Visit the companion blog, Keye Commentary, devoted to more general topics.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Basic Nature of Conservatism Invites Co-option by Plutocracy

For all the folderol about the conservative and liberal minds, we can say without contention that there are certainly differences in the underlying history or biology of people who end up manifesting quite different reactions to the world around them, many of these differences unrelated to the details of belief.  And it is my deepest suspicion, increasingly supported by brain studies, that different ones of us are made differently in subtle ways resulting in a variety of reactions to the social conditions in which we live (see Chris Mooney’s book, ‘The Republican Brain’). 

How much these differences can be summarized into simple patterns is still a question, but a most basic distinction, independent of specific beliefs is really not so difficult: conservatives want and need everyone to be like them and liberals are not displeased when some people are different from them.

There are two types of liberals in this model, those who have learned by experience that everyone can’t be like them, even if they might want them to be, and those who are actually invigorated by the differences of others. Conservatives are of two types as well, those who see difference as a discomfort and social inconvenience to be avoided as much as reasonably possible and those who see difference as a danger and a crime for special condemnation.  It is important to note that the details of the difference are not the issue so much as the simple fact of difference.

It is a mistake to get caught up in the details of difference; detail is not the point, but only the definitional force of difference itself that matters.  The detail is only a means to an end [1], a condition of membership and not an adaptation to reality.  And because the details of belief are conditions of membership, these positions must be held with much greater fervor and certainty than other ‘elements of truth’ would ever be in actual practice.

A corollary condition follows: liberals are not primarily concerned with being like those around them, focusing more on events and evidence for decisions, while conservatives are more deeply sensitive to fitting in with what they perceive as prevailing attitudes.  The major method for influencing attitudes and decisions for them is to show that many people “just like them” think a certain way. 

These were both very useful habits of thought and action in our originating tribal life…when both attitude systems were represented with some equality and there were social expectations for honesty and fairness.  Conserving existing attitudes is important for social coherence and responding to culture-free evidence is vital for adaptation to the larger Reality.  However, if each system is isolated from the other and is allowed to form the view that its own result is absolutely correct while the other is absolutely wrong, neither system of thought can fully function in the total social context: the essential functional role of adapting species behavior to the larger exigencies of life on the earth. 

And it must be noted that in their most aggressive forms the conservative view must reject liberalism while liberalism can accept the differences presented by conservatism, though rejecting its absolutism as, at a minimum, counterproductive and distorting of reality; and finally noted that conservative rejection can be expected to be strident and liberal rejection of conservatism can be expected to be compliant and issue based [2]. Conservatives seem to try to understand liberals by trying to see what liberals do to make everyone think the same and liberals try to understand conservatives by studying how conservatives relate to reasoned, logical presentations of evidence; both, therefore missing the essential qualities of the other.
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The principles of philosophical and scientific decision making have been considered in great depth for thousands of years and need not be labored with here.  And the ways of those who are invigorated by the differences of other people function quite differently than fear of difference.  For now it is the process of ‘being like everyone else’ and ‘everyone else being like you’ – an essential tension – that is interesting.  It is unlike the “easy” discoveries of difference among people who value, or at least accept, difference.  How does one go about displaying one’s views, basic congenial communication, when to do so risks that the views may be seen as different from those around them?  There have to be coded processes, learned and practiced, that let a thought be exposed and then quickly withdrawn if it is suspected of divergence; a sort of ‘now you see it now you don’t,’ with a 2-second no foul rule. 

One of the consequences is that everyone can believe that everyone else thinks just as they do – and can, therefore, live in the perfect bliss of a completely accepting world.  A select group of opinion makers are appointed or self-appointed; people, who by virtue of their talents at perceiving, distilling and projecting the coded forms of many popular views, instruct others in how to say and how to do those things that support the common code (think tanks, for example).  The irony is, of course, that the attempt to manage a ‘completely accepting’ world is made by creating unspoken rules and codes by which differences are rejected.

Have you ever been around a monumental construction built of playing cards, experienced the tension and narrowed limits of movement required to allow the construction to have some permanence of existence?  First, the reason for the ‘castle’ is not questioned, but taken as a given reality.  And second, acquired from the first, all the behaviors required to avoid endangering the ‘castle’ are also considered essential.  The zone of influence expands from the table on which the construction sits to the allowable patterns of movement around the room, to the opening and closing of windows, to which doors have to be closed and opened in a given order, to the passing of trucks on the highway, to the flushing of a toilet in an upstairs bathroom, to…

A difference between this metaphor and the coming to a common pattern of conservative “reality” is that in the metaphor the movement of influence can be plainly seen.  However, the “I can only be safe if I am just like my neighbor and my neighbor is just like me” idea leads as irrevocably to the rejection of science, to a 6,000 year old earth and to religious fundamentalism…just as irrevocably as the requirement of having “no breezes around the card castle” leads to having to be sure that the door to the kitchen be closed before going onto the porch.

Of course, we all have our systems for measuring and informing others about what we are willing to talk about and willing to do at the various levels of relationship, that is not at issue, but it is the systematic process maintaining the illusion and reality that ‘you believe as me’ and ‘I believe as you’ acting as a primary social construction that defines a major part of the conservative constituency.

Conservatism is a way of life in a way different from liberalism, which is more a habit of thought.  The rejection of difference requires complete systems of control for all aspects of life in ways that the acceptance of difference does not.  It is really this ‘way of life’ that we so often hear is in need of defending.

This leads to present so-called conservative positions, while based on these quite deep human habits of thought and attitude, being co-opted purely as devices to herd people into groups that can be manipulated for the crassest reasons of power and influence.  But this simple and cynical fact doesn’t change the reality that these are fundamental ways to approach the experience of life.

A conservative-liberal synergistic dynamic works when liberalism supplies the belief system and conservative process maintains it; conservatism is uniquely ill-equipped to supply its own beliefs since its function is not to respond sensitively to the variations in reality, but rather to standardize beliefs for purposes of social cohesion. Liberalism does not produce social cohesion by its normal functioning. For these reasons, today’s “conservative” and “liberal” constituencies must contain their own actual conservative and liberal parts.  In a terrible perversion, the “liberal” function in American Conservatism, and increasingly elsewhere, has been taken over by the plutocracy (and as total plutocratic power increases it becomes more and more a “reality to be dealt with” in liberal consideration).

Since self-identified groups of humans require some means of feeling connected together by common habits and beliefs, then great influence can be had by supplying the form of those habits and beliefs. The obvious “enemy” of such an ascension to power would be those who might question both the elements of detail and whole idea of difference in the first place – who might wonder at the efficacy of a card castle in the living room – the liberal frame of mind.

And so an effective pincer-movement forms naturally, a movement that is episodic in human history, the conservative mind’s drive to eject difference is met in symphony with the powerful’s need to prevent any questioning of their devices of domination; and it always takes on a recognizable form: ‘kill the heretic.’  However, it is vital to recognize and keep clearly in mind that one set of forces is coming from the habits of the conservative mind and that another, using the same language and devices, is coming from the cynical forces of the powerful.  Unfortunately, this is a difference that the construction of the conservative “reality” is perfectly designed to obscure.

[1] It is a mistake to get caught up in the evaluation of detail, certainly a part of the liberal thought habit to look at statements for their content.  The detail of religious position, taxation, infrastructure repair and development, sexual issues, class issues, education issues, wars, sources of and responses to terrorism, ad infinitum, are means to ends and can be added to, subtracted from and changed endlessly without affecting the basic role of the rejection of difference as a way of solidifying a social construction.

[2] We see this so clearly in the conservative opinion makers, following the election, literally yelling that acceptance of the election result is not possible.  They will never compromise, never admit defeat beyond agreeing that it has happened (though for nefarious reasons).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Mediation on a Pool of Water

I was hiking in the low desert hills, built up by hundreds of small volcanic vents over millions of years – this is not only description, but also essential context. The late summer monsoons had rained well over portions of the area and while most of the water had run off or soaked down through the volcanic gravels, in places where the old lava was on the surface, pools had formed in basins of solid rock – watery mini-ecosystems in the desert.

Deserts are not like Disney movies: there is little highly animate life to see there.  Unlike the Florida subtropics of my youth with alligators, herons, gulls, snakes and myriad insects measured in hundreds per yard, a desert walk of many miles may have only the excitement of the flies-in-season or a female sparrow of indeterminate species. The times when water holes are reliably found, however, offer up a rare abundance.  It was such a day.

I stopped to observe, more meditatively than an act of science, a pool of brown-yellow water in what had been, up to 8 thousand years ago, a permanent stream flowing out of the higher volcanic hills to the east.  Little black dots appeared and disappeared over its surface. Tiny yellowish comets (fairy shrimp for the curious) came up from the hazy yellowish depths and with spiraling turns descended again. A mix of water bugs, shiny black bodies, sprinted about. Water striders, spidery-looking insects, walked on the water with God-like ease.  It was a complete world from the energizing algae to its top predators, tadpoles and damselfly larvae.  Of course, the few birds used its water for baths and nibbled a bit at its inhabitants, but these were largely externalities. Dead flies, moths and butterflies slid around the surface driven by swirling breezes. It was wonderful.

Soon the patterns of activities began to show; responses to shadows passing over the surface, one local flurry of action would follow another, moments of quiet. Seemingly random motion would bring nearly all the tadpoles to the surface at once, more than a hundred squirming black dots concentrated toward the center of the pool, and then they would appear in numbers half that or less.  In the bigger pools I had seen minnows, but not in this one.

If the rains were done for a time, this pool and others like it would dry in a few weeks, evaporating into several tiny puddles and then gone.  The animals watched today would all be dead, their eggs secreted away in rock crevices and the mud, soon to be dust. 

I could not, and did not wish to, fight off the sensation/intuition/thought of the thousands of seasons of these pools, the sensation of the kaleidoscopic spiraling of events from this moment back to the flowing stream, to the flowing lava and to the moving earth.  All of these were contained in the DNA of these little beasts before me – as certainly as the warmth of the sun and cool of the shade.  And yet they had only incorporated a tiny part of those changes – just those that let them carry on from this year’s pool to next year’s pool.

From were I sat at the edge of the water I could see very little of my own pool: there was a bit of ancient barbed wire fence along a near ridge, con-trails in the sky and, if I allowed myself to see them, the tracks of some rock-crawler truck in the old river bed beside the basalt altar that held the mud-yellow water.

When the river ran in this now dry canyon, dry except of the September pools, my own species had just come to this land as bands of stone-tooled hunters. My own direct ancestors were living in villages across middle Europe only a stone’s throw in time from the Neanderthals that they displaced.

Off in the distance I could see, from the top of nearest low hill, a city of 80,000 people. Down the slope was the yellowish pool with its thousands of inhabitants; off to the east was my own pool with its thousands of inhabitants.

These walks into the desert are always wordless meditations; to turn them into language with its meanings and rules of construction both gives them more tangible form and diminishes them toward insignificance.  The clarity of understanding is, however, not completely lost when I say that all the comprehensions about the muddy little pool were seen as absolutely the same for the city.

The simplicity of the pool, its origin seemingly owed solely to a monsoon rain, was belied by the complex biology of its inhabitants and the millions of years of evolution that made the rain their immediate source, but stoked the new water with a subtlety of DNA’s design come to by all the sophistication of that molecule – just so for the city. 

The fate of the pool, so certain and immutable: when the water is gone, the whole beautiful construction of life is gone.  I can easily see in my mind’s eye the city’s margins contracting, the contiguous sprawling dividing up into a dozen smaller isolated centers, those centers disappearing one by one until the rocks and little trees of the hill sides above the city spread uninterrupted out to the volcanic plains and hills where I am standing; the city dried up and gone, and without even leaving the eggs of its inhabitants ready for the next iteration.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Teaching and Learning Math

(Written in the 1990s when I was substitute teaching in the math dept. in high school.)

It is generally recognized that teaching and learning mathematics has special problems.  Many children seem to learn math only with difficulty.  Many teachers of math seem unable to teach the subject beyond the sort of rote process by which they acquired their knowledge of it.  And yet there are some people who seem to have a great affinity for mathematical thinking, who seem to almost know it before they are taught and only need to be shown the meaning of symbols in order to express their understanding.

In almost no other human activity is there such a range of difference than between the mathematically commonplace and the mathematically sophisticated.  It is perfectly possible for there to be two students with essentially equivalent intelligence, one with a limited capacity for mathematical comprehension and so needing to learn specific skills by rote, and another who learns with fluidity and comprehension.

I propose that we compare and contrast language learning with number learning as a beginning exercise in developing a theory for both explanation and method for math learning.  Language has large areas of the nervous system dedicated to it.  The anatomy of the respiratory tract is evolved for language vocalization.  All this suggests the natural conclusion that humans have been doing language for a very long time and that it is part of our physical design.  We know that there are readiness states in infants associated with language learning, further tying it to our biology.

Language is involved in the communication of detailed environmental information, the establishment of social relationships and order and supports the creative process of thought.  We teach language related skills -- writing, reading, verbal comprehension and aesthetic expression -- as a communication tool based in the actual transfer of information.  Even in so simple a sentence as "See Jane run," the nascent reader can, in their mind’s eye, ‘see Jane run.’

Contrast this with number learning.  Initial number learning -- counting -- is a part of local language process and historically most people never move significantly beyond this level.  Number learning and mathematical thinking doesn't have the powerful evolutionary history of language, but is subsumed within it as counting.  Further math instruction has little, if any, communication content and is most often presented as only ‘that which must be learned by rote’ for reasons discussed later.  Yet, It is clear from the math ability of some people that mathematical thinking can be a powerful form of comprehending and communicating about the world.

Just as there are relatively few people with the language sensitivity of the great poets, there are few people with the specialized sensitivities and comprehension of mathematicians.  But this is not the end of it -- or even the beginning.  If you wish to discuss the writing of Yeats or Roethke, you are still within the familiar world of language for which there is a dedication of brain and biology in everyone.  Almost everyone can develop a little tangle, in some a cold sweat, from a sensuous passage by Ted Hughes even if they could never in a lifetime of word tossing make such a line for themselves.  Mathematics is yet again different. 

On the extreme other end of this hazy continuum is the so-called idiot savant with special calculating powers.  Here is a person with often reduced or unusual language expression, but who, with training in symbology and operation, can show remarkable abilities especially with various forms of very complex counting.  If I say, "57349 times 4274!" and if the answer is given immediately as "254,109,626," then I have to conclude that some mathematical processing and judgment occurred somewhere and that this processing preceded by acceptable mathematical rules.  The only reasonable place to find such processing is within the nervous system of the savant.  Ergo, something allows the perception to identify the numbers and to very rapidly associate them through a mathematical process that actually calculates the result by some physical process.  The savant often simply says that they know or see the number in some form or other -- it just comes to them.

If I see ‘8 times 8’ and say ‘64’ without any recognized intervening conscious process, it is a skill I have acquired by rote.  The multiplication of two numbers exceeding a couple of places by ‘recognition’ of the answer requires that the mathematical operation take place somewhere and this is almost certainly not my rote process. 

But we perform mathematical calculations regularly at a very high level.  There is no mechanical analog design between the wad of paper in my hand and the small trashcan 20 feet away, yet I can throw 10 different wads of paper of different weights and compaction reliably into that can.  Each one must be given a different final velocity and arch, the trashcan can be moved and I can throw from different places all with high levels of success.  The force and trajectory calculations are taking place somewhere! Clearly, I must be measuring the distance with my eyes, muscularly weighing the paper wads, visually estimating their density and calculating the final patterns of muscular activity.  Somehow in the normal-order disturbance of the savant, these calculating systems are made more immediately addressable. Mathematical proficiency must be somewhere between the mentally disrupted design of the savant and the exceptional sensitivity of the poet -- think of a three-dimensional space, not a one-dimensional line.

So if this description, in a very rough, almost poetic, way describes the way math ability works in humans, what does it mean for teaching this increasingly important skill?  First, it should be clear that, as a whole, math instruction has been failing our children.  Large numbers of children deeply believe that they are ‘math stupid,’ i.e., the most effective thing being taught to them is that they can’t learn math.  Then there are the small number of children who, given even the slightest chance, will learn math easily, rapidly and often beyond the ability of their rote-learning teachers to teach them.  Another group will dig in, learning by rote exactly what is being taught, be able to use it for exactly those applications shown -- if any -- and think that they have learned math because that is what they will be told.  Think how unlike language learning this is.

The essence of language learning is to be able to express new ideas, your own feelings and thoughts, in ways that will, if not excite at least, be somewhat clear to others.  And to be able to receive similar expressions with comprehension and appreciation.  The essence of math learning has been -- well -- to do math as it is prescribed in a book.

What this little analysis suggests about teaching math is that we first recognized that humans have a complex relationship to math learning unlike much of the general learning that we expect of everyone.  In general, math needs to be taught as a form of communication to the vast majority.  All formulations and operations need to be put in a form like language – information, no matter how silly or simpleminded, needs to be presented.  This is not to say that all problems need to be language problems, many of these are just as devoid of communication as is ‘a2 + b2=c2’ for most people (or this equation can be seen as an exquisite and exact communication about the relationships of sides of right triangles – deeply poetic in fact).  When the 60 MPH train from Chicago meets the 55 MPH train from Detroit may have no communication value even though framed in words.  The math work and learning needs to be about real communication.

Certainly there is rote learning required: Sums, times tables, order of operations, the various names of things, etc., but the math itself needs to routinely communicate information.  Numbers need to come from somewhere, be a certain kind, any answers need to actually answer some question.  Operations and formulae need to be driven by the questions. The symbols and operations need to be seen as a language with special properties.

People who use math in their daily lives and work use math in this way.  It is not some meaningless exercise.  There's no reason that it should be taught as a meaningless exercise that only a rare few find the secret of by either special aptitude or accident.

I took my seventh-grade daughters (home schooling) out to some power-lines with tall wooden poles.  The question was, "what is the diameter at the top of the pole?"  We had with us only a 50 foot tape measure.  It was late in the afternoon and the shadow of the pole lay tantalizingly on the ground at their feet.  Many possibilities were considered, but ultimately they collected a series of numbers that were set up as various proportions, assumptions were stated, an answer produced.  Their original, "about this big," demonstrated with the finely metered distance between outstretched palms, had become: "if the pole changes diameter consistently over its length, then the top is 9.5 inches in diameter."  Much multiplying and dividing had been going on as well as various acts of measuring and counting.

While helping tutor some algebra I students with their first graphing assignments, a bewildered young man got it immediately when I asked him to show me the football when it was on the 20 yard line and 10 yards in from the sideline.  He might need some help in the future in understanding that a point is dimensionless, not an oblong ball, but that goal line can be crossed when he gets to it.

It would be nice if there were a series of solid mathematically strong texts that had a communication base with lots of examples of activities and hints for enriching exercises [1]. But existing books can be used as long as teachers understand that the majority of their students are going to learn math best as a communicating tool; that a balance between rote practice and activities that serve a communication function can be struck.  There will always be a few math-poets to challenge the teacher.  The trick is recognizing them, realizing that they experience the numbers and the operations in a different way.  It is not that they are simply smart and other students are not smart; they are processing this highly specialized symbolic system in a different way from those who are using what is essentially a language model to do math.  Every student should be given the chance to become a Fermet or a Bertrand Russell, but the fact is that just as the vast majority of people get along just fine without running a 10 second hundred yard dash, most math students will not make math into a full-fledged, separate, beautifully spoken language.  And quite frankly there are far too few math-poets teaching math to allow for a renaissance in math learning anyway.

These examples are nothing special -- the point is to look for how to frame communication paradigms from minimal mathematical designs.  Certainly the richness of Cartesian coordinates comes from an abstract quality that inheres in concepts of variable.  These concepts are not presented in gridiron examples, but each level of understanding advances toward that goal.

Ultimately the failure of math instruction has to rest at the feet of a system that places teachers without requisite understanding, ability and tools in the classroom, but if we begin to recognize that our very natures as math learners can be remarkably different, we might begin to make a change for the better.  This is not to say that some children can’t and should not learn math—quite the opposite.  All but the most abstract math can be learned and used effectively by people who are taught math as a communication tool inside the design of spoken language.  However, this will not happen if confused teachers teach children that their only available approach to math learning is wrong and that they are somehow damaged goods if they can’t do it the way some text (that the teacher really doesn’t understand either) says to.

The many changes that math education has gone through over the last 50 or so years have been a response to the recognition that math was not being especially well taught and learned as education became more and more factory-like in its design.  It is not that the “old way” is the best way, unless ALL of the old way is made available.  When intimacy and caring were natural to education, many ‘curriculum problems’ went unnoticed.   Today we have little room but to be accurate with how we approach these matters.

[1] When I wrote this piece the Integrated Math Program (IMP) was not generally known.  While far from perfect, this 4 year high school program (I’ve not seen the middle school version) is consciously directed toward many of the concerns presented here.  I took the short-course IMP training and used the program for a time until the school where I was teaching adopted confusion over consistency and lost the courage to follow through with such deviation from existing approaches.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Nature of Impunity

Humans are subject to a variety of powerful motivators, as are all animals. We are familiar with the list: hunger, sex, safety, various social motives and so on.  But we are the only animal that is also routinely moved by motivations that are purely the product of our imagination.  Of these, one of the most insidious is the desire for impunity of action, a desire that becomes, in the synergy of social interactions, an especially powerful drive.

Impunity does not exist in nature. Every organism’s successful existence is determined by the success of those other organisms that it would apparently, in human terms, dominate.  In a very real sense every species of organism in an ecosystem (natural economic system) must compensate the totality of the ecosystem in such a way that nothing is actually used up or held to exclusion from the flows of material and energy; all elements of the system must be supported by all participants .  The functional relationships in ecosystems, and therefore in the evolution of organisms, is the antithesis of impunity: ecosystems function on accountability and, in human terms, responsibility.

A primary issue for our “modern” systems of impunity is that impunity itself is all about not recognizing, realizing or responding to one’s own actions while it is the absolutely essential structure of ecosystems that all actions be integrated into a whole complex energy/chemical/behavioral flow and process.

Impunity is a cognitive production.  It is like any other idea derived from human imagination; that is, a creative product of Consciousness Order processes: appearance in the repertoire of thought demonstrates no quality of actual existence, only the possibility.  The conditions for the existence of impunity as a behavioral option resemble other purely cognitive productions such as ghosts, social rules and money economies, some more “real” than others, but all existing only in bubbles of human cognitive frames.  What all of these purely cognitive features share are tortured relationships with the reality of adaptive processes and the pushing off onto other organisms and systems the consequences of some aspects of their purely cognitive form made manifest as actual events [1].

Humans can imagine acting in the world without consequences or responsibility, and then they can attempt to create the conditions that would allow the imaginings [2].  But the absence, in nature, of the relationships that we humans imagine as impunity should be a clue that, at the least, we should be very careful.  The failure to respect the fundamental Realities of the biophysical world might immediately seem foolish, but the nature of impunity is to be free, or to imagine being free, of such fundamental restraints.

Since impunity as goal and behavior is so “unnatural”, how it is that it has become such a force in present human social, political and economic action? We have a hundred ways of saying it and we have a thousand excusing descriptions of why we do it, but it comes down to one thing only: we want to act in the world without restraint.  This begins in infancy. 

I realized as I watched my first child, from his first breaths, that he had two driving goals.  The first was to suckle at his mother’s breast and the second was to take over the world. 

Human infants are not frightened little bunnies, but devouring creatures inhibited only by their incapacities.  Just think of the terror and destruction if the intelligence and willfulness of a human 1½ year old were to invade the body of a grown gorilla… or for that matter a human adult.  And since it does actually happen some of the time that a human grows up without the dampening of the infantile nature, we have a name for that condition; we call it psychopathy, meaning simply, a pathology of the soul.  But we need not be so metaphysical; it is really that some part of the person has not grown beyond the natural desires of infancy.  If fact, we all still want to act in the world without restraint, but have learned through, primarily, a vast array of “punishments” that we cannot.

The desire for and the acceptance of impunity as a real condition of life is an immature conception.  No fully formed, competent adult human being would accept that actions can be performed without consequences or responsibility – even if the most dangerous and dramatic forms of the consequences can be arranged to be delivered to others in the present or to the future. Ultimately it is all of us, as the species and the extended system, that must absorb the effects. Still, there are always some members of a community that will seek impunity of action and so attempt to drive the social order to include the possibility.

Once impunity exists (seems to exist) in a social system, then it begins to control the system as more and more people and collectives strive to find ways to act without having to deal with the consequences and responsibilities of their actions.  It must be understood that this is inevitable in human process since it is in the design of the Consciousness Order to discover work-arounds, deny, delay or otherwise avoid dangers and challenges. 

In a community that fully accepts as a solid principle that nothing and no one can function with impunity, the work-arounds are still sought and are seen as community functions; but as soon as individuals realize, and the opportunity exists, that they too can act with impunity, the social process enters a new phase with some individuals and groups attempting complete impunity at the cost of the social order. (This is important: human communities can attempt to function with impunity, but by their design, as long as the people are “held to account” within the community, then the community will adapt within the ecological process. It is when individuals are free to act with impunity, beyond community influence, that there are no longer any feedback systems to mediate adaptation.)
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On a more mundane level: no politician has gone wrong telling people that he or she will see to it they can act without restraint.  This has many forms, but basically falls into two categories: being told that what you believe is right and that what you do is right.  Beliefs and actions have detailed adaptive histories and so can have many forms that may make little sense in a world of rapidly changing circumstance.  As the functioning of the world leaves beliefs behind, the people holding them are easy prey for the psychopaths who would really act with impunity – by claiming to offer impunity to others.

Just one example: Right To Work – that is a restraint-free formulation.  You want to work, well by God, you have a right to work.  But that is not what it means.  It means that the impunity of action is really in the hands of the employer, it means that the employer decides what to pay you, whether to hire or fire and the conditions under which you work; your restraint-free action is only whether you will take the job or not.  With a large and hungry labor pool the employer is freed from the consequences of unlivable low wages, would be freed from the consequences of dangerous working conditions and would not have to consider the other interests that actual human beings might have in the qualities of an activity to which half or more of their waking lives are devoted.

All such arguments are formed on a similar model: “We promise you freedom from the tyranny of the restraints imposed by the needs of community (containing some people who are not like you) at the cost of supporting the real impunity of the economic elites.

Imagining that actions can be taken without unpleasant consequences is natural only to Consciousness Order processes; it is then part of those processes to attempt to discover ways of accomplishing that result.  In the long history of this human method of adapting, the attempt has been to reduce unpleasantness to “acceptable” levels, but the possibility of complete impunity has come to be easily imagined, even if also considered unrealistic. As long as the possibility for impunity of action exists in a society, impunity will be the determining quality of that society, even as communities may attempt other options, the promise of freedom from responsibility will finally dominate decision and action.

There can be no solution to our current dilemmas as long as whole classes of people can function with impunity, so long as wealth confers an absolute impunity of power.  And no one voluntarily gives up the unlimited power to act without consequences or responsibility.  These are simple truths; these are first things first. While it may not be possible to take direct, effective action, it is possible to have the understanding from which action can be formed.

[1]These cognitive productions produce actual events and processes that very often have no comprehensible connection to the imaginings upon which they are based and, thus, go almost completely either unrecognized or misapprehended.  As a further distortion the discoverable consequences are often used in the construction of tertiary explanations for their existence that have almost nothing to do with anything other than accidents of association.

[2] A few examples of Imaginings of impunity:
To kill dangerous animals without danger.
To have any human, animal, plant or inanimate do what I wish.
To act with or on myself in any way without damaging consequence.
To take and/or control any object or resource for my own purposes.
To go anywhere I want, as quickly as I wish (in space or in time).
To ignore the power of others and to dominate them.
To be free of the responsibilities and consequences of all of my actions.
To act on the world and to treat others exactly as I wish.
To buy, sell or trade without limitation.
That no normally existing source of power can stop me from doing as I want.
My wishes and desires are all that matters.
(you might note that these are all forms of the infantile assertion, “I want what I want when I want it.”)

Friday, August 24, 2012

How Do Things Happen When There Is No Agency?

Human consciousness systems for modeling the world are completely dependent on the idea of agency; that some agent wills or otherwise directs events.  And since agency as we conceive it is completely illusory, we are doomed to be ‘wrong’ (also an agency dependent idea!) in the vast majority of our actions in the world. 

When we began as a species this was not a concern since our illusions of agency were functioning in a world utterly dominated by biophysical Reality; our notions of agency simply connected dots in that reality at a speed and volume unavailable to other organisms, giving our species a decided advantage.  Later on, the illusion became increasingly understood as reality to the point today when we cannot even imagine another origin for action or order.

Our notions of agency derive from an adaptation that formed through evolutionary processes which operate by principles devoid of agency.  It is these processes that mediate changes and apparently, to humans, changes that have direction and purpose.  The Consciousness System of Order (CSO) is organized around the illusion of agency; a device what functions to a particular advantage in the evolutionary process.  The capacity of the CSO to generate actions that have no precedent in the history of biophysical Reality, in the largest view, will be part of the consequence structure that permeates biophysical systems; like the bringing together of a formulary of chemicals that mix, act and react to become new forms that can exist in the ambient conditions.

I said a moment ago that the CSO was “a device what functions to a particular advantage in the evolutionary process.”  And at the same time I am suggesting that it has “gone wrong” in some way, that it is no longer functioning to advantage.  There are two parts to this observation.  One is that many adaptations “go wrong” as ambient conditions change: for example if the acidity of water increases, then calcium carbonate shells – so efficient and useful in conditions of near neutral pH – become a route to extinction.  The second part is that this adaptation is unprecedented in the history of the universe, has barely begun to be refined by the evolutionary process and, uniquely, by its own information handling designs; it may actually contain the possibility of true agency.

But before getting too much into the complexities of our present confusions it is important to get a sense of how the world functions without agency as humans typically understand it.  The first hurtle is that language is steeped in the structure of the agency illusion: an agent imagines, wishes, designs and implements; it is just “obvious” that that is how the world works.  Little thought or attention is given to the plain fact that the universe and solar system formed, life began and evolved all billions of years before there was human or any other “known agency.” What was functioning to give order and change, even directional change, before the structures and processes that underlie the CSO?  And more importantly, what is it that continues to be the actual functional order within which the CSO needs to comport?  The two questions, of course, have the same answer.
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The question should not be, ‘How can the world work without agency?’ It should be, ‘How can agency possibly work in a world of simple event causation?’  But we think that we understand agency and not causation without it, so that is a natural place to begin.

The substance of the universe is in motion; motion is an essential condition of a universe of energy (by substance I don’t just mean matter, but all the “stuff” that is the universe, known or unknown to humans). When the various forms of substance interact by the physical laws, a probability system forms and a reaction process/product occurs corresponding to the probabilities. After a time the composition and structure of a region changes to represent the most stable population of reaction process/products as determined by the ambient forces of the region: examples: hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water molecules when ambient energies are low enough; atoms are reduced to free protons, electrons and neutrons when temperatures are high enough; molecules of many types form, combine and recombine when conditions of stability, especially in an aqueous environment, endure for millions and billions of years.

Given enough time everything with a positive probability, almost no matter how small, will happen.  In a world of essentially infinite numbers even the clearly finite acts infinitely.  The earth’s oceans are a thin layer spread over much of the thin rocky crust.  How many drops of water are in the finite ocean?  There are about twenty drops of water in a cubic centimeter; a thousand trillion cubic centimeters in a cubic kilometer; almost 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water in the oceans – and that single drop of water has about ten thousand million trillion molecules of water.  So the number of water molecules on the earth is more than ten thousand million trillion times a thousand trillion times l.4 billion times twenty… pretty soon you get into numbers of some real size (magnitude 10 to the 47th power for you power-of-ten people).

And that is just the water.  Dissolved in the water are all the elements and compounds that can be formed in billions of years on a chemically and thermally stable planet; even the rarest of the rare will be there by the billions of trillions of trillions.  Imagine a molecule that forms by the chance action of interaction that can speed up the forming of another molecule like itself, then that particular molecule will increase in abundance; or another molecule that tends to break down a common molecule.  With these kinds of numbers interacting 100s and 1000s of times per second for millions and billions of years every combination that can happen will happen.

Some of those combinations will form systems of interactions; some of these systems of combinations will become self-sustaining.  The essence is that systems and molecules that are stable increase in number.  Systems and molecules that tend to increase the probability of their own formation increase in number.  In conditions of great variety, stability and duration these tendencies produce increases in complexity in the organization of substance.

This accounts for the forms of matter that we see, for the design of galaxies and solar systems, for the structure and natural history of stars and other celestial bodies, for the structure and physical systems of the earth and the other planets, for the origin of life and the evolution of the earth’s life forms… in other words, this accounts for almost everything. The only thing not accounted for is the behavior and imaginings of one species of life that has only been around for a few hundred thousand years at the most.  And that species is only not accounted for because of a unique adaptation (that I am calling The Consciousness System of Order) that gives the species the option to believe and disbelieve a process that every other species, ever in existence, simply lives.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the behaviors of that species are not accounted for by the imaginings of that species because of the limitations of the Consciousness Order, because its evolutionary design was to speed up and increase the detail of response to environmental events, not to understand the world.

What is not generally realized is that the changes and multiplication of objects and processes associated with humans are no more than the speeding up of the combinations of possibilities.  Our notions of agency are but illusions that mollify the weakness of our capacities for comprehending the true complexities of Reality.

Just as children do not require, and even benefit from simplifying, Reality so long as adults are around to deal with real events, so humans have been protected from their failures to comport with Reality by biophysical Reality itself.  But also like spoiled children who grow up, our species has grown to such powers that not even biophysical Reality can challenge our hubris short of denying us its continued stability and services.

It is now that we will discover if humans can muster true agency or if we are utterly without it and only the creatures of events like all other species.

The philosophy and psychology of agency has been a major concern of human thought, spawning everything from gods, ghosts, and a remarkable volume of almost completely impenetrable prose.  I hope to play with some of that silly putty shortly.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Story: The Pen and the Sword

I am finding it more and more difficult to write in these pages.  It is not so much that I have less to say, although I admit to being less clear on how to say my increasingly non-language conceptions, comprehensions and feelings, but I have said most of it before and perhaps better.  There is not a constant stream of new things to say.  There never has been.  Certainly, every day events take place that, from one point of view, can be considered new, though in Reality they are only another turn of the same wheel that must be dressed up to avoid the “dog bites man” appellation.

Drawing the picture created by the dots of individual events has always been the sine qua non of the human condition: doing it well has meant easy survival and doing it badly has often meant one of the several forms of disastrous failure – with large helpings of good and ill fortune thrown in.  Someone such as myself, who has neither the resources of material, energy or interest to do original reporting or the status of ‘expert’ to do detailed evaluation of day-to-day events can only reasonable offer, hopefully evocative and perhaps innovative ways for seeing the events that inform and plaque us.

And we desperately need ways of organizing present experiences that can comport with the realities that confront us.  The model is simple, executing it ‘in reality’ is not.  Reality will always elude us, we have no facility for it, but we have the adaptive process of “Story” that, when functioning properly, designs a significant body of our community members and their behaviors into satisfactory relationships with Reality.  There is, however, a great and terrible caveat:

A metaphor that I have used before: a juggler violates “reality”; with only two hands it ‘should not be possible’ to suspend 3 or more objects in controlled flight.  And, in fact, it is only possible for a short period of time.  For most people only seconds, for some, minutes, and certainly this “violation” of reality can only be carried on for a short number of hours by even the most talented.  And so it is with the human treatment of the biophysical world: we are juggling its many properties, keeping more balls in the air than possible in the long run, but have become completely dependent on the juggling for the survival of both our numbers and the way most of us live.  It is not unnatural in such a circumstance to see the juggling as more real and vital than the Reality in which such juggling is, in evolutionary time, a short-term aberration.  It should be noted that thousands of generations may live out their lives during the juggling phase, only a few will be part of the falling down.

But this metaphor must be examined more closely before despairing – if one considers the metaphor prescient and thus worthy of despair.  The juggler may be convinced to divest him or her self of the suspended objects one at a time until the juggling is ended and the objects are all completely in the thrall of the most direct laws of nature.  And, and this is important, the juggling can be made to go on in well-controlled and regulated ways that, while risking some failures, are all designed for controlled endings after short forays into improbability.  This would be a most human way to approach life on a sustainable planet.

For this to happen we need a new Story, one in which there is real democracy, equity and social justice; by ‘real’ I mean both that these qualities of community actually exist in a functional form and that communities struggle with the real difficulties that they present.  It is my goal to, in the smallest of possible ways, to help generate that Story.  It is the way available to all of us: to tell the new Story to others.

In this new Story the central pillars of the present Story, wealth and property, are seen not as unquestionable, but as cognitive structures gone wrong and used to build structures of repression and destruction, the greatest acts of juggling in human history.  Wealth and property have historical antecedents that account for their present form rather than being the absolute and correct culmination of human economic and political thought.  From God-kings, to kings, to the struggle for the commons, property has been a great confusion.  Locke, Blackstone, Smith and Marx did their part in trying to rationalize the issues; they were just jugglers good enough for a little while.

We are seeing the consequences in international corporations and in wealth accumulations that give absolute impunity to a few millions of people – and generally people the least well equipped to empathize with and act responsibly toward the rest of humanity and the life on the earth that receives the down stream effects of that impunity.  There are only two forces that allow the present construction: the force of arms and the force of the present Story that makes the gaining of wealth and property acceptable and desirable.  If that Story were eroded sufficiently, then only the force of arms would be left – and that has never been enough.

Many of those who live and act in the Land of Impunity know these things and spend vast amounts of their wealth to control the Story, but the Story is not an army that does as it is told; Story, like a tattered mimeographed sheet passed from hand to hand in East Berlin, can prepare a revolution.  It was the Story, shared by so many, that let the Berlin Wall fall in one night as an incomprehensible, outlandish party.  It is very likely that the people didn’t even know that they had come to share a Story of such power, waiting only to be catalyzed by events.  This is the process to which we must contribute, even if we don’t know what to say or how to say it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Human Exceptionalism and The Madness

(This a new editing of an essay published in the Dissident Voice in about September, 2008.  It is exactly what I wish to say today.)

If an invasive species spreads ‘out of control’ because of adaptations new to a region and lack of any evolved relationships that inhibit it, we use a disease model for the ecology.  If a group of cells goes “mad” and reproduces uninfluenced by the existing order of organs and metabolic function, we call it a cancer; cells made by the body, but “foreign” and deadly to its proper functioning.  The hominid genus, Homo, developed a new, powerful adaptation that overrode historical evolutionary function, rapidly spread into all bio-zones and ultimately began geometrically increasing in population, and increasing on a variety of other measures.  These changes we humans have claimed with pride: our spreading growth and dominance of the earth’s physical space and material sources.

Every species acts in the world as an ‘exceptional’ entity; that is, no species is shy and retiring in the face of ecological success.  But every species is on essentially equal footing with all other species in the sense that they are using the same basic tools for adaptation and are functioning on the same basic time scale.  One species might evolve a generation length that speeds up adaptation rates, but only a little.  Another might increase the costs for breeding, making more demands on the quality of the individual genotype, but again within the same order of magnitude typical of other species.

But, Human Exceptionalism is the result of an actually exceptional condition.  The human adaptation is new to our immediate region of the universe.  We are not on an equal footing with the other species of living things.  Our capacity to respond to environmental conditions has gone from the generational change rates of biological evolution (DNA/protein mediated) to the change rates of Consciousness Order processes (mediated by ‘story’).   This new process of adaptation is orders of magnitude faster, it is also orders of magnitude more fine-tuned to detail and it confers levels of power to action previously impossible for biological entities.

These questions suggest the dilemma: (1) Is such an exceptional adaptation a disease on the body of the biological world?  The human species has increased from a few hundred thousand living by evolutionary rules to 7 billion as our adaptation expresses its geometric growth potential. (2) Can an exceptional adaptation be inhibited to remain within the restraints of the biological world and still be exceptional?  Other species with powerful adaptations fit into the biological order, but none have been as revolutionary as this one. (3) The Consciousness Order adaptation contains the enigmatic capacity of awareness with the seeming potential to decide how to use our adaptation; how might we, and can we, decide to self-limit our total impact on the biological world?

Our actual exceptionalness fuels the dangerous Exceptionalism of our behaviors and beliefs.  This is really tricky: We are truly exceptional with the most powerful adaptation, as far we know, in the whole universe, yet for the survival of our world we need to be humble in the face of our completely obvious totally huge outrageous wonderfulness.  Basically, we can do anything we want and it seems that nothing can stop us.  We have learned the rules of physics – except for a few that we will get soon enough.  We are learning to make genes dance for us.  We can suck the energy right off the sun and stuff it into computers that can do a billion billion calculations a second.  We’ve got TV and refrigerators.  Perhaps there really is no reason that we should be humble!

Except for one little thing; well, maybe two or three.  The surface of the earth is the ultimate Exception in the universe, not us. We humans are only passengers on, and in, a space that is among the most rare of physical stabilities. Even in the fullest explosion of our hubris there is no way that we could, with our own efforts, make the earth’s surface a living place or sustain it if the subtle designs of our solar system began to change.  We, as the saying goes, ‘live at the pleasure’ of our biosphere. That is Reality.

And yet, we do not act in that reality.  Consistently failing to believe and function in The Real is insanity.  The natural Exceptionalism of a species to act in its own interests (this a part of the living condition and not to be confused with its counterpart in the Consciousness Order) is compounded by our ability to tell stories about how special we are.  The design of belief as a guide for behavior allows us to hold such stories as truth… and voilĂ : Human Exceptionalism at a pathological level.  Our real and remarkable capacities lead us to believe in imagined powers far beyond our true relationship with our world.  A thing of great power, with little appreciation for the consequences of that power and almost no ability to control itself is a great danger to itself and others.

There are, of course, many ways that we are not exceptional.  Our form and function are biologically based, we are animals with an evolutionary history that powerfully guides our behaviors.  We are food for other organisms just as other organisms are food for us – part of the food web.  Plants supply us, along with every other aerobic organism, with oxygen and glucose (at base, the only food there is on earth); there is no other source. 

It is unimaginable that a “primitive” tribal community could forget that they depend on the land, water and air to sustain them and yet we “moderns” forget; we even argue that it somehow isn’t so. Almost nothing could be crazier.  There is no question that the vastly complex societies in which we live separate us and seem to protect us from an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous natural world upon which we depend. 

That world is difficult to know about and to care about when we have so little experience of it, when we have so little occasion to learn to love it: When the cost of food is going up, the mortgage payment is a little harder to get together each month and your kid gets sick.  Some tiny disembodied half-figure yells from the TV screen that the problems will be fixed if you let them control the world, or some part of it.  It seems silly, with such pressures, to think about plants making the oxygen that we breathe.  Truly, the Madness is compelling.  Ask any recovered madman or addict.

My argument is not to change the world.  There is no way to move from the Madness that envelops our societies and our species.  I think our trajectory is set.  But I recognize this understanding in hundreds of people, and know that there are millions and even possible billions that feel these things; people who suspect that what they see and live is madness; wonder at their own sanity for wondering about the world they live in.  I want to say to them that there is a way to live with at least some dignity and with less than more of Madness.

Life has always been a crapshoot.  But living as a full member of the species of your birth can make it a purposeful and fulfilling one – no matter how it goes down.  It can be done!  Every one of us has the human pedigree. We were all born as full-fledged members of the honorable human, hominid, primate, mammalian, vertebrate, animal, multicellular, living lineage.  We all have the absolute right to specieshood, it is really our only inalienable right; and it is the basis from which we can act with sanity for a sustainable biosphere. It should inform our political and economic actions and responsibilities. And that would make us very special indeed.

We have been led to this pass in part by the sense of our exception from nature.  And yet the greatest expression of our powers would be in reconnecting with the realities of the biophysical order.  If one or a hundred successfully recover their specieshood, there is no gain for all, though there is for each of them.  If it should be a thousand or a million not only is the quality of their lives better – even in a dangerous world – but more might discover how to join in.   The realist in me says that the personal gain is well worth the effort, but there is no hope for the multitudes of us.  The dreamer says that this is the only way: discover and become again a member of your own species, and if enough succeed the world will be changed.