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, June 22, 2012

The Virtue of Hopelessness [1]

(This essay was written more than a year ago. I couldn’t get it published other than on my blog; people apparently did not want to hear about hopelessness.  Reading recently George Monbiot’s essay, “The Earth Cannot Be Saved by Hope and Billionaires”, reminded me of it and I offer it again with a fresh editing.)

“The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” in his book “Democracy Incorporated” to describe our political system. <…>

“The corporate state does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader. It is defined by the anonymity and facelessness of the corporation. Corporations, who hire attractive spokespeople like Barack Obama, control the uses of science, technology, education and mass communication. They control the messages in movies and television. And, as in “Brave New World,” they use these tools of communication to bolster tyranny. Our systems of mass communication, as Wolin writes, “block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue, anything that might weaken or complicate the holistic force of their creation, to its total impression.””

(Chris Hedges: 2011: A Brave New Dystopia, Dec. 27, 2010)

As “pleasant” as it is to read something real compared to the typical corporate media bullshit, I grow tired of these descriptions that are intended to be prescient, but are actually ordinary.  As Hedges points out, these are ideas from Orwell and Huxley written in the previous mid-century; hashed and rehashed thousands of times in the last 80 years. 

We have the tools, and the clear necessity, to understand these processes – for they are processes, not just the gathering speed of runaway human idea and action; though they are that also.  Our position is not improved by flinging up our hands in exuberant excitement at the recognition of our excesses and dangers, at the details of the insanity that goes for the governance and control of our lives.  Absorption in the details is also a method of control: it is arguing over the correct method used to turn the corner of a maze rather than creating a mental image of the structure of the maze itself.

Without understanding the processes that move the human experience, the most essential questions can get only the most cursory and arbitrary consideration: “Why would the systems of power develop as they have toward dominance and control of the majority population?”  I suggest that we are disposed to an intuitive understanding of status, self-interest and authority, but that these very basic, very human practices have grown as complex and difficult to comprehend as the intricacies of things like modern economics and transportation, once also simple and manageable with intuition.

The basis of my explanation is that normal human expectation and practice has gone mad.  I don’t mean beyond understanding, but that a disease or disorder model must be used for the understanding.  Seeking to find normalcy in the majority of our actions is like studying the dayroom inhabitants of a mental hospital for schizophrenics to establish baselines for normal human behavior.

We all (most of us anyway) have worked hard to be human.  That means expressing first our genetic potential of body and mind as we mature from zygote to infant to juvenile, and then actively struggling to be like those around us; but what does it mean for our efforts if those around us have as a goal to defeat the expression of our genetic potential?  What does it mean if those around us act in contradiction of the behaviors that would describe and define ‘human’ in any natural world? 

We know that people are more influenced by the people that surround them than by any other information source or design.  What is not clear, but has been the source of philosophical inquiry for thousands of years, is: What are the best or most appropriate ways to be?  That some ways are better than others has never been in doubt.  Our options, however, are constantly changing and by observing this fact, one basic principle is disclosed: much in the manner of ecological niches, humans will act to fill and extend available options to the greatest extent possible under the energy regime available. 

What, if any, option has humanity not pursued to extreme?  Stone tools? From rocks flung at rabbits, to the ceremonial obsidian knives of the Aztecs, to the uses of stone cutting edges in modern surgery no imaginable possibility has been left wanting.  Paper:  writing surface, missile casing, dishes, housing; the list would be long indeed.  Metal bladed tools?  No need to enumerate.  I think the point is made.

How about skills?  Surgery began, most likely, with removing surface-living parasites, worms and such (using exquisitely sharp stone knifes), proceeding to cutting holes in skulls and has arrived at the repair and replacement of just about every organ of the body at even the microscope level. 

Or human social habits, the expressions of which have had to adapt to the extremes of material changes and skills? The manifestations of status began with knowing grunts and a confident air, to which were added some difficult-to-acquire feathers and other trappings and now include personal jets and new knowing grunts.  Wealth was once twice as much as your neighbor – when your neighbor was everyone around you.  Today wealth is inconceivable accumulations measured against other inconceivable accumulations in an attempt to “have everything.”  Having everything has become a very complicated habit.

The point is that for all the struggling with the ideas of equity and justice, the maximizing of these habits is in direct conflict with the maximizing of status, wealth and power.  We have to realize that humanity will always fill the niches created by our pursuit of every process and discovery to the extreme.  And wealth and power are processes of pursuit; equity and justice are processes of restraint: there is just no symmetry here.

The solution, if that is the right concept, is to have both less concentrated and total wealth, more local economies and communities sized and organized by the capacity of human intuition to be an accurate tool for understanding them.   “If you build it, they will come,” is a deep truism. But there will always be some humans who will collect to themselves, no matter how crazy they have to become to do it, the power and confidence to raid stores of wealth, when they exist, and then use that wealth to raid again and again.  The depths of the distortion of humanity, the insanity, in this processes is incalculable. And it will not end until concentrations of wealth are reduced to levels that anybody and everybody can see, comprehend and protect.

An option (we always look for options) might seem to be to lock away wealth in some way; to make all wealth common property; for example, with each person getting some share that meets needs, yet not overexcite the acquisitive impulse.  But humans are deucedly clever and would in no time at all find their way into wealth stores.  It didn’t work for the Soviet Union, it seems like it will not work for Social Security given the present assault on that institutional concentration of wealth.

Universal privatization is simply giving in to the insanity and would be that last step before the fall: since we cannot prevent inequity or deliver justice, just put the peddle to the metal and go – an unwinnable game of chicken with biology and physics.

My answer is that it is hopeless, but hopelessness has never been a reason to quit.  I wrote, a while back, an essay in a similar vein that contains the story of the Battle of Missionary Ridge in the Civil War and how it was the very hopelessness of Thomas’ troops that won the battle for the north and changed the course of the war.  I think that is where we are in this time.  We must marshal our hopelessness, be of good cheer and get on with the struggle.

Hopelessness is not helplessness.  Hope, however, if it is required for meaningful action, can lead to passivity.  When real hope is not supported by reality, yet is considered necessary, then false hope, fantasy, is often attempted only to end up poisoning the human capacity to understand and act.  The virtue of hopelessness is not so much in the possible recognition of Reality, this may or may not be the case, but with the direct connection of the need to act with the action, regardless of the possibility of success.

One method of controlling people is to try to make them helpless through hopelessness.  But is possible, actually natural to the human mind, to use hopelessness as a source of strength.  It is my argument that we are in a hopeless time; the crumbs of hope are all illusions.  People grasp at them and are made even more impotent.  It is time to embrace our hopelessness and, like the men looking up at the cannons and muskets aimed at them from the top of Missionary Ridge, make it the source of our resolve.

[1] The reason that I am appealing to hopelessness is the depth of our troubles; humanity has never been in such trouble (at least not in 70,000 years).  One element of our trouble is the great divide between the economic elites and the masses; this way of formulating social structure has been with us for thousands of years, but has taken on new dimensions.  The human capacity to make biophysical changes in the earth’s basic systems has reached substantive levels and, without inhibitions, is exacerbated by social divisions.   The concentrating of power into objects and into economic designs is also unprecedented: bombs, machines and transportation systems. 

We literally cannot continue on as we are and we literally cannot stop.  Accepting the hopelessness and acting in defense of the species and the earth is about all that is left to us other than just watching it all happen from the audience.  If you want to wait until there is hope, you will wait in vain.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Simplicity Of Our Complexity

The simplicity of our complexity is staggering.  If we were looking back on the present from the distant future (modeled on how it is to look back on the Roman Empire or the Middle Dynasties of China) it would be easy to understand that the roles of master pirate, oligarch, thief and con-artist have been assumed by a loosely defined body of kleptocrats and financial manipulators; the so-called revolving door is really not so much a door as it is a name tag with one side that says, “Government regulator,” and the other that says, “Corporate Functionary.”  The new pirates are flipping their nametags so fast that they themselves get confused; except that they always know that every transaction must be skimmed regardless of the name under which it is done.

* * *

But to properly grasp the full effects of the present foolishness and thievery we must remember that the human presence on the earth has great power: from our sheer numbers to the immensity of our technological capacities.  It is instructive to understand that in the history of the species, for the last 70 thousand years, our numbers, energy use and technical/environmental powers have increased, year in and year out, under the impress of basic human motivations.  The increases were marginal at first, then dramatically more pronounced than almost any other species and then rapidly exponential in a manner never experienced in the history of life on earth.

An aberrant great ape, an animal with all the nature of nature, but armed with the new adaptations of information manipulation and imagination, has found itself in possession of capacities and powers beyond any agency’s competence, natural or unnatural, to control within ecological biospheric realities.  It is this understanding that must inform our thinking about the present economic and political situation.  It is the expression of these powers, manifest in various forms of human groupings and concentrations that we are living through.

There can be no expectation of ‘rationality;’ rationality itself is a construct grown of our manipulation of information.  We live within the forces of present momentum; ideas can only form from existing ideas.  And our existing ideas are a confused collection, a flotsam washed onto our present shores: Jesus and Buddha swim with quarks and cesium 137; “job creators” drive yachts through a sea of the unemployed, “employing” them as it were, to buoy up their travel; life is honored by keeping the cells of a coma victim alive; and honor crashes on the rocks of deception.

What is clear is that this will not change; it is not a problem, but a process that must be followed one agonizing step at a time.  No matter the clarity of vision that isolated individuals may have; these are like points of light, stars, in a dark sky – enough for beauty, but not enough to illuminate the scene.  Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Goethe, Kant, Mill, Darwin, Whitehead, Einstein, Zinn and a night sky’s worth of similar luminaries from all the ages have been more observers and summarizers of the process than instigators.

Of course, it is part of the animal, with the nature of nature at its core, to ignore most of this as irrelevant in the moment and ply on, those with vision and those without, to make the living time and place as rewarding as possible – and so the process surges on without a moral and with no certainty of prospect other than that eventually the process will run hard against the fact that the earth has its limits [1].

One might think of a great machine powered by billions of treadmills, hamster wheels, most connected together, singly and in groups, by various Rube Goldberg contraptions; the whole thing lurching along without the slightest shared conception of where it is going.  From time to time regions of treadmilling fall into a synergistic synchronicity that spreads then dissipates like the once ordered ripples on a pond return to disorder.  The human mind grasps at these ordered moments, stringing them together into narratives that seem to make the whole thing sensible, seem to offer the promise of influence, direction and correction.

And so it is that we must confront the fundamentally schizophrenic nature of human life.  On the one (human) hand, the total human population is like a massive mindless machine forced by the collected motions of its parts in directions and with consequences utterly beyond the capacities of its parts to comprehend or control.  Yet on the other, within selected domains of the machine, individuals and communities can direct the patterns and experiences of their daily lives on time scales that give the clear impression of personal prerogative.

It is not necessary to be a Zen Buddhist to rationalize this chasm of difference, but it helps.  The Buddhist doesn’t ask why one should keep on doing “the right thing” in the face of its apparent uselessness – it is simply a matter of the spirit of the Buddha to do the right thing, defined by the 8-fold path and other principles.  It is understood that life is suffering, that mass action is irrational and destructive, but so what: living correctly is not to be rejected just because the world is madness, rather it is the only possible answer to the madness (though, obviously, not the only response!).

Of course, it is not necessary to be Buddhist (to be Buddha, to be of the species), but is necessary to have some method to decide the “right things.”  And it is important to not be confused to the point of paralysis by the schizophrenia of human life.

* * *    
Somehow we (some of ‘we’) must bring together the conditions of the first paragraph and the analysis that follows; this is a bit like realizing that as you are sitting quietly reading you are also, if you are at 36ยบ latitude, traveling about 900 miles per hour in an easterly direction.  All of ‘we’ are no longer allowed the “sitting quietly” paradigm – space travel, as metaphor, in some form or other has been thrust upon us all and we disparately need to come to a comprehension of its forces and motions.

Why is this so? Because nothing alive is prepared for the mystery of life and nothing sentient is prepared for the mystery of sentience.  If an earthworm had to respond to life’s mysteries it would be in as hopeless a position as humans as we try to deal with the consequences of the incredible expansion of our powers through the machinations of consciousness.  Just as the wise advice to give to the worm would be to simply be a worm, it seems almost the only advice that can be given to the human; yet we have passed that possibility.

If we look back at the opening paragraph, and severely limit our wishful thinking, it should be clear that the processes of the last few hundred years have produced a moment in which a tiny few humans have found themselves in possession of powers never before possible on the face of the earth.  These powers, having hardened a sense of superiority and privilege into an unbreachable fortification, and guided by the opportunities of globalization and the corruption of, especially, the American Empire, are presently driving the massive mindless human machine toward a new iteration of an old idea: absolute domination of the earth, uninhibited by biophysical reality; the aberrant ape gone wild.

[1] It is not that Malthus, Ehrlich and others are wrong, it is rather that they have not yet been shown to be right.  That a short period in which food production has been carried, on the back of technological discovery, to exponential growth to match population growth doesn’t reject the most basic recognitions; it only defines the conditions under which immediate consequences can be avoided for a time.  And the conditions for avoiding limits have increasingly been concentrated among half of the earth’s population while the other half is left to wallow in greater and greater states of deprivation.  It is obvious that those with the luxury to plan are preparing for a future of reduced capacity of the earth to meet human needs -- with all the terrible implications of that simple statement.