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. 
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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.

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