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, July 5, 2011


(This is the compelling scene before the title credits run): Maintaining motion against friction (resistance) is a real problem.  There has to be the consistent application of a force, either the most basic like gravity and magnetism or the localization of motion based forces in an energy consuming motor.  These things are easily understood in the physical world, but not so clear – though just as necessary – in the world of behavior: a lump of protoplasm must have a “motor” attached to move, whether it is an ameba or a man.

And since movement implies change of location, the efficacy of movement is greatly enhanced if consequent new locations are not purely random; there also needs to be a steering wheel.  Just as in a car, the motor and the steering wheel can be quite separate. We can rev up the engine without having our hands on the wheel; conversely, we can steer like crazy without the motor running.  While these things are generally true for all things, including the living ones, humans, as they often do, create a different set of issues because they ‘think’ about things, and how things are thought about influence both the motor and the steering wheel.  To finish off the metaphor: you are driving to the store to get a box of Depends for your grandmother, but you are thinking about being 2 cars back in the last 3 laps of the Indy 500; you see?

How Are We Supposed To Think About Things?

A hell of a lot differently than we do, for sure. For damn sure! 

There are a lot of things to think about and just about all of them could use some attention: politics, religion, economics, science, work, debt, family, friends, enemies, food, status, life, death… even the best way of thinking about things!

This is not a new question.  It seems that it should have been thoroughly sorted out in the last 3000 years or so, yet still haunts us.  This is mostly because there are almost always some of us who don’t like the answers delivered by a well-considered opinion; taking an obvious and pressing example: human impact on the places where we live. 

If you look at a photo, taken 40 years ago, of the foothills near where I live, you will see tree covered hills resting comfortably at the base of 12 and 13 thousand foot mountains.  That same scene today shows the foothills covered with a mix of mansions and high density housing, many thousands of units, supported by the requisite roads, shopping areas, water systems and other services.  There can be no question of impact; there has been impact.

Not only have the hills themselves had trees removed and been dug into for roads, building foundations and utilities, the ecosystems have been destroyed, water use pushed well over replenishment rates and, more subtly, thousands of people have gathered in places that require intensive and constant support by armies of people, near and distant, in order to live there.  This is what happens when population doubles, impact doubles, at the very least.  But it is really more like the relation of distance to intensity, but in reverse: when the use doubles, the impact often increases by an exponent, perhaps by factors of 4 or 6 or 8 or 100.

Now, what is the correct way to think about these changes?  There are three times to think about things: before, during and after.  If you think about it, they are quite different.

Before: there are all those ‘empty’ hills with only coyotes, rats and mice, rabbits and such playing among the little round trees; what would be the harm of a house or two?  And there is money to be made.  During: there is a lot of dust created by a lot of machinery, tons and tons of building materials, thousands of jobs from wheelbarrow driver to contractor to realtor to city planner, and excitement, economic excitement.  After: the hills are alive with the sound of… thousands of humans, the visual and auditory cacophony of spreading human impact.

We, who live here, no longer look at the hills as we travel across town, rather we strain our eyes higher up toward the more distant mountains, and even then notice the crawling lines of the human hyphae working into their nearer edges.  The river that once had water in it is dry; only its dry channel snakes through the city.  Now, what do you think about that?

All those people, they have a right to buy up the land; they have the right to build houses.  They have a right to change the landscape, to fence the road, to use up the water, to remove the habitat of animals and plants.  At least I think they do.  Who would say otherwise? 

That question is actually easy; after the land has been dug up, the building is done and the jobs and economic excitement gone away, then we can think that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, maybe something has been lost that we would have rather not lost.  ‘We’ would rather still have the hills and the coyotes, rats, mice and trees.

But not many of us think this way for very long.  Most begin to look for more hills to build on; higher hills, farther hills.  We return to the ‘before’ thinking and the ‘during’ thinking.  And we keep doing this until only the ‘after’ thinking is left.

Progress first, regret later.  Progress first because we no longer can think of another way.  Regret when the beauty and vitality are gone and regret is all that is left to feel.

Suppose it was in the nature of our thought that no amount of wealth could buy the foothills; that ‘we’ just said no:  No, I will not sell my children; no, you may not build on the land that is collectively ours.  No, you may not use water to the point that the river runs dry.  No, you can’t gate the road and fence the path; it is unthinkable.  What if our collective future pleasure and comfort in the landscape was considered a greater wealth than the possessions of the moment?  Unthinkable!

But, actually not unthinkable.  Anything can be thought, though not everything can be real.  And there is the dilemma: we can think, and do, much that is not real.  We can think, and we can believe what we think.  And we can believe that because we can think a thing that it is reality; we can make it reality by doing the thing we think, even if it is foolish, dangerous, or annihilating of the very conditions that allow life to exist in the first place.

It is that just now we are thinking that individual personal, quite arbitrary, wealth is a claim on the material world.  About 2 or 3 billion people seem to believe this, and because they do, it is real; they act on the belief making it real.  But this way of thinking is not in our bones, not in our genes, there are other ways to think and to believe. 

All that is required is for people to think and then to believe something else; I imagine that John Lennon wrote a song about this.  Of course, it is more difficult than it sounds since so much of the order that sustains us is based on what we presently believe, even though it is the greatest foolishness, but it is also far easier than impossible since we only need to believe that it is possible for it to be possible.  This is not New Age bullshit; it is exactly just such belief that founds our present cultural, political and economic reality.

Here are some things rethought.  It may seem that some of these thoughts are impossibly idealistic, impractical, deeply wrong or otherwise foolish.  I only suggest that our present beliefs, and actions based on these present beliefs, are leading us into the sixth great extinction event in the last 640 million years (and our species has only been in existence for about 200 thousand years!), are condemning 3 billion people to lives more depressed and diminished than any Paleolithic human and separating almost all of the remaining 4 billion of us from the biology that resides in each and everyone ready to create and fulfill the purposeful life – I think this too high a price to pay.

•Almost all property is to be collective as ecosystem (land, water, atmosphere, minerals, plants and animals), not private to individual humans, human created entities or the human species.  Use must depend on natural systems of compensation, not artificial thought-constructed ideas of ‘ownership.’

•Religion is to be a shorthand for correct (meaning adaptive) behavior in biophysical reality.  Gods were created in our thinking to give power and permanence to these adaptive, environmentally derived beliefs.  Buddhism gets along just fine without the God idea.

•The spiritual and the religious are as different as the living thing and a statue of a living thing.  Spirit is about feeling a relationship to the movement of the universe.  Religion is a set of social rules for living within a local set of environmental designs.

•Politics and economics need to be local in form and based in democratic systems and exchanges of substance. Wealth is to be despised as one of the most destructive forces in human possibility.  Some will always seek the power (infantilized need for self-gratification) of wealth; this needs to be recognized and gently treated as an emotional illness.

•The most respected and honored human attainments are to be actions that support and sustain the community and the well being of its members.  It is a simple and obvious realization that living as a human being in a community of human beings is the most basic, essential and praiseworthy act of life.

•Age is a measure of how long one has lived, not a measure of having lived well.  The quest for great age vs. a great life is one of our most depressing behaviors.  A lively dieing after having lived well should be sought as a fitting end rather than the lingering and destructive dieing that we endure today.

•Human progress is to be recognized as changes that improve the wellbeing of humans as members of the human species, changes that adapt our numbers, technologies, science and philosophies to our biology rather than attempting to diminish and control our biology as a dangerous force.  It is insanity to see “progress’ as actions that damage the cycles and systems that sustain life.

•Our goal should be to use as little of the earth’s material and energy as possible for the greatest gain in enjoyment of personal and community life.

•Human life must be more difficult to create, require more effort to sustain and be less difficult to enjoy.

So, what do you think?


Justin said...

I've been thinking along the same lines and writing it up myself. Much of what you say rings true to me, but I am already on the same page as you. However, here is the thing that may be significant, or offer some hope.

I am statistically one of the least probable people on the planet of agreeing with you. I am born and raised American, taught by my father to buy into orthodox ideas of progress, he lived and breathed construction as his profession. Although he despised the cookie cutter approach and steady decline in material quality, he still believed in the overall projects of endless construction and home 'ownership.' I am a white male, who went on to get a 'good' education, and have spent my professional life with my ass on a cushion, in a temperature controlled climate, pecking away at a computer.

Nonetheless, I see it as you do, and am reordering my life to act according to this. One thing you said rings with truth, and that is how we have come to define progress as human activities which are destroying our environment and threatening our species very survival. How is that progress? Its homicidal cannibalism, it only appears to be progress by the trick of temporal illusion. Meaning that the cannibalism and destruction is the long term goal, but since it takes awhile to get there (in the phases you lay out), we can pretend otherwise.

Here is the thing, if I can see this, and if I can act on it, in spite of my statistical likelihood of being unable to see this by virtue of my born into privilege and 32 years of life, cultural education, and social/ familial pressures as a middle class, white American male, then many others are getting it and readying themselves or are already acting too, because it is far more likely that their life experiences have not put up as many barriers from seeing what you are saying as mine has.

Tom Osenton said...

In response to your question, here's what I think:

Property: Do we ever really own anything? Americans live 77.9 years on average. That's not a long time. So it behooves all of us figure out as quickly as possible how to live a life that is not about the endless acquisition of stuff for that serves only us and our immense insecurities.

Ironically, the so-called American dream is almost entirely based in ownership of property: Of Land, of homes, of cars, and of way too much stuff. This is why we each must define our own American Dream - one that is not driven by consumption but by doing for others.

What logical person would not agree with the following as a prescription for a better life:

1. Eat less
2. Exercise and meditate more
3. Own less
4. Share more

Yet these very sound principles by their very nature do not support the existing growth model of more and bigger. Stated another way, the above principles say "Less and smaller" - an almost anti-American, anti-growth sentiment. But let's be brutally frank for a minute: the "More and bigger" philosophy is not only not working, it is destructive and the root cause of almost all of our problems today.

There are two paths that we can choose:
1. Make the conscious decision to shift our lives toward a "Less and smaller" orientation; or
2. Continue on a "More and bigger" path until our lives are shifted for us.

The choice is ours.

James Keye said...


We all are the measures of human possibility: the things that we do are proof of what can be done. What we cannot do or have not done is only evidence of what we have not yet done. If I want to know and believe that people can be trustworthy and honest, then I must be so myself, and so forth. It sounds as though the capacity of world events to inform has found in you a receptive agent; if there is to be a transition from our present condition rather than a catastrophic collapse to a new state, then that is exactly what is needed. As you point out, you are a proof of possibility. (I tried, but could follow your link.)


Thanks for the comment. Communicating and supporting ways of thinking that can give order and possibility to the coming tribulations, making them ready for when The People need them, is, I believe, a worthy task.