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, August 31, 2011

Meaning of Specieshood

What is it that we should aspire to in life? What could possibly compare to completely manifesting the potential of our specieshood?

Every species is evolved both in and to an environment.  It is important to understand “environment” correctly; it is not a static set of conditions, but a dynamic presentation of all the events and processes of a region and a time.  From a human point of view (that is, a very limited conceptual structure) this means all things, known and unknown.

Each individual of each species is formed from an informational template created by the evolutionary process in completely interpenetrating integration with environment – the “two” are really a common process.  As a result, every species has (is) an ecological and behavioral description as defining as the structure and physiology of its body.  In other words there is a way that each species lives; the term that I am using for the total physical/ behavioral/emotional formation of a species is specieshood.

While we recognize the truth of the above assertions for all other organisms – amply evidenced by any collection of taxonomic data: ecological relations and behavioral descriptions are included as diagnostic – we are confused as to our own specieshood: we seem, to ourselves, not to have diagnostic environments and behaviors.  There are reasons for that spurious observation.

The most obvious and therefore the most difficult to recognize (studying all of those Zen Koans has taken its toll) is that we are embedded in ourselves – fish, should they be sufficiently intelligent, would have a devil of a time realizing the ocean.  It is in the perception of difference that our talents lie.

The environment, in the largest sense, in which and to which we evolved – and therefore in which our full specieshood could find expression – has been replaced in our formative and functional experience by the consequences of our exceptional adaptations.  We increased our numbers and our modifications of environmental relations more rapidly than any other creature in our beginnings and have continued that process following the unrelenting mathematics of the positive exponent to the condition today where we have been doubling world population and technological capacity in terms of a few generations and, more recently, even single generations.

We, therefore, have been convinced by the combination of our limitations and our vast capacities that we make our own behaviors.  The greatest thinkers have struggled with this problem (it is not new) largely concluding that our experience creates our worldview and behavior, that there is no human specieshood per se; it is a difficult conclusion to avoid – except for the fact that it is untrue.

In a sense we are like a complex layer cake made of very ordinary and not terribly interesting batter, but covered over with the most delicious frosting (that would be for me a variety of lemon frosting, you may chose for yourself).  We are so absorbed in the covering that we fail to realize that, without the cake structure, the frosting would be a somewhat sickening mess on the plate.  We take this structure for granted – until it fails.

But we are far too busy today to get it right.  We have wars and famine, climate change and Godliness, my power verses your power, obscene wealth and obscene deprivation.  Indigenous people have the audacity to live, and to have lived for thousands of years, on the land that has ‘our’ minerals and oil.  We seem confused by the fact that a few thousand people have amassed control of more material possessions and the power to gather such possessions than over half of the world’s people (billions of people); we cannot seem to understand the obvious, that a few having almost everything denies the many having anything.

And yet the one thing that we all have and that would make all of the difference in the how we live our lives, both personally and ecologically, we almost uniformly ignore or deny possessing at all.

I recently read an essay by a well-known and consistent contributor to the debates about our present condition.  His essay offered a number of suggestions for actions that were needed to begin the process of recovery from our present troubles.  I wrote to him suggesting that, while his suggestions were excellent and necessary ones, he had left out the most essential, that we know where we hope to go before we begin our trip; otherwise we will end up right back where we are now, only with different players.

He kindly wrote back to say, in essence, that this was too difficult a question and would make his essay unwieldy.  I understand his point of view, but reject it. 

Discovering specieshood individually gives the person an attachment to realities that can sustain a sense of wellbeing and purpose in times of comfort and adversity – doing in Reality what religion does in illusion.  And discovering specieshood as a social process would allow populations to recover themselves, as well as reattach elements of our behavior to environmental realities.

As with any species, humans have only a limited number of ‘ways to be’ that can fully express the biological, instinctual, intuitional and consciousness order processes that we are each born with.  But today there is no one way to discover/recover how to make these processes manifest.  We are each tossed at random into situations that challenge and distort the developmental sequences and mature conditions that support specieshood, and so, all have unique ‘beginnings.’

But we humans are all of the species, share 99.99% of our genetics with the rest of humanity, 97-98% of our genetics with the great apes and over half of our genetics with dandelions.  The DNA in your own personal body has been in continuous and unbroken replication from the beginning of life on the earth nearly 4 billion years ago (if there had been a break in the sequence of replication, that which has become you would have ended then and there).  Such an understanding can help.

Every human infant born ‘expects’ – has the biological/instinctual preparations to receive – the primate pattern of developmental experience: being held for a year, life in a close community of relatives, orderly patterns of discipline and instruction.  This understanding can help.

An individual human being alone in the ‘wild’ (natural) world without community and without tools (tools are but one form of community) is almost certainly doomed to a quick end from predators, starvation or madness.  This understanding can help.

Finally, however, it is the feelings in one’s own body, the recognitions of unrightness, that are most convincing.  Once the infantile confusions have eroded away – Santa Claus and God are recognized as controlling stories and not as living truths – we are faced with being a remarkable animal living in beliefs and actions that violate the unique magnificence of each life.  The instant that that sensation is felt the insistence of specieshood is (re)formed.

It doesn’t matter that others may not be convinced; the more the merrier, but proselytizing is not a goal.  Again a Koan: you cannot find specieshood without a community and if you try to find specieshood in community you will fail [1].

So, how is specieshood to be recovered? This is not a new question.  With the invention of writing, just about the first subject was the problem of living and acting correctly; there is no reason to wonder about how to do something right unless doing it wrong is an issue.  We humans have been at this for a long time with very limited success.

Perhaps a place to begin is to look at a time when people didn’t wonder about how to live correctly.  I am not suggesting living in a tepee, people often make the mistake of form as a substitute for substance.  The question is what were the salient conditions of specieshood.  Here are a few of them:

•A largely meditative existence in which several hours in a typical day are spend paying close attention to everything at once, to the wind, the smell of the air, the sounds, the movement of the light – these were the detail of a Reality from which came every good and bad thing.  The human nervous system is designed for this integrative, meditative function.

•A daily life in which each person both feels and is competent to act on life’s big and little issues.  Individual needs are meet with actions completely interconnected with community needs.  And community needs are integrated into the ecology in ways that make so much sense that they go completely unnoticed.

•It would be a great help to be raised from birth on the primate pattern in intimate communion with human community and nature, but since most of us don’t have experiences that meet that goal, it needs to be reproduced to some extent.  Being properly parented is the salient condition, but failing that we need to reparent ourselves.  There is a large literature on the subject; I am uncomfortable with it, but recognize both the necessity and utility of the activity.

•Being personally in charge of one’s community relations. This means not just being a part of a community, but being integrated into community.  Most groups, organizations and collectives, today, do not have the necessary properties because they are special purpose entities rather than the primary human structure in interaction with the world at large.  My own community includes both living humans and dead ones whose thoughts are of the greatest immediacy in my relationship to the world.

•A daily intimacy with Reality: weather, diurnal cycle, exercise, exertion.  These are the expression of the earth’s processes in our immediate experience and are not to be avoided.

•Regular challenges combining the physical and mental worlds.  An example is getting lost and finding one’s way.  I like to do this in wild country; walk for a couple of hours or more, exploring the country off of established trails and then return by some alternate route, discovered during the exploration.  Some of the same effect can be had by getting lost in a city.

•There is more.

These things and more can to be done in “modern” life.  Humans have gathered much valuable information about the world.  I would not do away with science, philosophy, literature, art or the basic nature of modernity; though we must also learn to live with these discoveries, not by denying our specieshood, but by rediscovering, fully embracing and learning how to integrate our specieshood as a guiding principle of modernity.

This is the cusp upon which we sit at the moment.  The present trajectory has only been guided by the position of the last instant energized by some unprecedented new discovery or event – like the whirligig fireworks from a roman candle.  No species of life can long survive on such a ‘plan.’  We will either come into (re)possession of our specieshood, individually and collectively, as a guiding principle or we will burn out like a firework.  All of our other options are fantasies.

[1] I believe that the origin of the Koan is recognition of the loss of specieshood 3 thousand years ago in China and India, and the attempt to find ways (Tao) to recover.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Most Things Must Be Explained Together:

It is a most basic principle of the epistemology of science, that scientific theories must explain all relevant data points with a integrated coherent set of ideas – ad hoc additions are seriously frowned upon.  This is done for two very good reasons: it just makes sense in a natural world, a world that seems to work by basic sets of rules, that the understanding of those rules should apply broadly to a very wide variety of processes.  And secondly, that this generalizing of processes as theory supplies the basic understandings that have actually worked to explain and, to some extent, control the behavior of the events of the world.

Devising theories about humans, as we function in our present societies, would be like trying to create Newtonian Mechanics with gnomes planting tiny black holes and high gauss magnets at random through out the measuring apparatus: a pattern might be suggested by the data, but pinning things down would be impossible.  Before anything serious could be done, the gnomes and their activities would have to be discovered and accounted for.

We humans are our own gnomes.  Our behavioral systems have gotten away from us and are functioning quite out of either the recognition or control of our “intelligent design:” for every apparently planned design, there are thousands of gnomic events that go unrealized or that we largely ignore.  But that does not mean that there is not some discoverable and orderly process afoot, only that we have been, as yet, unsuccessful in ‘pinning it down.’

I have been using a conceptual framework for many years that seems to bring much of the confusing and hazy behaviors of my fellows into apparently sharper focus.  The following uses that framework to look at the underlying principles that should be informing our understanding and actions around “regulating”, especially, our economic and political behavior.
* * * 
The Living System of Order (the LSO: we often just call it ‘life’, but it is a system of order) is really a biophysical platform for the storage and movement of particular categories of information.  Its corporal forms are tiny moments in that flow, each one representing and holding a vanishingly small fraction of that information – but the information, the total information, resides with the whole of the living world.  Communication of information is the very essence of the Living Order.  The central core communication is structured around the DNA/protein nexus, but every operation of life is a communication, especially the controlling communications that organize and limit the chemical and physical behaviors of the thousands upon thousands of different types of reactions that sum together into the living state.  The most basic organizing principle is called ‘negative feedback:’ a living state action produces some products that, as one of their effects, inhibit the reaction that created them.

There are basically two types of feedback, reaction products that influence the process that created them: positive feedback in which certain reaction products increase the rate or volume of the originating reaction and negative feedback in which certain reaction products decrease the rate or volume of the reaction that created them.  Left alone and with unlimited reactants a positive feedback system would grow ever bigger, ever faster; such a system could never be alive (without unlimited reactants it would use up the reactants without stint and suddenly end).  Negative feedback systems set into motion will rundown and stop even in the company of unlimited resources; such a system could not be alive.  It is the combination of motivating and inhibiting systems, properly arranged, that allows the chemistry and physics of life to function.

It would be the very essence of foolishness to argue that negative feedback systems are unduly inhibiting the production of this or that chemical product.  Too much sugar in the blood and the brain speeds to a dysfunctional oblivion; too little sugar and it slows to stop functioning altogether.  Keeping that critical condition just right is accomplished with multiple negative feedback systems attached to the basic self-generating chemical reactions.  Maintaining the appropriate concentration of sugar is just one example among thousands; In fact, negative feedback systems can be considered the most essential of all the essential chemical designs of life.

In other words, the LSO is dependent on negative feedback systems in very special ways.  Positive feedback systems tend to function on their own once started, like a fire.  Negative feedback systems must be constructed and attached at exactly the right point and with the appropriate rates of inhibition so that the necessary chemical reactions will take place at the right time and in the right amount.  It can be made as a general proposition that no system of order can sustain in a universe of limited resources (any universe that we know about) without negative feedback systems as a primary part of its design.

Humans live in the world of the Living System of Order but also in a new system of order that has been constructed evolutionarily and adaptively ‘on’ them: the Consciousness System of Order (CSO).  In brief, this is an information storing and moving system that did not exist before its formation and growth on the human substrate [1]. It collects and stores varieties of information never before collected and combines them in ways never before combined.  Humans have the capacity to manifest many of the possibilities so created and, thus, create processes, objects and powerful arrangements of order that could never before have existed.  This system of order must also function with negative feedback systems if it is to sustain (and if humans are to sustain).

As indicated above, negative feedback systems are complex and often special purpose devices, not easy to “design” or build.  In the living order trillions of trillions of trial and error events have gone into the evolution of the negative feedback controls of life’s many thousands of chemical and physical reactions.  Each species evolves its own special rates and set points from the basic pattern.

The Consciousness Order evolved and adapted under the influence of the Living Order and was ‘spared’ much of the need for negative feedback systems since a good bit of its behavior could piggyback on the Living Order.  But some negative feedback systems based entirely in the Consciousness Order were required, such things became social mores and the pantheistic religions.  However, even these had the physical environment and the Living Order as their informing source since this was the ‘world’ in which humans lived.

It is a mighty leap from that time to now, but it is one that must be made.  It is a leap from a real form and place; we did not spring forth from ‘no beginning.”  All the same rules apply, that is the way of science theory.  The rules apply until their predictions fail, and then the theory is revised or chucked and new theories that explain the data more completely, more elegantly, replace them.

Making the leap to now, we find the Consciousness Order disconnected from the substance of its origin, yet still operating on the same principles as it did when it was primarily a powerful support function for adapting to the natural world.  In essence, a wide variety of experiences (perceptions and memories) are collected from contact with the world, the members of a community of shared experience act out different behaviors in response to those experiences and through the process of action, observation and community ‘story telling’, more or less, standard behaviors are adapted to environmental conditions.  Certain behaviors are of truly survival importance and these get special stories attached to them, stories with a punch and often a consequence.  Such stories constitute important negative feedback systems. 

When associated with a constantly correcting natural environment to which the community is obligatorily attuned, the motivating forces and the inhibiting forces of the Consciousness order stayed in relative balance; the stories were tested in the domain of all relevant information, though often beyond the general awareness, just as we attempt to test our science theories today in the contest of ideas on paper.

But the vast majority of humans no longer live in a natural world that supplies the informational foundation for their behavior.  That world still exists and still is the ultimate reservoir of both information and consequence, but our daily experience is removed from it by several layers of the behaviors of other human beings.  The result is that we have been applying the tools of the CSO to the immediate experiences that surround us, experiences that have become more and more randomized and with very narrow and short-term with weakly related informational content. 

Such an environment offers very poor conditions for the development of negative feedback systems.  And so, human behavior spreads in form and space directed only by opportunity and the capacity of the CSO to imagine new options.  This is not a good thing for all the reasons discussed and suggested above.

The manifestation and expansion the products of the Consciousness Order without any inhibition from negative feedback systems is the basis of our present experience.  While an analysis like this one can’t make direct changes, it is important to have an understanding that fits into the larger theoretical frameworks supplied by sound physical, biological and psychological theories.  The negative feedback model must be incorporated into the incentive systems that we create in our economics and politics – up to now we have almost exclusively created designs that rewarded or punished.  Both reward and punishment have tended to be build on the simpler and more direct models of positive feedback – they tend to create more of themselves [2].

We are in the process of evolving, biologically, negative feedback systems into the Consciousness Order.  One of the steps in that evolution is looking like it will involve the failure of the current economic and political systems, the rapid reduction of human life and the variety of other life on the earth.  But the CSO has the potential to self generate its own adaptive processes and designs, that is the cusp we are approaching: will the human species discover the means to regulate its activities through Consciousness Order negative feedback systems or will the species rely on the Living Order processes that make “judgments” on survival of whole species as its blunt-instrument tool?

The regulation of political and economic action and power – as the country’s founding thinkers attempted – is a vital first step.  Such a step might both buy us the time and set the stage for the recognition of the need and the focus to reform those structures that can begin to create the larger range of negative feedback systems that a fully functioning system of order requires.

[1] This system of order might well be set into motion in some non-human context.  The dangers involved would be prodigious.  Similarly, Living Order processes can be abstracted and set to motion as with genetically modified bacteria or complex chemical reactions mediated by “artificial” enzymes and nano systems, both much more dangerous than seems to be currently realized.

[2] Competing positive feedback systems are not negative feedback and using resources to exhaustion is not negative feedback.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The American Patient

A number of years ago I saw a movie that seemed to contain a kernel of an essential human truth, albeit presented with some silliness.  I recently saw it again and see more clearly my relationship to it, and perhaps a larger meaning.

In The English Patient, a movie about love and death in the Libyan desert, Count Almasy and Katharine Clifton are two people drawn together by forces natural to humans, deeply natural to humans, and yet seldom fully enacted; and so we do not understand them even as, on the rare occasions of their occurrence, we fall into their spell.  It is difficult not to be drawn into the extra-dimensional space that such forces weave around the other person and it is almost impossible when mutual.  Nothing else matters.  I know it is hard to believe if you have not experienced it, but it is true: nothing else matters.

I know about these things because they happened to me.  The English Patient is especially poignant for me since the woman who so powerfully attracted me and Katharine Clifton were named in so similar a fashion; it is almost the same name in my mind.  And Kristin Scott Thomas, plays the part of Katharine, even to the shape of her eye lids and the incredible charm of the slight curve at the corners of her mouth, looked much the same in face and form.  The woman in my life was, though, more lovely, more tender, more incomprehensibly appealing.  It has been nearly 40 years since I last saw her and I can still make real, instantly, in my mind the sensation of a light summer dress moving on her thigh, the soft weight of her breasts as she playfully and tantalizingly brushed by me in a store.

She also, as was Katharine, married to a good human being.  She also struggled with the attraction that was beyond attraction – that was occurrence, that was certainty. Some combination of writers, director and actors must really have understood; when she says, “Here, I am a different kind of wife.” It was the same; it was the same.

No, she did not die alone in a cave in the North African desert and I was not burned by real flames as my plane was shot down by German flak.  But that was the only difference.  And, of course, I was not a German spy.

It is not about something called love pulling us together that brings me back again and again to those days, those experiences, those feelings; love is a different thing. There was something so primal, so cellular, that all of society became arbitrary.  That is what brings me here again and again.

There was never a greeting or a leaving over two years in which she didn’t look at me with wonderment and pleasure, a look that transcends the details of the face.  I never looked at her without the pleasure of the experience seeming to show to the world like an actual glowing of some unidentifiable energy.

Even as the German flak began to fill the sky – no, that is the movie; even as the denial of society’s arbitrary conditions began to explode around us with all the power and pettiness of the rejected, the feelings remained and remained in all of their original power; even as it was clear that the world outside demanded to reenter, demanded to be included, and so would bring an end to what was terribly more real than the world outside our communion could ever be; even then we were together until that actual moment when we were not.

Count Almasy and Katharine Clifton’s primal passion, to use an alliterative simplification, was as star-crossed as mine and my “Katharine’s.”  But this is not a morality tale.  It is about a world that, while it often is not, has the potential to be generous with these kinds of experiences, a world that doesn’t deny or ignore what is best and most appealing in our species.

I bring this up now, in an essay surrounded by other essays about a politics gone mad, an economy in ruin and a social order struggling in a kind of savage hunt for safety and security, if not salvation, because of how easy it is to forget what social justice, economic equity, generous education and human communion can accomplish in individual lives. 

Powerful emotional and physical connections with other members of our species should not be trivial afterthoughts set aside so that one can fit into political and economic constructions.  But that has become the reality. The most appealing emotions and feelings, the most fructifying relationships are diminished so that time, effort, attention and value can be devoted to material accumulation, bullying others to act as one wishes and a general infantilized selfishness – and the vast machinations of coercive order to support and justify these behaviors.

It doesn’t matter if the story of my “Katharine” is true or not; it is your attention and sympathy of feeling that I am after.  It might be that my attachment was not to a woman, but to a place; an attachment that formed me, was me.  It is all of these that we must give up today.  Our most deeply held feelings for our children must be set aside as we go to war or to work. The value and importance of what we feel for those most dear to us, or for the places dear to us, is challenged by demands for what is being called success, patriotism and wealth.

Think about what this society, today’s American society, can withhold and ration as it demands the denial of our full and magnificent selves: a magnolia tree grown in a narrow space between buildings still and always trying to make its huge and primal flowers have an existence.  Of course, wealth is rationed, that is only natural, but time is rationed and joy is rationed.  Happiness and satisfaction are rationed.  Love and passion are rationed.  They must all be purchased by giving them up.

It can be so clear that the human animal is formed to exist in bonds of feeling and yet our society honors and attempts to emulate the psychopath.  The attachments ‘that matter’ must be mercantile, measurable in a money cost or established in a power relation.  Only then by denying primal human attachment feeling can ‘acceptable’ attachments be made.  The lie is perpetuated that desire for and the feelings of human attachment are dishonest, immature and unworthy.  The depth of natural human feeling is thereby drained and filled with dry desert sand.

As the world around us begins to accelerate its changes, demanding more and more sacrifice of the human mechanism, perhaps it is time for those of us who can still recall, at least in some measure, our human selves to get them out, dust them off and defy the forces that deny them. 

We have been trying to fight the massive madness of our society – Republican sociopathology and greed driven corporate collective behavior [1] – with the same weapons that they use.  And we are losing.  It may be time to stop fighting ‘back,’ but to rather fight sideways, fight around, fight beyond.  A good place to begin is to become clear about what it is we are fighting for in the first place.

If everyone believes that the same things are valuable and it is only a matter of who has them and who does not, then there must be a scheme for acceptable distribution or a war; equity or abundance and deprivation.  But if what is valuable can be attained and maintained with only limited and controlled association with the more toxic elements of the crazy world, then options can be formed, options that can challenge the crazy world by denying it the services of those who reject it.  If enough reject the crazy world, it will be changed.

I have avoided two words until now, but can avoid them no longer: spirit and specieshood.  Consider the difference: one lives in pursuit of the commercial goal and succeeds, and in the process fails their emotional life or one lives in pursuit of specieshood and comes as close to the fulfillment of the human spirit as possible in this time, and in the process collects only enough wealth to live simply.  What would be the effect of millions of people recognizing their humanity, living simply and demanding that the world’s human generated wealth be devoted to the human species not to the exclusive uses of an infantilized insane minority?

There is little chance of such a thing, but if there is any chance at all it begins with realizing the exaltation of human communion and its absolute supremacy and consistency compared to arbitrary social expectations arising from political and economic expediency.

[1] It is like uranium: in the natural form uranium is mildly dangerous only if you associate with it in excess, but if its most toxic forms are concentrated, even brief exposures are damaging and once it reaches the level of critical mass its behavior can quickly spiral out of control and run its course without the possibility of intervention.  In human terms, there are certain arrangements of people in certain activities that are toxic.  Groupings of people engaged in the accumulation of wealth are almost always dangerous and increasingly so as they are centrifuged by the corporate spinning into greater and greater concentrations of pathology.