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

Friday, March 23, 2012

When Things Go Wrong

When things go wrong people act badly.  If people are not to act badly, then the most basic foundations of life and order must not go wrong [1]. I don’t see what is so hard to understand about this rule.  Perhaps stated more opaquely it would be clearer! When the range of events exceed the normal range of either the instinctual capacities or integrated experiences of an organism it generally acts badly.  At some level all organisms so afflicted  “know” that they are out of their depth and thus devolve into a condition of fear.  Actions motivated out of fear are mainly just ways to maintain some kind of motion and to, perhaps, carve out a little space from which to gather more appropriate information and then to produce a more appropriate response, but this is only ever successful by accident; by its very design it is not problem solving.  Fear is not supposed to be a platform for living a life.

Well, things have been going wrong: population stress; adaptive failure of our economic system [2]; fragmentation of the experience of species’ life to such an extent that most humans have no available route to, or even recognition of the need to, live in harmony with their biology; not one in a hundred humans would live for more than two months without the vast and growing economic and physical infrastructure that is also a cancer on the very fabric of the life sustaining biophysical space – and many of us are beginning to realize it. 

Of course, there are more detailed ‘goings wrong’; how could it be otherwise?  Nation ‘A’ steps on the figurative toes of nation ‘B’.  People who are wallowing in the great piles of wealth swept up by the vast ill-winds of our distorted and distorting economic systems “naturally” assume that they “earned it” and should have more.  That very attractive lady (or man) next to you (in the bus, subway, crowded street, office) dangerously weakens the sense of home and hearth.  Such a list could be endless, which is why it is important to realize the preeminence of our more foundational troubles; I am far from the first person to point this out, though in our fear we constantly forget it.

But when things go wrong for humans, we adapt to those things; it is our adaptive biology and capacity to take the “going wrong” and find a way to use it.  Necessity is the mother of invention: for most organisms invention is a long evolutionary process carried out over many generations; for humans, invention is a very different, often rapid, process mediated by imagination, social integration and technical facility, not DNA.  This has worked wonderfully as long as what was going wrong was coming from the biophysical environment and not created entirely by our own actions; it worked well when the environment was both the immediate guide and sovereign.

Our situation today is different: the vast majority of our reactions are to our own previous action.  Imagine a willful, intelligent and ignorant child guided only by its own thoughts – ignorant of its ignorance – assuming that its skillfulness with detail equated to brilliance of substance; just think of how far it could go… and the trouble it could get into.  Understand, this is how humanity has proceeded, especially, in the last few thousand years of our brief existence as the present species.

And as in a sort of ‘bible story’, the child appears to have killed off (but, really they have only stepped out of the room) its parents and rather suddenly climbed and swum and run wantonly into a condition that it doesn’t understand – does not possess the tools to even realize how fully it doesn’t comprehend.  Though, unlike a bible story, the “parents” are not the bible’s God, moved by the rules silly humans have, in their ignorance, written; no, the parents are the Gorgon, the Kraken, Ruaumoko, Asintmah, the Hero Twins and a thousand more human attempts to give the ultimately incomprehensible power of nature personification. [3]

The ultimate power of nature has not been vanquished by either our technology or our imagings of its vanquishing.  We have simply ceased to see and to hear, caught up in our climbing, swimming and running; making up stories of our beauty, our power, our necessity; telling the stories more and more loudly as our ‘going wrong’ more and more trips us up in our increasingly frantic activities.  So of course, in the end we behave badly.

This is the reality that confronts us: a vast institutional structure increasingly devoted to behaving badly in response to the failure of our species to maintain a viable relationship with the essential conditions of life.

Beyond the short list above, more basic things are ‘gone wrong’; consider these most foundational two:

1) Human communities are best served by having a heterogeneous collection of types: risk takers, fearful people, ADHD and related types, stolid plodders, certain types of “madmen and mad women” including psychopaths, classical conservatives, classical liberals, the selfish and the generous, “adult” grown ups and childlike grownups and more.  This gives a ‘natural’ community a vastly greater range of comprehension and action than an individual, family or homogenous community.  Such a community functions on the mutual dependency of all members and the intuitive and learned understanding that all types and combinations of types have their moment.  We don’t do this anymore.

Our “communities” devote themselves to homogeneity. The result is increasingly powerful, parochial and inappropriate responses to nature’s and society’s complexities.  The faith community denies itself the benefits of the “faithless.”  The science community denies itself the benefits of fully engaging the financial community, and vice versa.  The power elite community is not restrained by an integration with communities of labor. The ‘salt of the earth’ communities don’t regularly and meaningfully engage the intellectual elite. Our communities may try to use each other, but seem to largely ignore comprehending each other.

2) Infants, be they chimp, gorilla or human, are born into the world with essentially the same biological expectations; that is, the programmed readiness to respond to the instinctually accepting behaviors of its conspecifics. Typically that means being held for a year and feed on demand by a mother; then held for the next year by aunts, sibs and some adult males.  Some species differences begin to show during this time; chimps and gorillas are developmentally ahead of human infants and begin to explore, humans expect to get a little more holding and feeding, but soon enough expand their range of interest.  The whole structure and economy of the primate community is in major part devoted to the process of getting the infant to effective integrated adulthood.  We don’t do this anymore.  A society primarily devoted to the satisfaction and pleasures of its adults is doomed.

If the pattern of experiences that form the human adult typically produce someone that remains unfinished or even damaged in comparison to being raised in the most effective biologically/socially complete manner, then the whole organization and function of society will suffer.  The evidence is overwhelming: from studies of specific behaviors following families for generations to Harlow’s wire mother monkey studies. It is clear that how we raise, inform and educate our children determines the qualities expressed in our societies, and that there is a powerful momentum to both destructive and salutary habits.

We have become a collection of homogeneous “communities” of unfinished “adults”, incompetent to raise and educate our human young.  And much of what we attempt to organize into comprehensible patterns of modern life are really just the consequential bad behaviors of this great ‘gone wrong’.  There may still be enough of us to begin to set our course aright, but we must first see the issues clearly and apply our energies to gathering and growing humans who are complete enough, who have the potential to deal with the biophysical realities of those bad behaviors rather than perpetuating them.

[1] When things go wrong everything acts badly! Whether it’s the dog in a recent essay on this site biting its rescuer, a broken radiator hose on a car ruining the engine or distortions in systems of exchange trapping people in poverty, loss of the stable designs that underlie expected order create turmoil and failure to deliver both material and patterns of action upon which successfully functioning order depend.

[2] By ‘adaptive failure of the economic system’ I don’t mean that the GDP to debt ratio is unsustainable or that the insurance industry is dysfunctional; I mean that the summed economic activity violates ecological principles that both form and allow life on this planet.

[3] The Middle Eastern desert God (all various forms) is the attempt to give human powers supernatural personification, thus the incredible distortions and vast proportion given to vengeance, empathy, violence and compassion in the personifications.  For the most part none of these exist in nature in any way like we have come to accept and expect them to be part of human society; in this lies important clues.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bite The Hand That Frees You

I am always in search of certain special sorts of metaphor, those with immediately perceived explanatory power and that have a true veridical relationship with the metaphor referents. I recently ran headlong into such a one.

One of my daughters has a dog.  She raised him from a wee pup and he is now a young full grown adult well past the natural inclinations of puppyhood.  He is large, over a hundred pounds, mixed breed with several remarkably compatible features producing an animal of considerable beauty and intelligence.  Rosco, we’ll call him Rosco, has a sweet, even thoughtful, disposition.  He knows me well and seems to suspect that my superior knowledge of anatomy was accumulated just for his sensual pleasure.  By way of appearance he is red brown, short hair; very broad of shoulder with a massive head and a lively smiling countenance.  But, if there was reason to fear him, he would be considerably intimidating.

I was taking care of him for the day while my daughter was taking finals. My plan, soon come to fruition, was to take him and myself for a walk on the desert plains.  He had jumped excitedly from the car and started up the trail out of the valley – me excitedly coming along behind – when I heard him, just out of sight up and around a turn, scream; not bark, cry out, whine, yelp or any other expected dog sound.

I ran up the trail and saw him, above me, trying to pull himself free from a large animal leg trap; when I got to him he was in great pain and full terror.  I bent to try the springs that were holding the jaws closed on his foot.  It was too strong for a simple one hand squeeze.  I spoke to Rosco as reassuringly as possible, bent again to try with both hands and he bit me, hard, on the hand.  In that moment it seemed to him the natural thing to do.

It was immediately clear to me that he was going to bite me as I tried to free him from the trap…and that the freeing was not going to happen without some figuring out how to properly press the springs with hands and feet – the figuring out was going to be accompanied by a terrorized animal biting at the torment.

I talked to him, yelled at him, held him briefly; I’m sure that he was pulling his punches.  The conclusion was that in what could only have been less than a minute he was free and I was bitten on the face, left arm and both hands.

His foot had been caught with the metacarpals arrayed flat in the jaws of the trap, and thus his foot spared; had it been turned to the side the crushing force would have been enough to break the bones.  Just the luck of the draw.

Comparative psychology, ethology and related studies have been showing us for sometime that humans are animals with language and that the monkeys, apes and big carnivores are very similar animals without language.  In other words, we can expect humans to act like the animals that we are with the addition of complications created by language.  Language does not make us anew, but is added to the mix.

Rosco has been a quasi-language creature in his life with humans.  He responds to spoken information either by sensitivity to the structures in the sounds and/or a keen ear for emotion and intonation.  While the greatest part of the detail is lost to him, he extracts the general flow of things relevant to his life with considerable clarity from human sounds and actions.  But when pressed he reacts in the ways hard-wired in him.  Being caught in a steel trap from which there is no escape, having hard metal jaws snap shut on a foot by powerful spring action, having a completely incomprehensible power descend over you without options or means of “appropriate” response; these are the details of terror.

Rosco’s response to that terror was to bite at it; I was just the ‘meat’ that was in the way.  And so we arrive at our metaphor.  Just as I could not, especially in the short time I had to get Rosco out of the trap before he hurt himself with his own flailing, explain to him the “realities” of the situation: “Now Rosco, I know that your foot hurts and that you are terrified, but if you will just hold nice and still, I’ll figure this out and you’ll be free.”  Just as I couldn’t explain to him, there are real limits on what can be explained to humans when they are caught in traps, when they have incomprehensible powers descend over them without options or means of response.

If I had been out with my son’s dog, Duke, it would have been different.  Duke, about 80 pounds, would not have tried to pull his bites.  Duke’s terror and pain would have gone straight to anger and attack.  It is likely that I could not have gotten him out of the trap, at least, before he hurt himself and me badly.  And so the dogs are different, both treated with considerable human kindness in their normal lives.  Duke, who recognizes the sound of my car or motorcycle from a quarter mile away and begins the melancholy howl of his welcoming note, my son says only for me; Duke, who approaches me with the special deference afforded an alpha; this same Duke would be unable to distinguish my meat from any other in the face of his terror.

And so humans are different.  It is a difference that is best to be realized before we spring our traps, before we put our fellows under the incomprehensible powers that terrorize them without recourse.  It is best if we set our traps carefully and only when they are truly needed; if they are ever truly needed.

If the ignorant son of a bitch (I intend no aspersion to any animal – just my Tourette’s like response to anger, my own biting if you will) had not set the spring trap on the trail, Rosco wouldn’t have been caught, I would not have been bitten and I wouldn’t be typing this with swollen aching hands.  I would still know that Rosco was different from Duke and that I am different from a terrorized bigot.  But at least I got a fine metaphor out of it.

I leave it to you to fill out the rest of the possibilities.  If you are not in a trap, it should be easy. But, if you are, it just might be impossible anyway.