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Saturday, October 26, 2013

More On Self-referencing (part two of three parts)

I remember the moment with a clarity, familiar to old people, that shocks for its detail and sensation of ambience, a moment 49 years before this most recent fleeting summer of 2013.  It was 1964.  I was in the throes of, what I now realize was a developmental mental illness, the emotional rejection of adulthood; it simply looked to be too awful, too painful, too unacceptable a place to be; but enough about my general condition!

It was the early afternoon.  I was standing, not on the sidewalk, but in a flowerbed just outside a classroom.  Not that it matters much for this present moment: the class was ethical philosophy.  I was pondering over how one was to know what to do; not ‘do about’ any particular thing, but just what to do about anything. 

It was early June; Florida is always very bright in midday June.  The classroom was in a one-story building of classrooms arranged around a central interior courtyard, on the modern conception of the Greek model.  Covered walkways protected the students from sun and rain.  My classroom was on the south side of the building and so it was necessary to stand in the flowerbed to be in the sun, to feel its direct heat.

The simplicity of the answer came like a tiny thunder-clap: humans can think anything within the structure of their language – in essence, any combination of words that follows basic syntactical rules can be constructed as an idea in a human mind/brain.  And (a big important ‘and’) anything that can be thought can be believed and (again big) acted on.  This was not about right or wrong, only about primary possibility.  Right or wrong was a secondary attribution: anything that could be thought could also be considered right or considered wrong. 

That humans can think, and therefore believe, anything possible within the vocabulary and syntax of their language, while incipient, is not especially informing [1].  It simply reminds us that human thoughts cannot be the basis for the kinds of truth needed to organize our actions in the Real world.  If the machinations of ethical philosophy teach us anything, it is that staying within the language systems and ideations of human creation does not and cannot be the principle guides to behavior. 

There are two other sources for understanding, both strongly conflated with the primary problem of human idea creation, but, none-the-less, the only other options: (1) the biology of the human animal and (2) the biophysical Reality within which evolution and adaptation have taken place.  Sustaining and supporting our biological natures and habits (what I call specieshood) and integrating our human communities (since we are biologically a community animal) into local, regional and global ecologies must be the primary “right” things to do.  This is what every other organism in the history of life on earth has done with greater and lesser success for 4 billion years.  Within this framework an immense variety of species specific and special qualities have had ample room to manifest, from 150 feet long dinosaurs, to gaudy male peacocks, to aspen forests made of ‘a’ single connected tree, to bioluminescent angler fish living in the otherwise photon-free deep ocean and a few billion more.

The Consciousness System of Order (CSO) of humans, with its “thought processes,” is one of those species manifestations.  And it is human thought that organizes our beliefs and actions in the world; a process that has almost (almost) completely disconnected its essential informational basis from the primary biological and physical sources upon which actual Reality rests. The gestalts of concerns that most people recognize as organizing and moving their lives seem to have almost nothing to do with the energy and material flows in the biosphere; the diversity of species integrated with biophysical cycles into ecosystems; the production of oxygen and the earth’s ultimate biological building block, glucose, by the world’s photosynthesizers [2]; and the absolute dependence of the vanishingly rare living state on the integrity of the earth’s incredibly thin living layer as it has formed and functions in the solar system.
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Our world today is so completely self-referenced that we can no longer see the biophysical referencing systems that actually determine our existence.  How foolish would we think a bear that created a prosthesis that appeared to be a layer of fat rather than eat sufficiently to have the real fat needed to over-winter in hibernation; and if that bear, that refuses to prepare for winter hibernation, stays awake and finds, kills and eats, the other sleeping bears… but there are people so completely self-referenced that they would call this “smart;” people who are so far removed from the Real that they cannot see the madness in it.

Of course, a bear cannot create a prosthesis that mimics a layer of fat, but people can and do create all manner of things using the CSO tool of imagining.  From sandals to boots, rolled logs, to wheels, to carts, to wagons, to cars, to….  to killing people and eating up the fat of their lives.  Without sandals one must walk very carefully indeed over rough and thorny ground.  With a 4x4 tricked-out land-crawler one need pay the ground almost no mind at all.  Consider the difference in the experience of a particular place when walking through it compared to passing through it at 120 miles an hour on a Ducati.  As much fun as the hot Italian motorcycle is, the experience is multiple layers of self-referenced process (almost) completely removed from any actual place; even though a motorcycle brings you closer than a car, and a car closer than an airplane, and an airplane closer than a TV set.
* * *
But what is self-referencing, really? Let’s begin first with referencing: the ubiquity of referencing is such that it goes almost completely unnoticed most of the time.  It exists in all acts of comparison, in every measurement – even if poorly referenced. Referencing forms the basis of all action, adaptation, evolution, etc.

Examples: gravity is a primary reference for many actions, both biological and cultural: the strength of bone and muscle; the application of muscular force; the strength, shape and application of construction materials.  The electro-magnetic spectrum is the primary reference for all biological energy transitions, as well as the basis for almost all of human long distance communication (and much else).

Reference, then, is that to which we refer in formulating an action, whether the ‘we’ is an electron responding to a proton, a beetle evolving a color within a particular ecological niche or a human thinking that they are thinking their way out of a problem.  Self-referencing is peculiar to humans: it is referring to our own imaginings, or their products, as though they were substantial realities as we formulate actions.

Here is an example of self-referencing replacing natural referencing: in order to act in sustaining relationship with the ambient environment, materially simple communities referenced the many seasonal biological changes, land forms and weather events as the primary information underlying their social, political, economic and spiritual activities.  Another way of saying this is that the environment supplied the broad outline of options and humans adapted specific behaviors to define niches within which to integrate with environmental functioning.  Either way of saying it points out the essential referencing function of the environment.  Since human communities were sensitive to, referenced closely, environmental events, community behaviors changed as environmental conditions changed by the principles of adaptation – trial and error responses testing for workable, if not optimal, solutions to changing conditions.

Humans developed more power in the environment. They began to replace certain ecologically derived biological processes with their own actions, like gathering seeds specific to their own uses and putting them to grow in numbers, in places and with desirable properties selected from the native population of plants.  Conditions began to obtain that never existed before.  The process of adaptation was not just to native environmental changes, but to changes in the immediate environment directly created by human action.  Of course, environmental changes driven by human action had long been a part of the human adaptive regime, but these were not creative changes so much as systematic responses as whole ecosystems responded to the expansion of a new and increasingly powerful organism.

What was new was the shift in essential referencing from the self-sustaining, billions of years old, natural ecology of this little part of the solar system to a very specific activity within that ecology created by human activity.  This was not a trivial shift; it began the shifting of sources of referencing for human action and adaptation from the primal forces of the earth’s biosphere to specific human activities.  Of course, early agriculture and animal husbandry did not remove humans from the need to adapt to environmental events as a major referencing source, but the process was begun (it really began with fire and tools, but changing the primary relationship with food was that start of exponential increases in change rates).

Land clearing, irrigation, food storage infrastructure, need for and development of new community expectations for labor behaviors – and all of this taking place in a pre-scientific, really pre-rational world – led to needs for explanations around the new events and processes associated with these creations.

Formerly myths and Stories were laid over the presentations of information from the environment, that is, the environment was still primary, but as communities grew less dependent on immediate environmental detail, the myths and Stories separated their detail from environmental action, became equal to and then superior to the environment as an immediate informing source.  Once this transition was strongly developed, human behavior was more self-referencing than referenced in the ecology.

The ecology took on the appearance of substrate and was even seen as a commonplace triviality upon which the interesting and real events of life took place.  Most people reading the preceding sentence will find it more than understandable, might very well feel that it correctly describes reality; that real life is separate from the earth’s ecology and its arcana.  Such an impression derives from the completely self-referenced worldview characteristic of the ultimately insane disconnection of human life from the events and processes upon which the origin and continued existence of all life depends.

(The next essay will look at this last observation in more detail, examining referencing as it functions in the CSO.)

[1] Conversely, limits can be put on what can be thought and understood in the general population by controlling the meanings attributable to words and what words and images are allowed to be used in public communication. Of course, this has been long understood.

[2] Here is something worthy of religious awe: every organic molecule constructing every living thing begins as water and carbon dioxide being combined by the energy of the sunlight captured by chlorophyll.  All the fats, proteins, complex carbohydrates, and other macromolecules begin as glucose made in chloroplasts.  And then, the oxygen released into the atmosphere by this same photosynthesis is used by essentially all living things to “burn” glucose back to carbon dioxide and water as (almost) the exclusive source of energy for all living processes – including the thought processes of those who ignore this reality.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Life is a Gas!

When we think about human action the first and most important mistake we make is to equate what we do with agency – with intention and especially conscious awareness of motive.  While it is true that in most cases, but noticeably not all, individuals can assign or claim a motive for what they do, such assignment has more to do with the Story that they have assumed about their society, community and themselves.  The Story is a complex metaphor often taken to be the very essence of reality; more real than Reality, but this is grist for another mill.

A better metaphor for understanding human action is to see it, in the broadest terms, as the behavior of a liquid or, perhaps better, as a gas.  A gas expands to fill the space within which it is contained. A tiny few atoms or molecules (most common gasses are molecules) of the gas are almost motionless, except for vibrating in place, others are moving at high speed at random in all possible directions and most are flying around at “average” speeds bumping into each other and distributing momentum (the average effect is to fill the space).  The concentration of the gas per volume determines the number of molecules that strike the bounding surface in a given unit of time.  The total energy contained in the gas (a common measure of which is temperature) determines the average velocity/force with which the molecules strike the boundary and thus the pressure attributed to the gas in the space.  If the boundary conditions change (expand, contract, have an opening or hole) the gas’s regular behavior responds immediately since there are always some molecules striking some surface or the other molecules throughout the contained volume [1].

It is especially, in this last case, that we make errors when thinking of human action, errors that we do not make when thinking of gasses.  When humans expand out, once a boundary is moved, we assign motive, attach special significance, to individual humans and make all manner of valuing judgments based on the Story we are telling each other about who we are and what we are doing.  This is even more confused when the boundaries are ones of ideas and imaginings. With a gas it is obvious that the speed and direction of a particular molecule that flies through a hole in a boundary (a puncture in a bicycle tube for example) are not the sole property of that molecule, but result from all the other molecules colliding and distributing the energies and motions to all the contained volume.  There is nothing special about a particular molecule that “escapes” through the hole other than that its motion moved it through the hole and other molecules struck the boundary.

The reader might, at this point, remark that humans have many more complex parts than a molecule; several of which, importantly, are intention, talent, ambition, various capacities for work, imagination and prescience.  But, the ways in which we see all of these are based on the Story that we tell ourselves about them.

Is the molecule in motion superior to the one standing still? Does the molecule passing through a hole show the qualities of risk-taking and curiosity?  We can certainly tell a Story that would attach such meanings to molecular motion.

We could play God to a tube and piston, pushing in the piston with increasing force and increasing the velocity with which the gas escapes from a hole in the tube.  We could tell the Story that we have motivated the gas to greater exertion.  How is this different than manifest destiny, on the one hand, or terrorism as a response to oppression, on the other?

Just like a gas, human action will fill all available spaces.  There is no point in “telling” humans not to make or do what they imagine – imagining is a hole in the tube, they will always go through it.  Only the Stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves can function as boundaries for our imaginings… and imagining a hole is always possible.

The Stories that we tell ourselves may be about real things, just not about them as they are but as we have come to see them as part of the adaptive process of our time. Human capacities are not evolved to see the world of Reality, only to act in the world in ways that eventually lead to biological, bio-social and, further on in our history, economic success.  Our Stories (politics, religions and social constructions) are fairytales, comprehensible by the human bio-brain, that guide us through the unfathomable complexities of Reality.  The Consciousness System of Order is the organizing system for the adaptation of Story, bringing its consequences-in-action closer to fit with Reality without any needful regard for the details of Story being Reality.  Like a gas we expand out to fill the space even when that space is purely the result of the imagination.

As long as we think in terms of agency and motive, the sophist will have the upper hand in determining the Stories that we tell about why and how we do things; and the focus of our attention will be easily misdirected.  The metaphor of a gas is, of course, also just a Story, but it just might help attach our imaginings more closely to the physical and living systems within which we, finally, must function.

[1]  At one point any particular molecule might be vibrating in place having transferred its momentum in a collision to another which is then flying at high velocity.  The distribution of velocities is a characteristic of the system, not a quality of individual molecules.  The easy attribution of human Story to the probabilistic motion of molecules should, though will not, be a great caution.