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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Life We Will Not, But Must, Live: part one

The world is a very complicated place: from quantum mechanics to auto mechanics and political correctness to living correctness; it is easy to get tangled up in the cacophony of the many unconnected events that impinge on us daily.  But, there is still the interplay of the immediate present and the consequential future within which our lives and the lives of all future generations, of both humans and the rest of the living earth, will take place.  It is that ‘consequential future’ that we have relegated to the most narrow considerations possible – because it is convenient to do so and because a comprehensive view is hard.

Here is an almost cartoonish comparison that illustrates: the ‘seventh generation’ ethics of many materially simple people and the ‘quarterly report’ ethics of people gathered into what are presently called ‘corporations’ (we use the term corporation as though we actually understand what it is and its functioning in our social/economic/political world).  Even making sense of the quarter year is too long a time scale in the current Trumpian political space; we are routinely overwhelmed daily, even hourly, with deeply significant possible actions from this administration; actions that seem to be driven by the immediate and the personal and even the pathological; actions that in ‘seventh generation’ thinking would be considered wildly ludicrous, if not insane.

The questions of how best to live a human life, one that fulfills the evolved nature of the human animal are laughably irrelevant in ‘quarterly report’ ethics.  Ways of living that adapt both the species’ existence and individual members’ lives into the immediate ecosystem and the biophysical space as a whole… and that recognize the specialized and powerful newly evolved adaptations that humans bring to the world… are completely removed from consideration.
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Humans are the first animal to evolve on the earth that have belief as an important organizing principle (I entertain the possibility that other members of the genus, Homo, might also have adapted belief, but ours is the only species that has fully expressed belief outside of the dominant control of the ecosystem).  Belief is special in that it is inherently unlimited by biophysical reality; all other species have their physical form and behavior structured within and tested unceasingly by biophysical limits.  Our species also existed for many tens of thousands of years using the adaptation of belief as a powerful tool within the guardrails of the biophysical, but belief (and its primary supporting adaptations) escaped these limitations – by imagining and believing that we could [1].

We developed what I am calling the Consciousness System of Order (CSO), within which imagining is a basic function.  Belief, a sense of will (free or otherwise), a specialized awareness, language (its powers of information transmission and storage), art and ornament (again information transmission and storage), technologies (a form of solidified imaginings) and the various forms of human organization are all part of the CSO.

Of course, the CSO is not a stand-alone function, but is completely interpenetrating with motivation, emotion, cognition, learning and any other behavioral forms that might be definable; the CSO is an information handling and organizing system formed of the many cognitive behaviors (and the physical structures that supply them) found in other animals, but not organized into an integrated system as in humans [2].  The result is a completely new and internally sustaining way of organizing information: selecting, storing and implementing information in ways never before occurring in the known universe.

The CSO construct is not the thrust of this essay, however, only a necessary element in understanding how it is that humans have gone “right” and how we have gone “wrong” in our relationship with the biosphere – the final frontier, as it were, for our adjustment to living on the earth.  Our consistent, successfully maladaptive, approach to living in defined ecosystems is now confronting how our ways of living function in the total ecosystem, the biosphere, and, with that confrontation, all the rules – the things we have come to believe in – have changed; the biophysical reality is reasserting itself on the human animal with the absolutism that has controlled life on the earth for 4 billion years.

Our imagination allowed us to conceive of a sharpened stone tied to the end of a stick; imagination also allowed us to believe that we owned the plants and animals that could be collected with that stone-on-stick. And the imagination of and belief in owning made all things possible, more than possible: right and necessary.  The stone-on-stick and the hundreds and, then, thousands of variations created powers of control over, and the power to change, the immediate environment; human numbers went from thousands to millions and the domination of the land went from a few hectares for a hunting and gathering village to thousands and millions of hectares for agriculture, mining, travel ways, and habitations; the structures of ecosystems changed as we removed competing plants and animals – as we changed both the chemistry and the shape of the land itself.

It was once realized (imagined in close comportment with biophysical reality) that everything taken from the environment required compensation – not understood as an ecologist might and not as thoroughly implemented as a fully integrated member of an ecosystem would do.  Though this understanding was trivialized over the many years into sacrifice rituals, there remained a seed of truth: one must give to receive. However, the imbalance of ‘give and take’ became more common: years of salinization, over grazing, over hunting compensated by a basket of grain, a goat or, if really serious, a human child.  Again, imagining and belief; if the child is valuable to us, then it must be valuable to the earth. 

These are the ways that we have gone astray: With the voices of imagination and belief guiding behavior, the daily whispers of the environment are overpowered; the consequences of not listening were put off by the stone-on-stick and its increasingly many variants.  And if conditions became too difficult the people could move to another place less reduced in fecundity.   We have evidence of this process from 30,000 years ago and it began in earnest in various places 10,000 years ago. 

Each new generation believed that it didn’t apply to them, and so, has been continuous and unattended until that old recognition is forced upon us by the ultimate power of the environment: the failure to continue to supply “free services”: fertile soils, fresh water, unpolluted air, waste recycling, predictable climates and the host of intangibles that invigorate life.

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There are several facts that must be stated, believed and acted on if there is to be continued existence of the present ecological structures and a majority of the present plants and animals (a large number of species of both plants and animals have either already become extinct or are in such perilous condition that their end is almost certain).  I intend some relevance to the order of presentation, but am not wedded to it.

1) Wealth and power inequities must be challenged relentlessly. The beliefs around wealth superiority must be vanquished and the present inequalities seen as the theft that they are.  The distortions of society and the pathologies created in human beings by such accumulations need to be made an open part of our discourse.

2) There must be an immediate reduction in the activities that produce global consequences on the biosphere. This includes the production of carbon dioxide, methane, biocides, many fertilizers and more.  Also, the release and over use of antibiotics, the massive production of meat animals and actions that increase the distribution of disease vectors for both humans and other species.

3) The gathering and destruction of “wild” animals and plants must be forcefully regulated or stopped completely for some species. Over fishing, whaling, sport hunting, exotic pets and plants are all unnecessary and endanger the survival of individual species and ecosystems.

4) Some meaningful controls and limitations on the actual possibility of using nuclear, chemical and biological weapons need to be structured in both political terms and in technical solutions.

5) Moral and ethical beliefs need to be structured that allow for and guide the reduction of world human populations toward 2 billion or less over the next hundred years. I list this last knowing that many might think it primary, but last  because, without the others, this would be an entirely useless exercise.

Reading through this list a thoughtful person will almost certainly agree with the need in all or most cases, but also realize the ‘impossibility’ of making these changes. I think it true that no direct assault on the present economic, social and political system can accomplish even a tiny percentage of the need; only the failure of the environment to supply the “free services” upon which life depends can force these changes directly – that would be, of course, an irony: most of the living world would have to die for the world to be saved (the other possible option is all too obvious: authoritarian domination and the murder of billions).  There is, however, another way; a way of great uncertainty, but the only way that has even a small possibility of successfully accomplishing this list while maintaining a shred of what we call humanity.

I wrote above: “…(when) the voices of imagination and belief (are) guiding behavior, the daily whispers of the environment are overpowered; the consequences of not listening were put off by the stone-on-stick and its increasingly many variants.”

Upton Sinclair said that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I broaden, simplify and remove some of the distortion of economic context by suggesting that ‘we become what we consistently put our hand to.’ And I mean actually put our ‘hand to’, only putting the ‘mind to’ is not the same thing.  We all put our hand to something, and if that something is ‘nothing’, then that is what we become (I know that this is not very generous, but bear with me).

What are we to put our hand to?  If you turn a tap and water flows forth at 50 PSI ‘forever’ without you making the slightest effort to make it continue, then you have put your hand to turning a tap, not to getting an essential life sustaining substance. If you work a pump handle pulling water from the ground, water flows when you move your arm and stops when you stop; if you carry that water to where it is to be used, feel its weight, avoid spilling and wasting because the measured work of your body is there in every liter…then you have an ecological relationship with water.

If you walk a mile, you have absorbed the mile into your body; but, not so if you are carried. If you collect or grow your food, if you dispose of and compost your own waste, if you design how to stay warm when cold and cool with hot and dry when wet, if you learn to live watchfully with the dangers around you without demanding their destruction or removal, if you discover ways to compensate the biophysical space for what you take from it (first realizing what you do, in fact, take from it), then you will have put your hand to living in the world as an associate, as a partner with the rest of life.

Well…this is certainly too much to ask! Everyone can’t possibly do these things, and in many cases there would be laws preventing such a way of life.  And so the dilemma: What must be done is too much to ask.  In such a case it is time for imagination and belief to be devoted to the need, the need to do what cannot be done: this is the province of the imagination. The list of “the impossible” that human imagination has made possible is the story of the CSO’s construction of new probability structures for the possible.

[1] Belief is the ‘mental’ hormone. In general somatic physiology, hormones set the processes to some organized outcome, guiding the functioning of both biological and perceptual events. These patterns originate by evolutionary processes and are, therefore, adapted to species’ roles in ecosystems.  Belief plays a similar role by also organizing biological and perceptual events into coherent behaviors of not only individuals, but groups of individuals; and not just in the moment, but over time and space.  There are, however, no biophysical limits as to what can be believed, and no natural forces of order holding belief to comport with biophysical reality.

[2] The CSO’s relationship to the LSO (the living order) and the PSO (the physical order) is weakly analogous to LSO’s relationship to the PSO. The LSO is a completely new way of organizing and handling information that is completely interpenetrating with the “Laws of Nature”; there is nothing in any action that is new, only the way the actions have become organized.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Understanding, But Not Understanding, Obama (and Black America):

(The recent events in Missouri and the general naiveté of “white America” encouraged me to reprise this essay written in March 2011. Nothing has been changed from that earlier rendering, but the contextual emphasis is less on Obama and more on the nature of the Black Experience.)

There are many issues this spring leafing out on that tree!  They have to do with ambition – something that his peers fully understand and others might have hints of.  They have to do with raw talent and capacity – something beyond most of his peers, supporters and detractors.  They have to do with the gauss count of his moral compass – a very difficult quantity to measure.  And they have to do with his worldview – since this is the most difficult and ambiguous, it is one that I will write about.

Understanding of such complexities begins at home. A simple man will find it impossible to understand a complicated one (without help); a computer is not repaired with a hammer and chisel.  A good bit of the difficulty in understanding Obama arises from this fact.

In part because I grew up in a clash of cultures, in a house of secrets, in a town of secrets, in a land of secrets I became what might be called socially hypervigilant.  And it is hypervigilance [1] that I see in Obama as one of the main principles that serves up his experiences.  It becomes so natural, so ordinary, that one forgets that everyone doesn’t experience in the same way.

As I understand Obama’s history he grew up as the outsider.  An American black kid in Indonesia, a black child in a white family and a ‘regular’ black guy in American society.  While much of that history is not in my experience, I have watched, with my own version of hypervigilance, blacks in American society; paying vigilant attention at remarkably high levels is required.  As a metaphor, think of most people only needing and being able to see and respond to four colors, and most minority people being required to see a million colors and to make importantly difference responses to those colors and their various combinations.   They also learn quickly not to try to explain that world to the color blind and color challenged.

In my experience of the American south, blacks must not only be acutely aware of what is happening around them, they most also seem unaware and disinterested in exactly the right amounts.  The perceptual acuity and concentration required are enormous.  The dominant society has its 4 color prescription for the acceptable behaviors of minorities which is mindlessly and ruthlessly enforced.

Obama has to be a master of these skills.  He has always been, I would guess from his first real sentience, a seeker of the way; building a body of skills and habits within which he was safe, or safer than without them, and with which he quickly discovered he could control his world.  One price is that not one person in a thousand (or more) can see the world as he sees it. 

This makes him dangerous as the most important man in the world.  No matter what he tells us, it is not the truth; we can’t possibly see his real truth, and, possibly we “can’t handle the truth” should we see it through his eyes.  But is he more dangerous than the 4 color seers who defile him or those who would replace him?  Almost certainly not.  When Obama is not ‘telling the truth,’ it is often because what he has to say is so difficult to translate into communicable form; the others are just lying [2].

I believe that there are lots of black folks in the US who understand this, but they won’t tell – the unaware and disinterested rule, remember.

Up to this point I have been operating on the assumption that Obama is an honest man; here is where it gets dicey.   Knowing how to read and understand him would be difficult enough were he completely honest, but if he is dishonest like (almost) all the rest of the political world, then where are we?  Then we have a president who is a master at seeing the subtle hues of all the colors, understands their nuance and is willing to lie about their meaning for his own advantage.

People like McCain, Huckabee, Barbour, Bachman, Gingrich, Palin and Romney tell such transparent lies that all but their sycophantic followers are embarrassed for them.  Just a little learning and their 4 color world begins to look colorless and empty of useful solutions.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that they can’t get into positions of power and cause a lot of trouble by applying simplistic, self-serving notions to complex problems, but it does mean that we can watch in informed horror as they do it.

Obama is another story.  What seems a lie may be the truth.  What seems distance and disinterest may hide the closest attention.  What seems concern and engagement may be pro forma sidestepping.  If I am right, Rooseveltian resolve is as foreign to Obama’s deepest comprehensions of how to think and act as the rainforest is to the desert.  And yet, I think that Obama might be trying to be the more honest man.  He farms out his administration’s dishonesty to his staff and cabinet.  Roosevelt did the opposite; he could lie easily and so keep around him some number of people with moral wisdom exceeding his own.  If this is so, then we might understand the meaning of Obama’s choices for retainers in a new light.

Some people seem to disclose themselves completely in their public selves.  Others have a public persona that is accepted as fully adequate, though not exhaustive of the person.  Some seem understandable, but not especially transparent.  And yet others present a public exterior that not only hides, but is intended to hide the machinations of the person beneath.  There is a fifth category much more complex, people who deflect personal evaluation and press their designs for action onto the ‘natural’ behaviors of others.  The socially hypervigilant person often finds this a comfortable way to function; and they can, if they are smart enough, stay in control of the vast amounts of information needed – up to a point.

I have been befuddled and outraged at many of Obama’s choices of people to serve among his minions, not the least by Emanuel, Summers, Geithner and Gates.  These men are self-serving functionaries devoid of human feeling compared to a Frances Perkins or Eleanor Roosevelt, devoid of the capacity to inform a president of the order of magnitude difference between operating the levers of power and the humanity that must be vested in a leader of living, breathing men, women and children.  And I continue to be deeply troubled by adding Daley and Sperling to the mix.

But these are people that can be read like a children’s book.  They have a one dimensional presented nature; like tools: a hammer for this, a saw for that.  They are the people a hypervigilant would select.  Hilary Clinton is the most complex person in the upper reaches of the administration, though she knows how to deal with people like Obama and Bill Clinton; she was a safe choice.

There has been a great deal of confusion about Obama among the people who are his natural supporters; is he a liberal?  Is he a good man playing with bad people?  Is he a bad man playing with good people?  Is he playing chess with conservative checker players? Or my question, is he playing chess with progressive checker players?  It just might be that he is playing chess with everyone – all the time.

Ultimately, I don’t think that we can know.  I don’t think that we will ever know for sure, will not even be able to finally measure the man against the actual results of his administration.  It is almost impossible for it to have been otherwise.  The first black man elected president would almost have to be a question wrapped in an enigma.

Obama is probably the most dangerous president we have had since FDR – dangerous in the sense of being president at a time when great damage can be done to democratic governance – and is, like FDR, among the presidents most unlikely to seek to do the nation ill; his capacity to protect the nation is another matter.  But the nation will be changed dramatically and forever by the events that occur during his presidency.  And it is almost a certainty that Obama, the man, will never be clearly seen with his hand on the guiding controls of national power.  And no, this is not a good thing, but it may well be in the nature of the man to watch us all very closely and try to stay a step ahead of our actually understanding him [3].

[1] I am using the term hypervigilance in a somewhat, though not completely, different way than it is used in psychological diagnosis as part of PTSD.  I am surmising a social, systemic form of vigilance that is extreme and integrated into a complete behavioral system appropriate to circumstances; it is generally explained in the text of the essay.  Here is another example: where I grew up there were more rattlesnakes and water moccasins than almost any other place in the country.  Children learned to look very closely when walking or even opening a door to the outside since there were often rattlers on the cement porches warming in the morning sun or gathering warmth in the evening – the stories I could tell!  To this day I do not step over a log or a rock or otherwise put my foot down without checking around it.  I even notice a little twinge stepping around a blind corner inside buildings.  To some extent my minor obsession with visual pattern recognition might be related to the adaptive ‘hypervigilance’ appropriate to walking around on the central Florida Gulf coast palmetto fields and mangrove swamps.

[2] 4 color seers, of course, cannot recognize the difference.  Complexity for them is always a lie and the inherent dishonesty of simplicity is their truth.  This is a deep problem for the species as we find ourselves confronting a complex reality and needing understanding beyond our present habits of adequacy.

[3] Check my essay Obama Is No Country Song written right after he was elected.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Populations in States of Strategic Fear

(Please, read the previous essay, Fear as Adaptive Device…, before reading this one.)

While our experience of life in the present world says otherwise, human societies are very unnatural structures.  We talk of nations, religions, mega-corporations and other vast collectives as though they have substantial existence and understandable definition; they do not.  In another of the many paradoxes that attend our present “realities”, the bigger and more complex the structures of our organization, the simpler, more primal and less generally adaptive must be the principles holding those organizations together – the less full human expression and experience can be manifest in them. These large collectives are organized around single emotional/behavioral states like greed, fear, and illusory wellbeing; whole societies can be characterized by the primary emotion of their structure. [1]

It would seem that this should make social collectives understandable and give them substance, but no; each individual unit, the human animal, that makes them up has all the complexities of the evolved species and, thus, is both diminished by the acts that fit them to their society and floundering in their struggles with the unavoidable demands of their biological complexity.  Ultimately, a huge collective must adapt to being organized around some powerful biological/emotional element that has predictable consequences on the collective’s participants: that emotion is almost always fear; just as, it was said, ‘all roads lead to Rome,’ all large-scale social organizations have adopted fear as the central principle.

This has been going on for a very long time, for as long as human social collectives have been numbered in the thousands or more.  Fear-based social organization is so ubiquitous, and our projection of fear-based processes onto the world beyond the social is so complete, that it is almost impossible to realize another option.

Wellbeing is the other option, but because wellbeing is based in a gestalt of needs satisfied, the structural principles are diametrically antithetical to fear-based societies; there is no paradigm of transition from fear to wellbeing in the structure of large collectives even though these two conditions are (were) completely mutually supporting in their origins.  How to deconstruct, then reconstruct those relationships and apply them to larger social organizations than the tribal communities of our origins will be the measure of our future as a species.

First, fear-based societies: How is a fear-based society recognized? It is simple; make a list of what you are afraid of.  Here is a sample: crime, being cheated, losing a job, being slandered, being devalued, the power of authority, police, taxing agencies, other drivers on the road, the anger (really the fear) of others, disease, costs of medical and legal services, lack of accurate information, strangers, the “enemy,” loss of freedom, economic or social collapse, people who believe differently, people who don’t like you, environmental collapse, random violence, sexual perversions, God’s wrath, the elderly, the young, the future and all the specifics and variations that can be made of these. 

Such societies tend to have a fear du jour.  The habit of fear makes this a simple process.  In fact, without a fear of the day the free-floating fear state would not have a ready reference, and could become dangerous to the economic and political elites that use fear as a controlling principle since the focus of ‘national’ anxiety might turn on the, actually, easily observable, dangerous actions of the elites.

Now make a list of how society supports your sense of wellbeing.  This is a more difficult list; don’t let it be only a list of how fears are limited or relieved (see the footnotes).  Here is a hypothetical example: my neighbors and I share resources so that no one is forced to face dangers alone; I can express my ideas and concerns freely knowing that I will be heard with respect; the principles and forces of social order are designed to respond to my interests, not to enforce my obedience to some arbitrary standards:  Since we live in a fear-based society, these are more wishes than statements of our condition!

I leave it to the reader to fill in specific examples of how the fence lines and corrals of fear control daily movements and actions, for both themselves and for the sub-communities of which they are a part.  But these will most likely involve money, credit, social prestige, loss of material standards of living, militarized authority and an amorphous physical fear of the desires and powers attributed to “others” beyond our immediate experience. The sense of wellbeing will come from close association with trusted friends and from illusions of protection supplied by religious and related pathologies. [2]
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In modern societies only human action seems significant; biophysical processes are seen (if they are realized at all) as substrate conditions upon which “real life” occurs or inconveniences to be overcome.  This is amplified by the fact that many real dangers do come from the effects of our human numbers, the design of our economics and vast influences of our technologies. But, even though these dangers are certainly real, the use of strategic fear by economic and political elites has been to increase them rather to diminish them.  In other words, the fears of the general society are used to make societies more dangerous rather than less.

This last has been, until now, very difficult to see from the position of the so-called middle class societies of North America and Europe.  These centers of illusory wellbeing were organized around the relief of fear, not genuine wellbeing; and we are beginning to see how easily the transition is made to the direct use of fear in those societies as the power elites move to globalized control of populations and resources.  

There are primarily two real dangers to fear, and to act on in the natural pattern of this essential emotion: (1) the disruption of the biophysical systems that allow complex life to exist and (2) the insanity of a power elite that works assiduously to maintain their authority and their incredible excesses of resource use.  The plethora of dangers we are told to fear – the fears du jour – focus our attentions in the wrong direction, with purpose.  We must find our sense of real wellbeing in supportive community, refuse the strategic fears delivered to control us and realize the real dangers from the power elite and the destruction of environment (the two are closely connected).

The redirecting of fear is itself frightening – changing old habits of such great consequence – but it is beginning; one need only look to the real attitudes of your neighbors and friends.  And since the refocusing of attention is beginning we can expect the quality of the dangers served up to us to increase, both in illusion and reality.  But, the nakedness of the attempts to control societies by fear will only become more and more obvious as the dangers are made more and more real.

[1] Fear and wellbeing are primal motivational (emotional) states; temporary relief from fear is not wellbeing, though it has come to be seen so.  The full emotional state of wellbeing has become rare.  Greed is the infantilization of the normal developmental process, an emotional neotony.

[2] Religious behavior has not always been pathological, though it has always been illusory.  When humans lived in intimate contact with biophysical reality, the details of which were beyond their understanding, adaptive processes adjusted behaviors to function effectively.  Explanations for the behaviors were most often fantastical, both because detailed understanding wasn’t possible from the existing knowledge base and because the fantastic could have poetic power.  In today’s world, religions are madness driven by biological impulses with only circular self-referencing as guide; they are a perfect vehicle for the delivery of illusory fear and illusory wellbeing – the very essence of strategic fear.