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, 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 . 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 .
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.
 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.
 Competing positive feedback systems are not negative feedback and using resources to exhaustion is not negative feedback.