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 29, 2012

What Do You Believe?

There has been recently a great deal of interest in discovering underlying differences between what has been called the conservative mindset and the liberal mindset.  Never mind that the words have had, largely unacknowledged, revolutions in their meanings, still a great body of both evidence and speculation has been generated.  The consequence, in general, is that the so-called conservative mindset rejects the whole project while the liberal mindset has tended to, at the very least, find it interesting.

Intelligence, fear motivation, curiosity, emotional loyalty, mental flexibility and a variety of related measures have been implicated as differences, along with authoritarian impulses, the parenting styles of the families of origin and even variations in the brain’s structures.  Still, there is confusion – if, in fact, there are real differences other than the system of ideas that a person holds.

I have known intransigent liberals and there have been, and must still be (though they are rare in the public square today, having been driven out by the other kind), flexible, tolerant conservatives.  However, what the research and theorizing suggests is that those who identify with the list of liberal ideas tend to be flexible in their thought and those who identify with the list of conservative ideas tend to be inflexible in their thought.

Those with a conservative mindset can rightly claim that liberals are wishy-washy and never right about anything; and the liberal mindset can rightly claim that, like a broken clock, conservatives are exactly right twice a day for a split-second, but never know when that is, and so, assume that they are right all the time when they are almost always wrong (right for some part of 2 seconds, wrong for all of 86,398 seconds, a day).

Ignoring the labels for a moment, the question for me is, “Can a person consider that their model of reality might be wrong?”  Ultimately this is neither a conservative or a liberal styling since any look at the history of human thought, belief and action clearly demonstrates that our species, both as societies and as individuals, is capable of thinking and believing almost anything – and acting on those ideas and beliefs.  In other words, the models of reality that we use to make sense of the world and to act on the world are not themselves real, but only adaptations that allow us to function in our present circumstances.  The faster our circumstances change the more important it is for us to realize and act on the fact that our present ideas and beliefs are not absolute.

Unfortunately, that look at history will also show it is common for, especially ‘civilized man’ to double-down on beliefs and behaviors as the conditions of the world begin to shift beneath his feet.  It is completely understandable that we would do what worked in the past when uncertainty increases; and further – in civilized societies – the economic elites are protected, by their wealth and power, against especially the early stages of uncertainty and will work very hard to maintain conventional systems long after they have become dysfunctional and even dangerous.
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All this analysis is well and good, for our thought process if not for increasing the accuracy of our models, but must eventually be followed with actual changes in how we think, believe and act.  In the past our numbers and influence were small enough (even though completely unprecedented ecologically for millennia) that we could cycle through great rising up and great crashing down.  Of course, individual lives have experienced significant fulfillment and extraordinary suffering in these motions, but the total of the world was not seriously perturbed by either our success or our failures.  Such is not the case today.

It is not an exaggeration that any great crashing down of the present human machine would almost certainly result in a terrible extinction event and possibly in the destruction of all but the simplest forms of life on the planet.  An ecologically driven general economic collapse would see over half the earth’s human population die off in perhaps a year or two; and in the process a bite would be taken from every animal that could be caught and plant that seemed eatable, a judgment that would change dramatically over time.  If, in this process, several nuclear power plants were to catastrophically fail and/or if nuclear weapons were to be exploded, the extent of the damage to living systems can hardly be imagined.

This is, of course, an outcome that both conservatives (except for a few insane religious zealots) and liberals wish to avoid.  But we are right in the middle of that doubling-down period, and this time especially exacerbated by an economic elite with almost “everything” to lose from the only ideas that can pull us through.  If we followed the experiences of the past we would proceed with the “normal” trajectory: crash and adapt our way to the next rising up.  No one in the know believes that that is an option this time.

Here are some of the changes in what we believe that we need to get on with:

Wealth is a pathology and a crime: the wealthy have, through both direct and influential control of the world’s communications, created the idea that poverty is a crime – and, as an added insult, that the crime is somehow against the wealthy.  Actually wealth is the taking of the labor of others – Marx had that part right all along.  No one should have more wealth than the poorest person can understand the consequences of.  No one should have less wealth than the most wealthy person can fully understand and empathize with.  I am postulating that this is about a 10:1 ratio, but it could be established empirically.

There should be no concentrations of wealth that are not held by the commons, and more importantly, most wealth must be left in the custodianship of the natural ecology:  Corporations should be groupings of people and their talents with a specific chartered purpose, a purpose that meets the needs of the community; they should not be an essentially super-organism that functions to destroy ecosystems and accumulate material wealth.  The great concentrations of real material wealth must be administered by the commons and no person or collection of persons allowed to dominate others by using
such concentrations of material wealth.

Human living standards need to be defined by the mode (the most common condition), not the arithmetic average and certainly not by the extremes.  The earth has fixed limits for how much can be produced in a given amount of time.  Life styles and expectations must remain within those limits and they should be the standard against which we judge the behavior of others.  When people are subjected to expectations that are unattainable and ultimately destructive of the supporting biosphere, human societies and individual lives are driven to ruin.

No person or class of persons can live with impunity: at no time in our human history has there been perfect justice, nor should there be, but at no time in history other than this time have so many lived so near to absolute impunity; whole social and economic systems are being constructed from the gains that such impunity has allowed.

Humanity, as a species, has been living with impunity in failing to realize, accept and act on our responsibilities to the natural world.  No species of life has ever successfully avoided compensating its ecological relations with appropriate material and behavioral returns.

Every person beyond early childhood, and not limited by infirmity, must supply some significant portion of his or her own material needs: human beings must discover and rediscover ways to live within the limitations of ecological reality.  There is no better way than to make it the social expectation that everyone regularly confront that reality by meeting some significant part of their own biological needs with their own hand.

Property must be seen as a responsibility to the community, not as Blackstonean domination. Ideas of Property must be reexamined with a mind to turning those ideas toward more nuanced notions. When John Locke was thinking about property, his experience saw all property as being under the command of a king; his ideas regarding ‘private property’ referred to ownership by a private citizen contrasted with a king, not contrasted with a collection of private citizens or the natural world. 
* * *
The list is longer, but this will do for a start.  I am not suggesting to make this list or any other into law, but rather to begin the process of changing minds.  The first step is presentation; unless an idea is presented and repeated and repeated it cannot be heard, and not being heard, will not exist.  As beliefs, these ideas would guide our behaviors, not enforce them.  They would be standards against which to judge the actions of our fellows and especially those who would aspire to lead us.

I am confident that if we get from our present dilemma via some route that avoids major economic and ecological collapse it will be through some version of these ideas becoming a part of our adapting belief systems.

There are 7 billion people in the world; 10% of those are wealthy by almost everyone’s standards, 700 million people; these are people who are economically safe. One percent, or 70 million people, are very rich.  They can buy just about anything they want within reason. Roughly 0.1%, 7 million people, are the superrich; they can buy anything they want without recourse to reason and much of what they buy is protection from accountability for their great wealth, protection in the obvious form of guarded estates and bullet proof cars, but also politicians, judges, armies, media and any other device that might save them from having to answer to the rest of humanity for their greed.  And 0.01%, 700,000 people, dominate the world in which they live with complete and absolute impunity and ultimately insanity.

The remaining nearly 6 ½ billion are either of no consequence, people whose lives do not matter, or they are “the children of our earthly god” –  human action run to uninhibited extreme.  Which leads me to a final belief that we must make return to center stage: All life is the most awesome property of the stuff in the universe and must be treated with the utmost respect.

Our present beliefs in “free market” economies, racial and ethnic inferiorities, superiority of the wealthy, human exceptionalism and dominion over the earth, many religious ideas from the old desert religions and many more will doom us.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Diogenes in America, part two

My continuing search for ‘what makes a good person’:

What follows are brief descriptions of a number of interactions with various folks on my way across the country and then some thoughts about putting these experiences in context with these times.  I have not put the events in temporal/geographic order, but present them as they come to me.

• The state park campground in southern Louisiana had a shower.  I had spent the morning repairing some minor damage to my bike suffered on the way to the park, was “southern sweaty” and ready for some relief from the heat and humidity.  A man was coming down the steps (southern Louisiana – sensible construction builds on stilts).  He was tall and a bit overweight, bald, middle 40s was my guess; in the course of conversation he disclosed that he was here on a camping outing with wife and kids. 

I first spoke to him about the pleasures of a shower in this heat.  Before many minutes he was telling me about his life as a truck driver – 20 years on the road.  Before many minutes the shower freshness had given way to the sweat that tries to, but cannot quite, cool the body even when resting.  But the man needed to talk.  He was intense and thoughtful, and haunted by a young woman who had “committed suicide by semi” a few years ago, driving straight off a rural side road directly into the front of his cab.  I asked him questions about truck driving and he confirmed a number of suspicions that I had about just how aware truckers were of other drivers and especially motorcycles.  He thought that taking a truck driving course should be part of getting a driver’s license since cars make the road so dangerous for truckers.  I don’t know how long he would have stayed talking since I needed to be done with preparations and get on the road, though I think it would have been awhile.

• The attractive middle-aged woman in the office of the state park campground in central Texas had an English accent of the educated London variety.  I said, “I like your Texas accent.”  She looked up a bit wearily.  I followed with, “I suppose you have heard that before.”  To which she responded somewhat wryly, “From almost everyone.” To which I responded, “So my attempt to be unique has utterly failed,” a response, it turns out, that was unique. The whole visit took no more than a few minutes with the filling in of forms and the collecting of moneys, but is example of the tiny pleasantries of the road.

• In Gainesville, Florida I was pulling into a gas station at the exact moment when a scooter was pulling up to the adjacent pump, a medium sized scooter with driver and passenger.  I waved them ‘the motorcycle wave’ almost always restricted to bikes of some size – I think the unofficial cut off is 650 cc.  They both smiled, minimally laughed and seemed to get the joke; beautiful young people.  Deciding to use cash, I went in the building.  A man in the short line asked the year of my bike and where I was from.  I told him 1981 and New Mexico.  The girl, a couple of people ahead of me and at the register by now, said, without turning around, “Oh, so that is what the ‘N M’ means.” (The ‘NM’ on my motorcycle tag is tiny and was partly hidden by packing straps and bungees; it would require some attentive effort to see.)

• Traffic on I-10 began slowing down several miles outside of Mobile, Alabama.  Pretty soon the 2 lanes heading into the tunnel under the harbor waterway came to a stop.  It was the hottest part of the day, no wind and completely exposed on the wide expanses of hot concrete – the worst possible place to sit and idle an air-cooled motorcycle engine.  I parked on the shoulder for an hour or so hoping that the traffic would begin to move; there was no choice since running with the traffic at 2 or 3 miles per hour would have destroyed my engine.  Eventually I got off the Interstate and rode into Mobile. 

I stopped in a little gas station/convenience store that had the clerk in a bullet-proof glass cage; my suspicions about it being a dangerous area confirmed.  A few, not especially dangerous looking, people came in, but I was still uncomfortable.  I was there for a few minutes looking for options, both in the store and on my phone’s map app when two young men came in, one white, one black.  I noticed their car, a mat-green military SUV. The white guy was my height, six feet, and the black guy maybe six four. Both were remarkable creatures, heavily muscled, but not just body builders, but more big cat like; I figured them for special forces of some kind.  I asked them if they knew the town and they did not, also being escapees from the traffic jam.  An old man (actually a bit younger than me) heard us talking about the problem of there being only the one way to get across Mobile.  He came over and explained that we could take the ‘way-around’ that the locals used to avoid the problem and detailed the route – only a few blocks on the city streets right through the center of downtown to a little two-lane tunnel, a route unclear on the maps.

• It was getting late; sun going down as I was searching out a state park in rural Louisiana, journeying down smaller and smaller country roads.  Not only was the sun setting, so were the roads; that is, the one I was on begin to disappear.  As I progressed along, it went from paved, to broken pavement, to dirt and pavement, to dirt.  With the sun in my eyes and an unsteady road under me I was being careful, but not careful enough; I hit a stretch of slick mud and after a moment of wild uncertainty the bike’s front wheel decided to go one way and me another.  The bike slowed down quickly as its crash bar plowed a furrow through the mud, I, on the other hand, did a bit of flying and bouncing before stopping somewhat ahead of the motorcycle.

Before I was even on my feet a Louisiana country man and his children were on the road next to me.  A moment later a young man in a newish pickup stopped next to the bike.  The man from the nearby house and I picked the bike up.  With his kids gathered around we looked for damage – first to me and then machine.  

The young man in the pickup was not so sure that I was okay, but eventually was convinced that I was either not injured or was going to go on in any case.  The people from the nearby house were more hands-on and could see that I was moving naturally, was strong enough – that the bike was only bent in repairable ways and dirty.

We finally got down to stories: the week before a car had slid off the road in that spot, gone into their yard, destroyed the kid’s play house and was totaled.  I guessed that my episode was just not so interesting after all; and I rode on with handlebars askew and windshield twisted at a jaunty angle – if it had been a hat.
* * *        
Questioning readers might ask what these little narratives, and the ones from the previous essay, have to do with finding good people, but these are an important class of raw data from which we develop our view of the world.  Humans are complex and all, or any, of these ‘good’ people could be decidedly ‘bad’ in ways not measured in these short largely scripted interactions; such an observation is common place (‘I like your Texas accent!’), however, it is more telling than it might seem at first.

Part of what made these interactions pleasant and friendly was that they stayed within expectations of form, were largely non-judgmental and successfully preformed the functions understood and intended by all parties. The people actually wanted to help me whether it was getting me a cup of ice in Tucumcari, dealing with a beeping fire alarm in Crestview or refusing to accept payment for a stay at a campground in Louisiana; that they wanted to help themselves in the transactions for the multitude of reasons that unique humans bring to every situation didn’t diminish the summary power of the data: the people I meet in this trip were uniformly ’good’ people as I experienced them.

I traveled over 3600 miles, interacted with several tens of people for 10 days on the road and had mutually rewarding pleasant interactions with all of them (the one exception in the previous essay); where was the bigotry, small mindedness, ideological narrowness, dangerous ignorance and immaturity that seems to be setting the standard for the American polity (that’s polity, not poultry; I know it can be confusing)?  Did my interactions violate the principles of probability? Do only pleasant thoughtful people go to state parks, work in breakfast specializing restaurants, buy gas during daylight hours, rescue foolish motorcyclists, while the assholes were off doing other stuff.

Or was my sample of people actually random, yet the interactions I had with them didn’t excite bigotry and all the rest?  I’ve gotta say, as I scratch around in these kinds of questions, that the various forms of national narrative, those depending on there being a large percentage of seriously deformed people, become more and more questionable.  Something else must be going on and we (some important collection of we) had better get a handle on it.

Seeing the larger picture requires that we realize that the background expectation of goodness is what allows us to function at all: that people will give you correct change, that someone will give way on the road if you need to change lanes or get into the traffic flow, that someone will ‘cut you a little break’ from time to time or at least leave you alone – ultimately, that the baseline for human interactions begins face-to-face from a position of, at a minimum, neutrality ready to be, at a minimum, friendly.

The above list of human failings comes from another source; primarily, it comes from misinformation, most often intentionally promulgated by some self-interested minority. These bits of ignorance are almost always more than just a difference of opinion; that is amply demonstrated by the fact that our failings do not comport with our most naturally presented ‘goodness.’

Our societies have gotten more and more complex; it is expected that niches of activity will form in such societies that depend, for success, on both misusing and misinforming the vast majority.  As, by both accident and design, power is arrogated to such niches they distort societies.  But when we meet our fellows directly and in ways that give the option of civility and human concern most people take that occasion to be genuinely good.  Let it be clear, we could not live in a society that has institutionally and universally rejected goodness; a potential that seems possible for this society.

The underlying systems for the creation and distribution of information (and misinformation) determine the ‘goodness’ of the population as a whole – and a whole population can be misguided and dysfunctional while still being good in both their views of themselves and their direct interactions with old men on motorcycles.  When societies become schizoid in this way there is always a basis of recognition in the daily positive interactions that we have with our fellows; there is the chance that the destructive and distorting niches can be recognized and challenged.  Most of the essays on this site are just such an effort.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Diogenes in America

Caprock Canyon State Park, northwest Texas

Mine was not Diogenes’, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, search for an honest man; one of my guiding questions was the much less rigorous, “What makes a good person?”  And no, I didn’t begin with G. E. Moore; it was to be measured in my interactions along the road as I moved from New Mexico to Texas farm road to county road and small town to interstate, from local café to a Waffle House, from campground to campground and the one stay in a motel.  The summary first: in the tens of interactions only one was not generous in spirit.  This is not to say that the people were all good people (serial killers are often charming), but that the presentation of the human world across the country was, in total, a delight.

That delight was conditioned with other qualities of the interactions: neediness was one, another was the context of the road; another was the powerful contrast, almost cartoonish, that an old man in high-tech riding gear (my daughters call me ‘action figure Dad’) on an old BMW motorcycle made with the typical travelers. I was an open invitation for comments and questions, was generally non-threatening and easy to treat well.

To dispense with the one ungenerous moment: It was in the moderately sized town of Mexia, south of Dallas, on the east side of the unofficial border between west and east Texas – the less generous side of Texas in my experience anyway.  It was also an experience of no consequence; I was just the only thing available to yell at, back to the contrast thing.  I had pulled over to look at a map in preparation for finding my way to a nearby state park.  The road signs and the layout of the roads seemed to be at odds and it was the wrong time of the day for me to get lost – as much as I enjoyed that experience when fresh.  To the local toughs I must have stood out in the commonplace visuals like the sore thumb. So, the pickup drove by and an attempted, though incompetent, impoliteness was yelled.  Pretty good to be the only bad!

An interaction of a very different sort happened at a 2-pump gas station, the only one at a crossroads with Florida state road 267 that goes through the Apalachicola National Forest.  It is from such events that I am trying to divine the state of mind of my American brothers and sisters.

I had been on the road for about 4 hours after a late start on the day; it was hot with both temperature and humidity edging toward their own kind of 100.  I pulled up to the inside of one pump and began my ritual with helmet, gloves, gas cap and wallet.  A biggish pickup pulled into the pump next to me and the driver was looking at me and smiling the “my other car’s a Harley” smile.  About the same time a working van pulled into the opposite side of my pump – I didn’t pay much attention.  The driver of the pickup yelled over the introductory comments and questions.  His Harley was in Tyler, Texas, had a problem with the trailer, and his pickup in Utah or some such; just gassing up the wife’s truck for a drive to Ohio to visit relatives.  He admired my packing, that I could get a whole house of stuff on the bike.  I assured him that I also had a boat and a garage.

As we were wrapping up our little bit of rapid repartee, I noticed that a young man, thirtyish, had gotten out of the van and was shyly working his way around behind the gas pump toward me.  I devoted myself to the tank filling and turned to replace the nozzle.  The man was right there next to the bike. His voice was emotional; “That’s a great ride you have there,” he said.  I replied with something like, “Sure is. I like it.” 

I had clearly not grasped his meaning. And he repeated with emphasis, “That’s a great ride.” His voice was a little chocked up and he seemed almost teary.  I can’t speak for this specific young man, but it is my experience that especially in the rural south a country man can be taken unawares by events; rushing through my mind, ‘Could it be that he has been thunder-clapped by my apparent freedom? Could it be that he has a studied knowledge of the motorcycle that he would ride across country if he could?’  I meet his eyes, “Yes, it is.  I’ll look for you on the road.”  It was all in the emphasis: the ‘you’ was him on his own old BMW that he had built up and restored.  He smiled and I gave the throttle a little bump so that he could hear the tone of the engine as I rolled away.

I meet a man in Crestview, Florida as I was loading up the cycle after my one, less than comfortable, stay in a motel.  He came walking over from the other side of the parking lot throwing ahead of him a pretty standard observation, “You’re a long way from home.”  I said, “Yeah, five days on the road from New Mexico.”  He pointed to his SUV and at his NM plates.  Turned out he now lived near Houston, but had worked for more than 20 years in my town as a guard in the state prison: we knew some of the same people.  Further, he had been on the road with me from before Mobile and had first noticed me when caught in a ten mile long Interstate ‘parking lot’ created by the 30 MPH I-10 tunnel there.  I had gotten off the Interstate and roamed the surface streets in a rough part of town until finding a way around, but that is another story.

He was on his way to visit relatives that he had never met in a town that he had never been to: DeFuniak Springs (if the casual conversations are the humanity of the road, its place names are its poetry). 
* * * 
Throughout the trip I looked for local cafes and restaurants, both as an exercise and to stop at for my one sit-down meal a day (the rest were taken as “road food,” carried in the tank-bag).  My prototypes were the ‘Coffee Cup Café’ from my hometown in Florida, many miles and 50 years away, and a little 12 top in Watonga, Oklahoma, a locals’ place where I always got a pat on the shoulder and a wish to “ride safe” from some old man who used to ride.

They were all gone. The slightly bigger towns had “evening restaurants” and specialty lunch places, but not the gathering places where locals just naturally stopped in on their way from one place to another.  I rode through nearly 100 little towns: the Coffee Cups and the “our town” cafes were gone.  Maybe some were hiding out on side streets, but I gave these as good a look as I could at 25 miles per hour or from the occasional 4-way stop.  No, they were gone.

There should have been two hundred such places and I should have seen at least 50 of them as inviting.  The gas station “convenience store” had taken their place, along with Sonic, Pizza hut, IHop and such.  I went into one Waffle House in north Florida that was all locals.  Except for the machine stamped interior design and furnishings it was just like the Coffee Cup Café.  What did the mathematician say in Jurassic Park? “Life will find a way.”
* * *
On one of my forays onto the interstate I felt a side panel on the motorcycle come loose.  I quickly repositioned my foot and leg to keep it from flying off and found a reasonably safe place to pull over.  As I rolled to a stop my mind was fixed on holding the panel in place; I put my other foot down without adjusting to the strange position and the bike promptly responded to the wild call of gravity and fell over.  I was miles from an exit, sort of like being in the middle of a desert.  The other drivers were like space aliens who couldn’t-wouldn’t recognize me as a life form.

I tried to pick the bike up, which I can do without great difficulty unloaded; it stayed nailed to the ground.  I began to undo bungees and straps when I heard, “Could you use a hand?”  This was an impossible sound and collection of words and took a moment to process.  I looked up; parked a hundred yards down the shoulder was an 18 wheeler loaded with scrap metal and 30 feet away walking briskly toward me was a 50 year-old black man with a friendly smile on his face.

What I think these and many other moments mean will have to wait for next time.