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
Saturday, July 23, 2011
The Wind And The Stone
At first blush it seems that there are two basically different stances that a human being can take in the confrontation with the daily data of living – but are really the opposite ends of a continuum. On the one end, a person can accept a fully formed set of propositions, values, rules and possibilities: a known world, lived in with known parameters for action. New data is shaped to fit the existing ‘truth.’ With expectations clear, reality in a bottle, a small industry forms to adapt any reluctant data into the accepted forms.
This can be metaphorically summarized as the Stone Sculpture model: the sculptor has a vision of what the sculpture is to be (or what the client requires it to be) bounded by the stone’s form, the surrounding stone is removed, losing the preexisting form, detail and expansiveness contained in the original, until the desired shape is obtained – make no mistake, under the right hand, the product can be exquisite and even evocative of grand vision.
At the other end of the continuum the forming propositions are understood to be in constant flux. Values, rules and possibilities change in response to the ‘tectonic’ forces of population density, energy availability and type, technological development, social innovation and idea. A person living on this end of the continuum considers as much of the salient data of life as possible, and is flexible with what is called past experience, really seeing it as new data of a different form brought to each new moment of choice.
The metaphorical model for the fullest expression of this way of living I take from a recent motorcycle trip. I’ll call this the MTFH (Motorcycle Trip From Hell) model. The rider enters the road as the wind begins to blow at speeds equal to the bike speed: swirling, coming from right or left, front or back, other vehicles change the patterns, all without predictability. Nothing from the past matters other than that you are still wheel-side down and still riding; nothing from the future matters beyond the visible traffic and the invisible wind. The exhilaration is magnificent and the exhaustion profound.
It should be clear, especially from the metaphors, that both approaches are limited and limiting in their own ways. It should be clear that different situations are best served by different approaches – if this sounds a bit like a version of the second model, I’m sure that is true – and shows a major failing of the first model. It is also clear that in the second model only the most salient data can be considered fully and only for a short period of time: comfortable expectations met with predictability must still be a major part of life or we would literally die of stress and exhaustion, which points out a major failing of the second model.
The struggle becomes then, not so much between the full range of extremes, but a tug-of-war closer to the middle. We all admit that some principles are needed as fixed points and we all admit that changes are part of life. It is the primacy and balance of these views over which we argue and contend.
Returning to the continuum extremes should make clear that there are circumstances when one view effectively predominates the other. Carving a stone sculpture by responding to every shift of perception or thought would result in a pile of pebbles and stone dust. Riding a motorcycle in heavy wind with a rigid set of preprogrammed expectations and action… let’s not go there!
The views from the extreme ends of the continuum are very different. The MTFH model has no trouble accepting the Stone Sculpture model for this moment and then for that moment; it would just never occur to the MTFH thinker that any one notion should be dominating for more than the moment immediate forces focus on it. The Stone Sculpture model on the other hand has a lot of trouble with the MTFH model: it is just wrong almost all the time, and is wrong without redemption. Staying upright in heavy winds of change doesn’t compute as a primary goal. In fact, the MTFH model from the Stone Sculpture model perspective is not just unsatisfactory, it is destructive and evil and must be made to be fixed in the correct sculptural configuration.
Another important difference is that the MTFH model accepts as natural that everyone would have their own MTFH model details; there would be no way for one person to tell another exactly what to do in a given situation other than to give your absolute attention, then hang loose and go with the flow. Specific applications of the Stone Sculpture model, however, would reject even the details of other practitioners of their same art as foolish, wrong and incompetent, even as they accepted their methods (but would be shocked that theirs was a method and not just the only way).
A well functioning community is made up of both these views and all the points of lesser extreme along the divide. In a community where obligations of observation supply much of the information used in relationships and decision-making, the extremes are forced into some level of respect, sometimes grudgingly, but sometimes profound. The danger for us humans comes when the extremes become isolated and self-reinforcing: unmodulated by successful consequences delivered by the opposite view, the most extreme positions just keep on marching further and further into wonderland .
But it is here the symmetry fails. The MTFH model can only go so far, it is by its nature bounded by immediacy, which is another way of saying Reality. Its major defining quality is given by how far it reaches back toward the center, back toward more and more ordering principles. The Stone Sculpture model is, on the other hand, largely unbounded when not forced to periodically reevaluate in light of some immediate and overwhelming reality, and even then its institutional guardians have full sway to interpret all events in the fixed terms of expectation and principle.
The Stone Sculpture model underlies religious fundamentalism – of all varieties –including capitalist fundamentalists, Marxist fundamentalists, free market, free trade, racial fundamentalism: those who tie their behaviors and prospects to absolutist positions in general. Without the natural restraint supplied by MTFH model thinkers, Stone Sculpture model habits come to be ascendant given their self-justifying and unbounded nature; they are also self-organizing and often aggressively spreading.
The two extremes only exist in symmetry when an environmental order has preeminence over the system of which they are a part, as in small, materially simple communities or possibly in the systems that humans, especially of the MTFH model habit, might create in recognition of our unavoidable and eventually undeniable human nature.
We have tried building walls against our biology, our nature; it is now time, again, to discover how to live within our biology’s ebbs, flows and swirling winds.
 MTFH model habits of thinking and acting have been largely excluded from public discourse. We are only seeing choices offered among competing “certainties.” The arts, literature, creative science (as opposed to technology application) and the speculative processes in general are largely invisible in today’s public world. The tendency of the Stone Sculpture model toward meanness – it must reject a great deal in a changing and uncertain world – is becoming more manifest.
Since every living thing must act, over the long run, in compliance with biophysical reality, and since it is the interplay of these two extremes in socially supported symmetry that is the human method for comporting with that reality, we really had better get our shit together.