modern life.

So, what is the best way to organize the use and distribution of space, objects, processes and ideas?  It is important to understand, no matter what the answer to this question, that we cannot get there from here.  We are so deeply committed to ‘realities’ in diametric opposition to biophysical reality that there is no way to release those ‘realities’ and move to another without terrible consequences to some important and powerful constituency in modern life.  And furthermore, we have no reliable way to decide among the ‘realities’ being offered and are drawn therefore to selecting action on the basis of perceived immediate benefit within the limited system of our present beliefs.  Quite a mess we’re in!  Be that as it may, it is still a worthy exercise to plot an escape from the dilemma.  Like in a cartoon, perhaps drawing a doorway will work to find a way out.

“All property is theft.” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon)  “Everything should be assigned, by capitalism/private property processes, ownership relations.”  These two extremes represent how it is possible to imagine the absurd when there is no clear biophysical basis to guide our comprehension.  Living organisms require a certain amount of space and ecological productive capacity to sustain.  This means that they require that all other organisms be successful at sustaining ecological productive capacity; a necessary function of stable ecosystems.  A clear implication of these facts is that there are “property” relations in the living order that humans might use to give some understanding and limit to our own imaginings about property and ownership.

For a transitional time we could keep much of our ways of thinking – with modest changes – if we changed our most basic illusion: As a general belief, humans, especially the technologically powerful, think of the earth, its spaces and resources, as “belonging” to humans.  Reversing this to the more reality based understanding that humans, just like all else, “belong” to the earth would be an important beginning. 

We are certainly the product of the earth in every sense: the stuff that makes us, the evolutionary process and history that formed us as possibility and actuality, the biophysical stability of the biosphere that allows and sustains us and the ecological systems that can, even if we deny them at this moment, give order and genuine purpose to our lives.

The more we learn about our origins, our historical process and our biology, the more it is obvious that notions of our superiority and difference are relics of early attempts to make sense of our incredible adaptive powers.  Physically we are incomprehensibly integrated into the biological.  The human cells of our bodies, while making up the majority of the mass, are outnumbered by bacteria and other organisms that are essential for our functioning.  Our cells are a scaffolding upon which hundreds of species and trillions of other cells live and work.  The oxygen we breathe comes from plants.  The water we drink is distributed, cleaned and stored by living and earth processes.  The soil from which plants grow is made by complex biophysical processes and in amounts that we could never replicate.  All the earth’s cycles and systems conspire to maintain temperature, atmospheric and water chemistry, energy flux, protective envelope from harmful solar radiation and a dozen other conditions.

As long as people think of the earth, its space, products and processes, as things to be owned, i.e., to be held exclusively or limited to selected individuals and groups, or even whole societies, the incentives for domination and acquisition will prevail to drive people toward ways of living that ignore and deny the biophysical reality within which we ultimately must live. 

It is at least a beginning to realize that the concepts and functions of property and ownership, as we currently use them, are dangerous and artificial structures.  Even with out clear alternatives such an understanding will make possible the recognition of options as they appear in our thinking, support those who recognize intuitively the madness of these ideas and give courage for the experimentation needed to find the right spot on the wall to draw our door.


ronfromdownunder said...


I'm wondering if the original/early use of "morality/morals" was an instictive human method to make sense of our role and give us direction in the existense/eco-system?

Maybe we are "gods" in that we can by a qwirk of biology impirically understand the processes (however imperfectly currently) but theoretically, but could know in due course it all and come to understanding?

James Keye said...


As I understand your thought, Ron, I explain it this way: Primate pattern instinct sets the broad parameters of human behavior – so deep as to be generally “self evident” like the immediate sense of relationship that structures a room of people. But human capacity for rapid change is so great that, while humans still lived in direct association with biophysical Reality, limiting behaviors adapted along with environment controlling behaviors. These took the form of community enforced stories – creation stories, morality plays and in general the social prescriptions that organized the community internally and adapted it to the environment. To give the stories sufficient power to spread, last and be important the primary actions were attached to environmentally based power ‘spirits’ as well as the creation stories – that eventually became Gods. This all happened adaptively, not with a guiding intention.

This process is bound up with the process of understanding, but doesn’t require it; understanding is just one of the options for the consciousness process. It is mainly about selecting, storing, sorting, reorganizing and implementing information. I make a clear distinction between the evolution of instinct as a Living order process with its own rules and structures and adaptation in the Consciousness Order processes with very different rules and structures.

Consciousness Order processes can disconnect from being environmentally formed (Living Order process cannot) and can become self-referenced; they can form themselves, therefore come to exist without reference to Reality. Morality becomes God given. Adaptation is to something like 20th generation stories that have lost all relationship with the community/environmental adaptations of their origin; and we adaptively respond with rationality and laws.

In other words, Ron, I think that I have said more or less what you said, that you are right about this very tricky bit of who and where we humans are.