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, June 2, 2012
Simplicity Of Our Complexity
The simplicity of our complexity is staggering. If we were looking back on the present from the distant future (modeled on how it is to look back on the Roman Empire or the Middle Dynasties of China) it would be easy to understand that the roles of master pirate, oligarch, thief and con-artist have been assumed by a loosely defined body of kleptocrats and financial manipulators; the so-called revolving door is really not so much a door as it is a name tag with one side that says, “Government regulator,” and the other that says, “Corporate Functionary.” The new pirates are flipping their nametags so fast that they themselves get confused; except that they always know that every transaction must be skimmed regardless of the name under which it is done.
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But to properly grasp the full effects of the present foolishness and thievery we must remember that the human presence on the earth has great power: from our sheer numbers to the immensity of our technological capacities. It is instructive to understand that in the history of the species, for the last 70 thousand years, our numbers, energy use and technical/environmental powers have increased, year in and year out, under the impress of basic human motivations. The increases were marginal at first, then dramatically more pronounced than almost any other species and then rapidly exponential in a manner never experienced in the history of life on earth.
An aberrant great ape, an animal with all the nature of nature, but armed with the new adaptations of information manipulation and imagination, has found itself in possession of capacities and powers beyond any agency’s competence, natural or unnatural, to control within ecological biospheric realities. It is this understanding that must inform our thinking about the present economic and political situation. It is the expression of these powers, manifest in various forms of human groupings and concentrations that we are living through.
There can be no expectation of ‘rationality;’ rationality itself is a construct grown of our manipulation of information. We live within the forces of present momentum; ideas can only form from existing ideas. And our existing ideas are a confused collection, a flotsam washed onto our present shores: Jesus and Buddha swim with quarks and cesium 137; “job creators” drive yachts through a sea of the unemployed, “employing” them as it were, to buoy up their travel; life is honored by keeping the cells of a coma victim alive; and honor crashes on the rocks of deception.
What is clear is that this will not change; it is not a problem, but a process that must be followed one agonizing step at a time. No matter the clarity of vision that isolated individuals may have; these are like points of light, stars, in a dark sky – enough for beauty, but not enough to illuminate the scene. Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Goethe, Kant, Mill, Darwin, Whitehead, Einstein, Zinn and a night sky’s worth of similar luminaries from all the ages have been more observers and summarizers of the process than instigators.
Of course, it is part of the animal, with the nature of nature at its core, to ignore most of this as irrelevant in the moment and ply on, those with vision and those without, to make the living time and place as rewarding as possible – and so the process surges on without a moral and with no certainty of prospect other than that eventually the process will run hard against the fact that the earth has its limits .
One might think of a great machine powered by billions of treadmills, hamster wheels, most connected together, singly and in groups, by various Rube Goldberg contraptions; the whole thing lurching along without the slightest shared conception of where it is going. From time to time regions of treadmilling fall into a synergistic synchronicity that spreads then dissipates like the once ordered ripples on a pond return to disorder. The human mind grasps at these ordered moments, stringing them together into narratives that seem to make the whole thing sensible, seem to offer the promise of influence, direction and correction.
And so it is that we must confront the fundamentally schizophrenic nature of human life. On the one (human) hand, the total human population is like a massive mindless machine forced by the collected motions of its parts in directions and with consequences utterly beyond the capacities of its parts to comprehend or control. Yet on the other, within selected domains of the machine, individuals and communities can direct the patterns and experiences of their daily lives on time scales that give the clear impression of personal prerogative.
It is not necessary to be a Zen Buddhist to rationalize this chasm of difference, but it helps. The Buddhist doesn’t ask why one should keep on doing “the right thing” in the face of its apparent uselessness – it is simply a matter of the spirit of the Buddha to do the right thing, defined by the 8-fold path and other principles. It is understood that life is suffering, that mass action is irrational and destructive, but so what: living correctly is not to be rejected just because the world is madness, rather it is the only possible answer to the madness (though, obviously, not the only response!).
Of course, it is not necessary to be Buddhist (to be Buddha, to be of the species), but is necessary to have some method to decide the “right things.” And it is important to not be confused to the point of paralysis by the schizophrenia of human life.
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Somehow we (some of ‘we’) must bring together the conditions of the first paragraph and the analysis that follows; this is a bit like realizing that as you are sitting quietly reading you are also, if you are at 36º latitude, traveling about 900 miles per hour in an easterly direction. All of ‘we’ are no longer allowed the “sitting quietly” paradigm – space travel, as metaphor, in some form or other has been thrust upon us all and we disparately need to come to a comprehension of its forces and motions.
Why is this so? Because nothing alive is prepared for the mystery of life and nothing sentient is prepared for the mystery of sentience. If an earthworm had to respond to life’s mysteries it would be in as hopeless a position as humans as we try to deal with the consequences of the incredible expansion of our powers through the machinations of consciousness. Just as the wise advice to give to the worm would be to simply be a worm, it seems almost the only advice that can be given to the human; yet we have passed that possibility.
If we look back at the opening paragraph, and severely limit our wishful thinking, it should be clear that the processes of the last few hundred years have produced a moment in which a tiny few humans have found themselves in possession of powers never before possible on the face of the earth. These powers, having hardened a sense of superiority and privilege into an unbreachable fortification, and guided by the opportunities of globalization and the corruption of, especially, the American Empire, are presently driving the massive mindless human machine toward a new iteration of an old idea: absolute domination of the earth, uninhibited by biophysical reality; the aberrant ape gone wild.
 It is not that Malthus, Ehrlich and others are wrong, it is rather that they have not yet been shown to be right. That a short period in which food production has been carried, on the back of technological discovery, to exponential growth to match population growth doesn’t reject the most basic recognitions; it only defines the conditions under which immediate consequences can be avoided for a time. And the conditions for avoiding limits have increasingly been concentrated among half of the earth’s population while the other half is left to wallow in greater and greater states of deprivation. It is obvious that those with the luxury to plan are preparing for a future of reduced capacity of the earth to meet human needs -- with all the terrible implications of that simple statement.