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, December 24, 2011

Is There an Adult in the House?

(This is a new version of an essay of the same title posted earlier this year.)

There are people who, when they look at the opinions and views of others, try to find the depth in those views, try to see the source, the reasonableness and the constructive value; I am one of them.  But, there are beliefs and principles of action so clearly wrong, that I am incredulous when I confront them.  No; more than incredulous: it is some seething combination of amused, frightened and outraged. 

We humans have this massive capacity to store data, and to organize that data into navigable landscapes of experience; and since we all live in the same world, made of the same elements operating by the same laws of physics and chemistry, there is, at least, the presumption of some reasonable commonality in those landscapes.

At the physical level that is certainly true: our bodies learn to respond to gravity and the laws of motion in very similar ways; the combination of learning and instinct hone remarkably consistent perceptual senses, though language has strong influences.  If we could just keep our mouths shut and work or play together with hand signals much of our dysfunction might disappear.

Often I cannot even imagine how other people come to what they believe in and act on.  How does someone come to think that there is a non-material universe run by a non-material entity with intimate, human-like interest in every movement of every atom; we’re talking big numbers here: infinite capacity infinitely applied.  And then, once people think this, they think that they know what this entity is all about and wants of them; and it is almost always some projection of their own narrow human self-interest, desires and fears… now imagine that.

You may notice that there is the seed of a theory in the preceding paragraph, but I didn’t say I didn’t have a theory, only that I am incredulous, amused, frightened and outraged!  Here is a partial list of habits and beliefs that I call, in my own personal shorthand, ‘nutty.’  The list is uneven as to specificity and hierarchical consideration, but some of that will be worked out later.

• All religion based projections onto the physical world:  These include that the earth was given to humans for their fun and games, any special creation ideas, miracles, sectarian non-standard science in general, ‘chosen’ races or creeds, ‘chosen’ politics and the many minor spin-offs from these beliefs; especially those beliefs that are seen as empowering the domination of others.

• Secular prejudice, especially when it passes beyond simple discomfort and uncertainty of difference into assertions of evil intent; for example, in the recent history of the old Congo, the Hutu claimed both superiority and racial purity over the Tutsi, a “racial” designation that the Hutu attempted to remove from the earth with AK-47s and machetes, even though the two “communities” had been exchanging genes and everything else for, at least, 500 years (see Rwandan Civil War for a complex history of secular prejudice in operation).

• The confident assertion that ‘my way’ (my group’s way) is the only correct way; other ways of thinking and acting are suspect and potentially dangerous and evil.  These sorts of beliefs can span the chasm between Ayatollah Khomeini and Pope Benedict XVI or between Pat Robertson (Jerry Falwell) and Ted Kaczynski.

• The simple “hell with the other guy” basis of life:  Unfortunately, this form of belief and action can function from lane changing in traffic to tax policies, from shop-lifting to securities fraud.  This is social neoteny, the infantilization of “adult” action.

• “Marshmallow man” syndrome: a know nothing, space-taking attitude that goes along to get along, that adopts and adapts to whatever is immediately convenient.  It is a disengagement that produces as much harm as active mal-intention. 

• The specialized infantilization of the power hungry: this tends to incorporate a variety of the above peeves. 

• More annoying than the power and attention hungry is that so many of the rest of us do not immediately recognize, shame or otherwise direct such people into remedial human training.  They are actually accepted and even encouraged to take leadership roles.

• The deifying of the super-rich by people who don’t realize the danger, who don’t see that the economic elite are constructing a new economic, political and social structure in which a tiny percentage of people, who are increasingly in control the discretionary wealth of the world, plot to have their own society dominating all life on the planet, answerable only to their own twisted, dysfunctional “reality,” a society for which “lower human forms” would be only service devices [1].

• Unalloyed materialism: the attachment of feelings of value, measures of worthiness, of self and others, to the accumulation of material possessions.  Even in weaker versions, the judgment of value and worthiness based on material possessions is a harmful and diminishing shorthand.

• People who continue to believe that they can and should have all of the stuff generated by the material world.  This is different from the preceding bullet-point in the depth of the habit; this is not the drive to acquisition, but the unconsidered certainty that one should “live like everyone else” even if living like everyone else is destructive [2].

It is not lost on me that both my attitude and list are violations of my own attitude and list; that is, much of what I am arguing involves accepting the unfamiliar and the off-putting, and yet I am making a list of things that are “unacceptable” to me.  But you have to undraw the line somewhere!

Much of this boils down to an obliviousness to, or willingness for, harming others out of infantile selfishness, psychopathic greed, sociopathic fear/aggression… and religion supported versions of the foregoing.  These are conditions of dysfunction, but have become the standards, often the social goals, of much of our society.  These are all conditions that develop out of deprivation, especially the deprivation of community and environmental experience: the denial of the totality of nurturance required to grow a fully functional adult human being from the zygote.  

Like every other organism on the earth, the human animal requires certain conditions of nurture and experience to implement full human potential; additionally, the full human potential is both powerful and frightening, especially to those who are not in possession of it.  And so a process has been in place for some few thousands of years, a process in which the changes in life habits have contributed to weakening human contact with primary conditions of nurture, a diminution of the numbers of humans with full development and the quality of that development.  The consequence is the corresponding aberrant behaviors of the species as its members struggle with the results of insufficient developmental experience.

As a general rule, humans can only become as mature as the most mature person in their formative experience.  And a major result of our “progress” has been the tattering of the fabric of the nurturing experience resulting in a dramatic loss of the human adult condition [3].  The consequences of that loss seem to underlie most of the issues on my list. 

 The behaviors on my list of peeves are not just misapplied natural human behaviors, though they are very wide spread and dominate our economics, politics and social order – and they are not made “natural” by their preponderance.  Natural is still, as it is for every organism, what would be obtained by fulfilling all the conditions of a biological and social development to which and in which the organism evolved [4].

With this underlying reality largely unrecognized and completely free of any meaningful societal response, all of our solutions to our problems are missing key ingredients.  There are two basic approaches possible for the problems that we face; one is to have small segments of society strive to enact “solutions” that, in appearance, benefit them; the other is to try to reestablish the conditions that allow the species to both function and flourish in integration with the biophysical realities that will ultimately determine the fate of all life on earth.

We know the consequences for the first “solution”: segments of society vying for power to create the world of their dreams, especially when those dreams are madness, is the summary of our recorded history.  Pick a moment, any moment, and 7000 Greeks are holding off 100,000 Persians at Thermopylae, a mad Frenchman invades Russia, an atomic bomb is dropped on Japan, an economic elite is both preparing for and publicly denying the ecological catastrophe of anthropogenic earth abuse; it would seem time to try the second option.

Since we have the lost the thread of the processes of proper human nurturance, it must be recovered with effort: it is still to be found in the lives of some peoples largely uninfluenced by the large scale social experiment of modern life, and it is there in our genes, expressed as propensities, to be discovered by scientific investigation, to be teased out by answering the right questions with good experimental design and statistics – none of it will be easy.

It is a wearying realization that we cannot effectively solve our problems with the tools that we have, but must rediscover/invent tools that we currently do not possess.  One of those tools is the sufficient abundance of fully adult human beings.

It seems an impossible task until we realize that humans are an impossible animal, far more outrageous than a peacock, tyrannosaur or a blue whale.  An animal with the capacity to “invent” the power to change and endanger the whole surface of the earth in the eye-blink time of a few thousand years, such an animal certainly contains the capacity to save itself as well, but only if it can equip itself with the right tools.  And the most basic of those tools is the full performance and comprehension of ourselves as our species.

Examples of political actions: (1) , (2) , (3) , (4)

[2] Of course, people look to those around them to set the standards for how they live, that is simply the way it is done.  But, when culture is in flux, when standards are challenged and in change, as they are now, digging in and refusing to use our human capacities of response and adaptation is abomination.

[4] In our “founding” human communities (ancient hunter/gatherer societies) only a few members became and maintained full adulthood, it was a behavioral niche like mystic, warrior, psychopath, earthmother or explorer/risk-taker.  The presence of true adults served the whole community by offering the “adult” behavioral option to everyone when needed in the same way that the presence of a true warrior served as model when that behavior was needed.  True adults potentiated the whole community for adult behavior, for intellectual, emotional and mental clarity structured on honesty and principles of honor designed into a fabric woven from the threads of the ‘long view.’

[4] A beaver raised in a concrete pond can be maintained alive, but would never be considered to be a fully functioning “natural” beaver.  The distortions of behavior of the beaver as it tried to express some of its native potential using whatever opportunities were available in the pond could not be considered a new “normal” for beavers.