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
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
The Need For New Foundational Principles
Preamble: Proposing political and economic changes without establishing a new system of ideas (deep social change) becomes only a matter of reallocating the continuing form of existing power relations. The depth of the changes has to be more than ‘surface’ deep. A new system must address all the issues, explain and perform better than the old and extend into the future some degree of wisdom. In this way a new political/social/economic system is like a theory in science – the summation of the best evidence organized by systematic ideation and tested by consensus among those best informed on the matters at hand. There is no certainty here and the incentives of power, privilege and wealth are always nipping at the heels of the truth, but it is all that we have.
Broadly there are two ways to approach the organization of experience: one is to attempt to put together an understanding event by event; the other is to find some foundational principle or principles from which to evaluate events . Both methods have their failings. In the first case, there is no reason that the events alone will present any accurate picture of what underlies and organizes them, and further, the perception of events can be controlled by those reporting on them since over our many years and achievements there have come to be many more events of substance than it is possible for an individual person to directly perceive. In the second case “foundational principles” come in all forms from the completely insane, to the distantly removed, to the reasonably veridical; the primary danger is that the selection of such principles will be made to support some pragmatic and ongoing social or power relationship that offers no useful source of broad-based understanding.
It seems obvious that a ‘correct’ summarizing of many events would lead to the structuring of useful broad-based foundational principles; this is the essential process-based principle of science… as well as the essential Consciousness Order human adaptive process. It is also obvious that comprehensive, appropriate foundational principles applied to a cacophony of events could organize them into understandable systems of actions.
The sand in the gears is, of course, methods for establishing the correctness of event evaluation and selection of foundational principles. Science pragmatically ‘solves’ this dilemma with subject-specific training for research, clear expectations of ethical standards and peer review of research studies; and consensus requirements for the formation of foundational scientific theories. Science process, therefore, can only properly study events for which research rules apply, and these are generally quite strict – mathematically strict. This doesn’t mean, however, that important understandings based on how science process works can’t be gleaned and applied to the less precise, actually messy, world of daily life.
The sine qua non of human expansion of numbers and influence has been that rather than having to test all of our behaviors against the uncompromising standards of life and death – as do (almost) all the other organisms whose only tool for carrying information to the next generation is evolutionary/genetic process – we humans create “understanding” of events, plan actions tested in ‘what-if’ constructions and prepare optional actions based on ongoing details as they unfold. This has worked marvelously well, if not too well. However, as the ‘degrees of freedom’, meaning the limits of error for our actions, have been reduced by our increasing numbers and the incomprehensible power of our technologies, we have to be more and more right about everything…. with the rules of evolutionary process always there, ready to have the last word! 
The present methods for evaluating events and constructing foundational principles used in our social, political and economic lives is, and I stray a bit from academic understatement, completely fucked up. The great masses of people have a very tenuous connection to any information, good or bad, about the most monumental events. And what information they do get has been massaged (or butchered) to benefit those who control its delivery. The conclusion that can be drawn, must be drawn, is that attempting to gain understanding by organizing meaning from a summary evaluation of events as they are reported by media is haphazard at best, compromises understanding and impossible at worst.
The acceptance of the normalcy of this condition is madness. All organisms must have direct and immediate contact with the primary conditions of substantive reality as informational source and guide: not some organisms, not some members of a species and not some members of a society of organisms. It is a very simple thing. Without a consistent, veridical source of information, behavior becomes erratic and maladaptive. Humans have adaptations that allow them to put off the consequences of their profligacy for a time, but this only allows the digging of a deeper hole within which to fall. The conclusion is also simple: humans require a consistent source of information about the relevant facts of their world. This source must not be filtered through a self-selected, self-interested group since such filtering will distort information for the benefit of the self-selected, eventually leading the whole human enterprise to maladaptation.
The selection of commonly available foundational principles is just as disappointing. The most obvious list includes the dominant ideologies, religions and, distantly, philosophies. All of these have arisen through messy historical processes and are presently driven by flagrant self-interest narrowly defined by material wealth and power. And, all of the most widely held principles have come to be based on deceptions and lies. “Free market” capitalism has nothing to do with functional systems for the exchange and distribution of the earth’s productivity. Christianity, as a political tool, has nothing to do with the community-based values to which it once gave lip-service. Patriotism and nationalism have become weapons of power over the Great Many rather than binding forces for community. Other, less savory, principles include racism, sexism, other phobic reactions to the various detailed negative, rejective principles taken up by “dog whistle politics” to frighten and restrain: abortion, demonization of egalitarian principles, and general fear of the other.
Human cognitive processes and cognitive/emotional comfort require foundational principles with which to organize experience, but those most common today, suggested above, are not systematically derived principles; they are codes useful to some power center, propagandized to the general public. The dangerous truth is that we have no generally acceptable methods to arrive at ecologically sound, veridical foundational principles. There is only the struggle among competing illusions with their varying degrees of distortion, insanity and militancy to recommend them.
Christian, Jew, Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan; capitalism, socialism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, monarchism; ‘American’, French, Chinese, on and on; supremacists of all flavors! These seeming choices no longer have a future in the present world. They only lead to conflict; and conflict only benefits those who are positioned and willing to parasitize the living world.
Humanity needs foundational principles that incorporate ecological economics, especially ‘ecological footprint’ understanding based on the earth’s regenerative and productive capacity; biodiversity impacts on ecological stability; the increasingly clear understanding of the human condition from social biology, ethology and evolutionary psychology; the common principles of all ‘spiritual’ belief systems rather than the dividing specifics; applications of the principles of scientific and philosophical investigation to social valuing and status systems. There are more, but these would make a fine beginning. The dilemma is, of course, as noted above, there is no method or powerful constituency to move toward these principle-forming information sources.
 There may appear to be, to some people, at least a third way: a sort of fuzzy thinking gauzing over these two options. But, the failure to realize, or the active denial, of informational and neurobiological reality does nothing that hasn’t been part of human confusion for thousands of years – it is just the same old story told with what are presented as new characters. However, the desire to reject the bullying of a narrow scientism is completely understandable; those “scientists” who try to make science knowledge and process even more exclusive, than is the unavoidable consequence of the detailed study of anything, are doing a disservice to everyone (science should have no trade secrets!). The epistemology of science is not only easily understood, it is the basis of how we come to know those things that are undeniable across all cultures; in other words, those things that are fundamental to our existence.
It has become fashionable to (often smugly) reject evolutionary principles and even physical laws (especially when they are not understood). This reflects both the poor quality of education and the misuses of science, by what has become narrow scientism, to bulldoze people with ideologies that empower the few over the many. This is nothing new; religions have been used in this way for thousands of years; and as long as fuzzy thinking prevails, it will continue.