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Monday, January 23, 2012

The Metacognition Project: A project to change the way we think

We, the all inclusive ‘we’ of living things, are faced with what is really a simple fact: if the beliefs and corresponding behaviors of the earth’s billions of humans do not change, drastically and quickly, then the earth’s biophysical systems will soon be perturbed beyond their levels of tolerance; the average conditions of the earth’s surface will no longer support the present diversity and complexity of life [1].

This is true regardless of human culpability in increasing global temperature and climate change; climate change is but the tip of a melting iceberg.  Human activity has become so extreme that it touches every place on the earth from many meters into the earth’s crust to the top of the atmosphere and beyond.  Its greatest region of concentration is not very much compared to the total earth volume, but it is 100% of the living space and concentrated where life is concentrated: in the most rare and remarkable set of stable conditions that we know of in the whole universe; the wellspring of life.

The list of our impacts is long: direct mechanical destruction of ecosystems with dams, fire, plows, explosives, strip mining, roads, other over-paving and much more; unprecedented energy use and development by taking nearly half of the photosynthetic product of the earth, creating a dependence on limited and damaging fossil fuels, developing and implementing nuclear power sources that generate ‘eternal’ poisons with no antidote and “renewable/sustainable” energy sources with largely unconsidered consequences; the waste and pollution from our activities is spreading over the earth as floating islands of plastic waste, long lived chemical by and breakdown products in every space and living thing from the north to the south poles, biocides and fertilizers spread over millions of hectares in the billions of tons per year.  And there is more, much more.

The common “wisdom” is that humans must do these things to live, must increase in number, must increase the use of the earth’s resources, must have industry, development and ‘growth’.  Another long list can be compiled of the things that humans believe to be true, essential and unquestionably absolute, beliefs that function to support and drive our damaging impacts. 

The most central belief is some variation on ‘humans are not animals and have rights to the earth’s living space and resources beyond animals.’  Certain groups of Christians claim that (their) God gave humans the earth to do with as they wish.  Many Jews have the more complex belief that they are chosen by (their) God among all the other peoples.  In fact, almost all human communities and their religious component claim some similar special status in the world – one exception is the formal nature of Buddhism, but even there, individuals and sects do not always avoid this description.

It is in the animal nature to act to its own benefit; our protestations of exceptionalism are only the application of our consciousness processes to that nature.  This consciousness supported biological nature, which served the species so well for 90% of its existence, has been confounded by its very successes.  We have used the process of thought and belief to dominate the earth and now we must use the process of thought and belief to reconstruct a relationship with the ecology that will allow the present abundance, complexity and diversity of life on earth to continue. 

The only way for that to happen is for humanity to retreat from its present dominating and destructive activities, and the only way we would desire for that to happen is for there to be fundamental changes in what we believe and the behaviors generated; the other options for ending our activities would be considerably less pleasant.  A few minor, conciliatory changes will no longer be enough.

Given the human track-record for making major adjustments over relatively short time-frames, a certain amount of pessimism is to be expected.  But, “where there is a will, there is a way,” is a belief that we can consider keeping in the repertoire since giving up is both silly and atypical of the species. When faced with a slim chance of living or certain death, humans have very often tried to squeeze through a narrow window of opportunity to continue living.

* * *

If we are to change the way and what we think and believe, a significant number of us must begin to understand thinking.  We can begin with the metaphors of walking, on the one hand, and digestion on the other.  Thought can be viewed as a form of transport, a way of getting from one place to another in the terrain of ideas.  It can also be like digestion, that is, it happens constantly whether we are aware of it or not and is dependent on the quality of material delivered for its machinations [2].

Billions of people do it, and have done it.  Many non-human animals do it.  And yet we have only a pale anecdotal understanding of it.  Perhaps we do not need to understand thinking on the same order as we understand digestion – and we certainly do not. We know little to nothing of it. But we do need, as with digestion, to give the processes of thought the right conditions and contents for it to function well.  Unfortunately, cognitive science, for all its accomplishments, is in a form and language that may be a bridge too far for our immediate needs [3].

We can be quite confident that thought is a physiological process and, therefore, there would be physiological consequences from the contents of thought, but I will come to that later, initially it is the more pedestrian view that needs clarity.  Often thinking about thinking finds its way quickly to the study of logic, paradoxes and such.  I ‘think’ there is a much more efficacious beginning: it is simply to ask one’s self questions and quite simple questions at that: “Is that idea true?”  “Why do I think it true?”  “How did I come to that idea?”  And taking the general stance that the more obvious an idea is, the more deeply one needs to delve into those questions.

The first and most important action to begin the process of thinking about thinking is to have our thoughts and ideas (dare I suggest beliefs) pass through the short gauntlet of questions above. With practice, more, but not too many, questions can be added: “How does that idea benefit me?”  “Why do I like that idea?”  “What are the competing ideas of merit?”

If, when reading this, you agree with these suggestions especially for others and exclusive of a set of things that you know to be true without question, then you have a lot of work to do.  I add myself to that group.

There are many other questions to consider such as why humans attach with such ferocity to ideas, what we presently understand about how ideas and beliefs change under pressure and over time and what might be the most effective ideas and beliefs should humans actually make the effort of this new form of consciousness driven adaptation.  These concerns and more will populate these pages.

[1] Soon refers to the changes over the next 20 to 80 years – within the life span of most humans presently alive. There are a number of interconnected factors: greater amounts of solar energy are being retained in the oceans, land mass and atmosphere; the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and surface waters is increasingly changing the physics and chemistry of both.  The resilience of ecosystems is being reduced by habitat loss and the imbalance of species due to both loss of species and the introduction of invasive species.  The increasing amount of energy in ocean and atmospheric systems is resulting in shifting pattern of rainfall and other weather events; these shifts affect human agriculture as well as ecosystem integrity.  The increasing amounts of CO2 absorbed in the oceans is not only affecting organisms that use calcium carbonate for shells and skeletons, but seems to be damaging some fish nervous systems so they can’t find their way around. This would suggest that the increasing amounts of CO2 in the water might be having systemic affects throughout the physiology of all or nearly all water bound organisms.

[2] It can also be seen as a fixed prescription, a rulebook for action in which the process of thought is largely replaced with what is considered appropriate to think. There are those who would rather that people in general take on a package of ideas and beliefs and perform the package “religiously”, where the flexibilities of thought are devoted to rooting out deviations from the accepted order rather than questioning it.

This is how societies have most often been organized throughout our history; it is how certain groups have become ascendant while others have taken on various forms of servitude; it is how we have come to our present state.  This may be the only way that humans can function in the world, but I don’t know that to be true and would come to believe in such inevitability only by accepting it without question.

[3] This blog will look to current work in cognitive psychology and psychotherapy for relevant material.