A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Language As Tool And Trap

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]
* * * 
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.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fear as Adaptive Device and Political Instrument


Preamble: In today’s world we identify a variety of “primary” emotions, and many shades of the primary ones.  We even lay out an emotion wheel like a color wheel and sometimes bend the wheel into a cone to model both the quality and quantity of emotion.  But like the color wheel there are basically two forms of emotion just as there are warm and cool colors: the emotions of approach/attraction and the emotions of avoidance/rejection – this is how we live, how life functions; we try to move toward objects and situations that benefit the living condition and try to move away from (or remove) objects and situations that endanger the living condition: the rest is enigmatic detail.  The primary emotion of approach is a feeling of wellbeing.  The primary emotion of avoidance is fear.  And just as successfully negotiating an approach can morph into whole varieties of related feelings, situations that first and foremost begin with fear tumble through a number of related states depending on how events progress.

Human bodies do not bring the whole profusion of emotional states into the world, rather we bring relatively simple patterns of motivated approach and motivated avoidance to the new complexities of “modern” life; it is these complexities that organize our basic emotional simplicities into the apparent patterns of emotional expression exhibited today.  Emotions have always been the interaction of a few physiological states with a variety of environmental events; the formation of emotional states without immediate and clear environmental referents is, at base, destructive and pathological.

There is slow fear and there is fast fear.  There is unforeseen fear and there is strategic fear.  Yet, all move in the body and mind similarly, through the basic design of this physiological ‘emotional’ state.  Fear is simply the organizing force and design of the body, mental processes and (for social animals) community for response to potential damage.  Danger that has no premonition only has consequences: a floor collapses from under you and you control your fall as best you can; “fear” comes later.

Slow fear and fast fear are part of our evolutionary history.  Dangerous animals, plants and situations are in the world – dangerous meaning that animals and plants are either adept at protecting themselves or are adept as predators, and that physical forces, like gravity or lightening, can create harmful situations. Slow fear mediated caution and fast fear organized immediate personal and social action, importantly, (almost always) in response to real dangers.

Unforeseen fear and strategic fear are largely new, meaning that these origins of physiological fear states were not a significant part of the evolution of the fear response. Having a deep and intimate knowledge of one’s environment and the highly probable patterns of life obviates unforeseen fear, and the “all for one and one for all” adaptive structure of hominin tribal communities greatly limited strategic fear as a social device.

The balance of reality based fears, formed from recognizable environmental sources, to undefined fears has been turned on its head.  There are few occasions today of environmentally perceived slow fears organizing caution within a community, rather amorphous states of fear predominate for which no meaningful action is generally recognized as effective.  Fast fears have few predicable sources and few appropriate responses – often the most effective response is to be unafraid; not an especially natural response.  “All we have to fear is fear itself,” is a recognition of the existence of strategic fear.

A major consequence of this is that fear has gotten a bad name.  Environmentally based slow and fast fears are perfectly fine emotions, tuned to the conditions and occasions of ‘normal’ life.  This is so true that many people would not even call much of what is motivated by fear in these originating forms as fear at all.  More and more today the idea of and word fear is restricted to the “unnatural” fears, unforeseen and strategic; we are afraid of what we do not know, what we cannot see coming and what we are told to be afraid of.  Just how unhealthy this is for individuals and societies is increasingly clear.

Physiologically, fear is not designed to be a constant condition, but rather a transitional state that motivates action and, thus, dissipates the fear response through adaptive behaviors.  Two examples: (1) Slow fear: I learned as a small child to walk in the swamps and palmetto/pine barrens of central Florida with great caution; there be dangerous snakes in remarkable abundance! And yet, I, and my friends, walked and played there with ease.  A tiny rush of cautionary fear would color the moment if the ground could not be seen ahead of the next step forward, and immediately and completely dissipated when a palm leaf was moved or other action was taken to disclose the area around the advancing footfall. (2) Fast fear: I once surprised a sleeping mountain lion in the New Mexico wilds, both of us on foot. The quality of my attention and speed of thought was pushed up at least an order of magnitude for the ½ an hour or so that the lion and I played primal tag through the juniper/piƱon woodlands.  By the time it quit following me – when the ground cover became more open – I was spent; all that was left was exhilaration, and I had never felt any emotion that I had previously known by the name of fear.

Unforeseen fears are things like the random acts of “violence” for which no meaningful precautions can be taken; it is especially these fears that are useful strategically.

The essence of strategic fear is not that nothing can be done, but that ‘you’ can do nothing while some ‘other’ can mitigate the danger.  This is a most unnatural condition; living things have always had the tools to take on environmental realities, individually or as social collectives and, when as social collectives, individuals were full partners in the responses to the dangers.  This is obvious from the simple fact that living things exist as individual phenotypic representatives of their genotype (think it through)!  Unforeseen and strategic fear pervert this 4 billion year old reality.

The essence, therefore, of strategic fear is the separation of individuals from the information needed to evaluate and prepare for dangers.  This allows two options to those who position themselves to use the fear response of others for their advantage (the nature of strategic fear).  The first is to control information about real situations and the second is to manufacture dangers that do not exist in reality.

There is simply no natural reason that the realities of the situations that we face cannot be made clear to all the participants in society – the only reason is that strategic fear is so useful to a select few.  If the people cannot act individually and as communities on the actual slow and fast dangers that face us, as individuals and communities, then there will be no future.

(The next essay soon to come: populations in states of strategic fear vs. populations in states of wellbeing.)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Which Way the Wind Blows


If you have ever driven across western Oklahoma, you may have noticed a strangely disconcerting habit of the trees: they grow bent toward the east.  At first you may notice three or four trees, all bent in the same way, exciting the question of why a farmer would plant them and shape them that way; then begins to resolve the recognition: all the trees are bent, single trees, sparse groups of trees around abandoned farm houses, shrubby wind-breaks around tenacious inhabited homesteads, all bent toward the east.

From the wind tunnel tested quietness of an air-conditioned car zipping along I-40 at 70 miles per hour these trees are an enigma. If, however, you stop and get out of the insulated travel contrivance, the solution becomes clear.  The wind blows from the west constantly.  Not just a breeze, rather an almost constant strong wind; it is said to have driven people mad, and it does bend the trees, not just for the moment, but actually grows them to fit its unseen presence.

Billions of tons of air, moving relentlessly over the ground at 10 to 30 miles an hour (and at times gusting to higher speeds) shapes the new growth twigs, the twigs grow into limbs, the limbs become the secondary trunks and all bend to the direction of the wind.  Where does the wind come from – this universally shaping presence?

It must come from some place or process beyond our common understanding.  It is not random; it does not relax.  Some force creates and sustains it, but that force cannot be seen on the far horizon; from there, there is just more wind.  Travelling west into Texas, and then into New Mexico, there is only more wind.

Study will supply an answer; the shape of the ground and motion of the earth, the heating and cooling of land, water and atmosphere, the latitude in relation to the jet-stream – nothing that can be seen from living on the ground in western Oklahoma.  But, the effect is clear from the ground: a steady unrelenting force that chances the world by its constant shaping influences on everyday events.
* * *
I think it no coincidence that the Koch family is from this part of the country.  Just as the wind shapes the trees, the visual and visceral metaphor of unrelenting pressure shaping life is as constant as the wind.  Add to this metaphor the power of wealth, wealth in such amounts that can it act like solar energy exciting the atmosphere, and the conditions are ripe for a political/economic wind bending the actions of politicians and the attitudes of the people.

Understand, the trees are growing in their normal response to gravity; they “think” (in the genetic ways that trees think!) that they are growing straight and tall.  They are only bent relative to an objective notion of vertical.  The constancy of the wind bends all of the trees and so they are all normal within their space.

For someone born in Sayre or Hobart, someone who has never left the place – like someone who has never had their views broadened by questions that challenge their parochial values and understandings – straight growing trees would be unusual and disconcerting.  How is one to understand that the winds may stop, may blow from the east or north or south.  How is one to understand that Christianity does not support Libertarianism, that wealth is not a measure of God’s favor, when that is how the wind blows from every radio every hour of every day.  People bend to the wind too.

The wealth of the Koch family, and a few others, is so vast that it has become like the motion of the earth, like the jet stream, like the radiant heat of the sun and is driving the political and economic winds; bending all before it.  The bending has come to be accepted as normal; growing straight is becoming the unacceptably aberrant.  Billions of dollars concentrated by the interests of small groups bend the headlines of news stories.  The editorial writers for newspapers bend in the wind.  Voters’ ballets are scattered by the wind in predictable directions.  School boards, city councils, state legislatures, Governors, national representatives, all levels of jurists, presidents all bend to the unrelenting movement of the money power blowing over and around them.

What is the substance and source of this “wind?” What gives it a consistent direction? And, what is its history as a force?  These are basically “meteorological” questions: such questions are answered by the accumulation of myriad details, organized into patterns of influence so that, we learn, a dropping barometric pressure presages a storm; changes in humidity and temperature, direction of wind, ocean surface temperature and a dozen other variables predict weather over the next few days – and, properly modeled and understood, predict climate over the next 10s and 100s of years.

The study of these economic and political winds is contained in the details of our history; it is abundantly clear.  However, in a perversity common to many human behaviors, the prevailing forces actively bend these understandings to the benefit of narrow, but powerful, interests.  For example: the details of economic analysis make clear (clear as the fact that high humidity is a presage of rain) that, in the present western economic model, progressive taxation with a 50% or greater taxation rate for high incomes results in greater economic stability, reduced poverty and generally healthier society.  But this ‘obvious’ conclusion must be blown into a new shape, otherwise, the power of wind generation is reduced.  When taxation is less progressive, when rates are low for those who have found a way to accumulate abundance from the society’s economic activity, economic power is concentrated and winds blow hard with the constant bending of all the activities of society.

If all the activities of society are bent by the economic and political winds, seeing and understanding how the world might form without those forces becomes very difficult, and impossible for most people who must go out into those winds every day.  But, if it is realized that the force of these economic and political winds are coming from a condition over which the people have power, that collectively we can change the humidity of money power, change the barometric pressure of political interest, then the forces that bend our every experience of life can be reduced from hurricane and tornado levels, can allow more local, benign and comprehensible influences.

It becomes, therefore, a direction of the constant and bending wind toward those sources of influence that might inhibit them: education, organized society (meaning the organizing of labor since almost all of society ‘works’ for a living), the fecundity of women (a condition that inherently rejects the bending of their children’s lives), common leisure from which experience of and desire for ‘straight growing’ might develop, the physical commons from which the people might have experiences free of the prevailing winds, social safety nets and health care from which the people might acquire the courage and strength to bend back against the wind.  And finally all the minor tempests that swirl and buffet the society into confusion whenever it appears that some organized experience of the prevailing winds might be coming clear to a significant segment of the people.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

More on Conservatism and Liberalism


Preamble: Focus on the details of current events without some general principles to organize our thinking leads only to greater confusion and less clarity.  Assad, ISIS (ISIL), Sunni, Shia, rebels, insurgents: even when honestly attempted, these are still descriptions of a stirred ant-nest.  The same can be said for fracking, carbon tax, sequestration, climate deniers… or for any other of the contentious concerns that profligate humans have stirred up.  We are certainly complex, but we are still only an animal born of the evolutionary processes by which every other organism has come to the world; and we are understandable when we can see our actions from an appropriate perspective. 

Broadly, there are two forms of what is conflated together as politically conservative.  It is no accident that such a conflation has occurred; one form is parasitizing the other.  Historically, political conservatism may be understood from its dictionary definition: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

This form of conservatism has a long and essential history in the human social process. The tension between traditional attitudes and values (implying those values that have been adaptively efficacious) and new attitudes and values (implying those values that are in the process of adapting to changing environmental and social conditions) is the primary means by which effective human action is arrived at.  Those people who are constitutionally conservative, in principled opposition with those people are constitutionally liberal [1], serve the body of the community by keeping the focus on what has worked well in the past (a good, but imperfect, predictor of what will work in the future) while novel solutions to new situations and problems are being presented and tested – solutions that may lead to success or to failure. 

Obviously, this only works in a community structure where these two ways of generating responses are realized as equally valuable by the community as a whole, a generally conservative position in itself.  Novel approaches are allowed their opportunities within the framework of established principles.  Long working designs are not discarded easily; new designs for actions (beliefs, attitudes and values) must prove themselves and are given the chance to do so.

However, such a benign presentation should not hide the fact there can be considerable tension between these quite different ways of looking at the world. New attitudes challenge tradition; new forms of action advantage new constituencies and often disadvantage established ones.  The leveling force is the main body of the community and its “conservative” position that all factions have a say, that new situations sometimes call for novel solutions and that proof of new options be given a chance, but in the context of established “reality.”

This has worked very well over much of human history to both allow for adaptive change and to keep the pace and variety of change within the comprehensions of the community.  Seen with perspective, neither the conservative or the liberal position is correct, nor should they be; the function of such a design is to keep the human community well adapted to the surrounding world as that world changes.

There are two elements that have come to torture this design, essentially, beyond recognition, and are presaged in the above: the advantage shifting of change and the effect of the rate of change on the comprehensions of the community.  The leveling force of the community depends on change not disrupting too dramatically established hierarchies of influence and not occurring so rapidly that efficacious adaptive responses cannot form.  And so, because human populations and technical development have been increasing exponentially, the leveling force of native community conservatism has been lost from the adaptive process. [2]

We have certainly not stopped adapting, but have, for a few thousand years, been changing faster and faster with greater and greater disruption of hierarchical structures and community comprehensions of our place in the world. This leads to a distortion of the natural conservative position and the natural liberal position; both of them entrenching into their own sub-communities.

When people with no real dedication to either the principled conservative position or the principled liberal position, but with only advantage seeking as a goal, pursue their interests in an environment largely free of a comprehending community, they are free to pick and choose those aspects of the adaptive process from which they can gain.  And while both conservatism and liberalism offer advantage seekers opportunities, it is the natural conservatism of the community (even in its lack of real comprehension – especially in its lack of comprehension) to which advantage seekers most often appeal.

Remember, conservatism is about continuity, maintaining hierarchy and seemingly successful adaptive designs.  Liberalism is about novel and almost always untried solutions to real problems that, many times, the community has not yet clearly identified.  And when changes in physical and social environments are coming faster than can be incorporated into the community’s adaptive processes, advantage seekers can offer the community simplified “think-tank comprehensions” about which the community can become “conservative,” thereby favoring those who present themselves as like-minded.

These advantage seekers are the second form of what has, today, been conflated with the principled conservative position.  This has gone so far as to redefine conservative in such a way that the principled conservative position (which would reject raw advantage seeking) is increasingly denied as a worthy value.  Imagine, as in a sci-fi film, a human body being invaded by an alien form and taken over while continuing to have the appearance of the original person. [3]

Of course, the advantage seekers have not avoided liberalism, leaving it to remain in its original principled form.  Novelty creation has been co-opted, offering the ordinary as “new, bigger and better.” The “individual” effort of novel solution-seeking has been perverted as the “freedom to seek personal advantage,” free of biophysical and social restraints: the Libertarian infantilization of community values.  But, these are only local co-optations, liberalism’s evidence based problem recognition and solution seeking may meet the advantage seekers goals in technical pursuits, but not in social and political realms.  “Liberal” education and devotion to evidence based, scientific process, understanding do not serve well the advantage seeker; too many questions are created for which the “new” conservatism has only, fairly obviously, self-serving answers. (see Conservatism’s Yellow Brick Road for more on this issue,)

[1] Of course, these broad habits of process don’t exist in a pure form within a person; each person contains elements of both, and could not live in the world successfully otherwise. The difference is that, on balance, one person will generally approach daily events by calling on socially agreed behaviors and attitudes while another person will see each event as potentially unique, calling for specially discovered behaviors and values.  Intelligence in the first case is used to justify the existing models even as they fit less well and intelligence in the second case is used to fit new solutions to events.

[2] Once community is effectively removed as a central principle of design, only advantage seeking is left as an ordering principle.  It must be clear in attempting to use advantage seeking as a way to defeat advantage seeking, it is this model that has been used to replace the force of the community, that it will always be turned against any resurgence of community principles.  Community values and advantage seeking are antithetical.

[3] If we follow this analogy more fully, it is clear that for such a total takeover the very DNA of the original person would have to be selectively denied expression or rewritten along with existing learned motivational designs.  Similarly, the basic biological designs of human community must be crippled for advantage seeking to replace human communion.