A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: We Are What We Perceive
Saturday, July 9, 2011
It Is Really Pretty Simple
For all the complexities that we face in this crazy world, there are still general patterns of simplicity that can be discovered. There are many examples, but these two give the flavor:
•The millions of substances of the universe are combined from the 90 or so natural elements by quite simple rules systematized for clarity in the Periodic Table of Elements.
•Millions of extant and billions of previous species of living things are, or were, organized into integrated systems of interaction called ecosystems, and all by the very simple and easily comprehended principles of natural selection functioning through the DNA/protein information nexus.
But what about the political and economic confusion that we presently endure, to which we respond in an ad hoc process that seems to carry us deeper and deeper into trouble and uncertainty? Might there be an understandable organizing principle, a comprehensible simplicity that, while it may not give us the tools of control, could help us avoid the gravest dangers? I think there is, though it is not so simple as the theories of electron structure and evolution.
Comprehending the overall simplicity our human muddle can come from understanding that every species has characteristic behaviors, often as, or more, defining of the species as physical characteristics. Therefore humans have an expected behavioral set. Secondly, the behavioral characteristics of a species are evolved to a defined environment. Therefore humans have expected conditions of environment to which and in which their behavioral set is evolved. And thirdly, organisms living in environments to which they are not evolved either die outright or adapt their evolved behaviors in ways that almost always are destructive of both the species and the environment. Therefore humans, by creating their own ‘environments,’ are adapting a behavioral set evolved to the environments of their origin in ways destructive of themselves and the earth.
This is really pretty simple. What makes the application of such simplicity very very complicated is the aberrant behavior that forms as adaptive product from evolved behaviors in inappropriate environments; there are no real limits to the variety of such adaptive behaviors, these are behaviors that arise without orderly underlying principles. Sociology and psychology find patterns, correlations, but no satisfying unifying principles. Freud tried. Skinner tried. Maslow tried. Others tried. But they were attempting to organize aberrant behavior into coherent species-consistent principles. This would be like trying to find the underlying principles that generate baseball, poker, field hockey, chess, clue, chicken, marbles, war, ‘cowboys and Indians’, etc. Wittgenstein tries to explain this one: we “know” that there are combining qualities, just not what they are.
In a perverse symmetry, the more complex the understanding required the more numbingly empty the attempts to understand. So that today’s thousand generations of efforts and distortions are reduced to “God is in his Heaven” and “greed is good.” We must do better.
Often a metaphor helps: Imagine a regulation pool table with 16 balls on it. With sufficient accuracy of measurement, the behavior of the balls could be well described through many changes. If the size of the table were to be increased to that of a basketball court with the number of balls corresponding, detailed description becomes more difficult, but only by the addition of the number of interactions; each interaction remains in the strict service of the laws of motion. Nothing is changed by moving to a ‘table’ the size of a city, a small nation or a continent.
But what if somehow the balls contained a ‘memory’ of the regular sized pool table, if table size and ball number were important in developing the orderly response to the laws of motion, and that the ‘memory’ influenced the way that the balls performed the motion laws – with great accuracy on the regulation table, but less and less so as the table grew larger and larger. On the basketball court sized table the balls began to ‘forget’ how to exchange momentum, began to vary the elasticity of collisions and vector collisions developed subtle confusions of angle. These affects increased with increasing ‘table’ size until regions of the ‘table’ functioned by regional pragmatically adopted rules of motion attempting to give order to less and less well ordered interactions. The ‘memory’ was sufficient to realize that there was something to remember, just not what it was.
In such a situation there could be only one form of solution; to recreate the essential cues of the regulation size table. The most obvious way would be to cut the huge tables down to “natural” size, but there would be other ways also. Balls could spend a certain amount of time on regulation tables, return to the big tables with the restored ‘memories’ for a time until they began to forget how to perform the physical laws again. The big tables could be sufficiently demarcated into regulation sized areas that most of the balls most of the time retained reasonable behavior.
It is possible that some balls, once having lost the capacity for exact correspondence with the physical laws of motion, might never recover; they would need to be kept away from the others on the table since orderly interactions would always be disrupted by them. They would be easily identified on a regulation-sized table, but not necessarily recognized at all on a huge one.
If the metaphor is appropriate, then we need to define the size and nature of our human informing space. It is becoming clear that our present expanded world will not give up its secrets of order – because it has no secrets of order. I believe that we must begin by looking at the Paleolithic and prePaleolithic forms of human organization and at the patterns of behavior that are found in those primates most like us. If that informing space can be reasonably guessed at and tested for its consequences, an option to our madness is possible.
This, of course, has already been done and for thousands of years. Looked at in terms of the metaphor above it can be imagined that some balls, by chance, would find themselves in appropriate spaces and regain the capacities for “normal” function; then try to ‘report’ (interact by the rules) this to others. But the telling of ordering and purpose is not feeling it and only the feeling of it is informing; the telling is just another story among a thousand stories.
This is so important that I am going to, perhaps, over explain. If you are confident that the meaning and application of the metaphor are clear to you, then just skip to the end.
What are the parts of this metaphor in the natural and unnatural history of our species? We are, of course, the balls and are generally of common form and function. Humans are formed by the same biological process of development as every other living thing: a set of instructions stored in the form of a DNA/protein structure. But, and this is vital, no information that is stable and readily available from other sources will be stored as the DNA/protein instructions, but will be ‘stored’ in the stable and consistent surrounding conditions. In terms of the metaphor, there is no reason for the memory of the balls to include the dimensions of the table if tables were always of regulation size; however, the information for properly relating to physical laws would require the regulation sized table to be properly expressed. The table is the environment in which our form and function are expressed.
When we make large and self-generating changes in the environment, we remake and remove the essential conditions for the development and expression of our specieshood. And so, our relationship to the very conditions that inform and allow life to exist begins to fail.
There is no way to recover our true understanding or integrating behaviors by “understanding” our present functioning. Only by having a sense of specieshood can a perspective be had and maintained that will guide the Many toward the behaviors of organized demand and sacrifice that can restabilise both our material and behavioral relationships with the planetary surface.
The first and most important step is to localize power. The consequent distortions of national and international power relations cannot be incorporated into any meaningful action for the recovery of either environmental stability or psychological health. A new book, A Perfect Moral Storm, by Stephen M. Gardiner (Philosopher, Univ. of Washington) purports to struggle with these very issues.
Somehow a significant number of us must discover ways of ‘returning to our roots.’ You see, we have known this all along! The ‘easy way’, like taking up the plow and raising chickens, however, will not do for enough people to make a difference beyond those that actually raise the chickens.
We have overshot too far for the landing to be soft. But that doesn’t mean that we must despair as the only or even first emotion. There are ways to discover how to live the life the human animal was born to; given the press of the future perhaps some of us had best get to it. It is only in the act of real self-preservation, as a functioning member of the human species, that there can be a future for our species and for many others.
Such a way of life sees the present Randian capitalist/fascist thinking for the insanity that it is. Being fully human is a community based life, meditative and active. And today it must be scientific – not supplicant to the science establishment – in respect for the processes of skepticism and discovery.
A species values, that is, evolves its behaviors and material actions for, its young above all else; even a digger wasp has a longer functional ‘sense’ of generations than modern human institutions. The most difficult concepts to put into action in the present economic environment (a very big pool table), concepts of present restraint in support of generational fecundity, are natural to communities of affection and responsibility (the regulation table).
It is really pretty simple after all. We can understand and we can decide for ourselves to make the effort to become sane and retain sanity. Build and find community. Seek the clues and guides to living as a human, what I call specieshood. And if there are enough of us, we might even become the barbarians at the gates of the Mad Empire.