How To Keep Yourself Together

Posted March 22, 2008 by erichawthorne
Categories: philosophy, politics, sociology

That is really the prime directive of any living being. How do I keep myself together, in good shape, able to function in ways so I can, well, continue keeping myself together. How do I keep myself together long enough to convince that very similar but more beautiful form and function over there that I really know how to keep us together, so that we can unite our forms in function so as to produce a younger, less run-down, and just that little bit better unit of our form and function? Seems circular? Well it is. Life is cyclical, and the definition of its essence is too.

Why do I need to keep myself together; to keep my form and function toned? Well because other things want to break me down. Sometimes it’s just general entropy, raw cruel physics and time, slowly breaking down my cells and randomizing my DNA. But other times, there’s other matter patterns out there near me, or even inside of me, and they; they are actively working, some of them actively scheming, to bring me down, wipe me out, use my land or my own energy for their own evil purposes. There’s tigers, wolves, rats, army generals and rulers of foreign countries, or street thugs and gangs of a different stripe. There’s bacteria and there’s viruses. And each one wants to take my form, and my energy, and, regardless of how I need it to be, they just want to use it themselves. They want to re-pattern me right out of existence. It’s a mean nasty world sometimes. It’s a good thing I have my wits to protect me. It’s an even better thing I have some friends.

It’s great that my friends and I can work out stable and trustworthy and predictable ways that we can spend some of our time and energy co-operating to protect each others’ form and function. It’s a life saver.

If I didn’t have stable, mutually reciprocal agreements with my friends, or the friends of my great grandparents who formed this great friendly nation of ours, I would seriously be spending half of my hard-won food energy every day on fighting off all those aforementioned varmints trying to put me down and steal my resources or my very body or its labours and energy. I’d be burning or stealing their crops, eating their berries, and they’d be burning or stealing mine. The chance of me and mine surviving that? The chance of my form and function continuing hale and healthy over the generations to come? Not very likely.

I’d be wasting the energy I need to be gathering food with on fistfights and factional neighborhood wars. I’d be wasting the time and energy I need to be brooding how to fix things up to be easier for me, mine, and all of us, on petty, exhausting squabbles. I’d be going west, and you’d be coming east on the same path, and we’d have to fight to settle it right then and there. That kind of small scale social friction is exhausting. I don’t know about you, but it would be enough to undo me.

I’m going to join that happy band over there, that mutual protection society, that seems to have got its proverbial **** together. If they’ll let me in. I wonder how I’ll have to behave to get them to let me in to their group and stay in? I wasn’t cut out to be a rugged individualist all the time. I might even agree to pay some tax to the great chief depending on the social contract. I’ll work for us instead of just me some of the time. I guess, if that’s what it takes to keep from being booted out into the cold again. Why? Because over time it’s not quite as exhausting as going it alone in the dark and cold with those beady-eyed varmints all around. Those people all dressed the same over there seem to have it so easy, hundreds of them sittin’ there feasting and dancing together around their campfire with nothing but a few guards on the lookout around the edge of the circle. Now there’s form and function. They’ve got it made.

It’s not fight or flight. It’s fight or flight or build! Build a co-operative society so we can reduce the per-capita energy we waste on fighting and flighting, and get down to some serious friendly competition with civilized rules to keep everyone’s formed and functional limbs attached, some serious time for sharing with rules, so we can specialize our labour. Then we can invent new larger more efficient collective processes for catching and processing our food, building our shelters, making our tools. It could be paradise. It could be the great kingdom. Now if we could just convince someone to be King Kahuna, Queen Bee. Who’s going to be the hero? Who’s going to get us going in more or less the same direction to make all this happen? Who’s going to invent the new organism that is we? Who’s going to shepherd it through growing pains and redefinition? Why would anyone just trying to keep themself together paint that giant “leader” target on their behind? They must think it’s going to make it easier for them and theirs to survive. Seems like a gambler’s strategy.


The Life and Society Column

Posted March 22, 2008 by erichawthorne
Categories: philosophy, sociology

The next series of posts will consist of observations of and some might say rash and brash generalizations about the way that higher lifeforms, such as we take ourselves to be, organize into societies.

A general theme of this series is limitation of the free will of individuals. One theme will be the limitation of free will by societal constraints on the action and interaction of individuals. Another will be the limitation of our will to create whatever kind of society we dream of. What principles might act to limit the form of societies that will be stable?

When I broach this sort of topic, I either get a yawn or a firm objection. The objection is of the sort: Humans are, individually, complex thinking beings with a mind and a will of our own. How could there be any simple forces acting to shape our societies that we could not easily change? And how could any simple rules predict what will happen in a complex society of complex thinking people?

The sketch of the answer is that in large complex systems, constraints may be imposed by several factors:

One is physical laws, generally, and thermodynamics specifically. Persistent complex systems tend to need to be thermodynamically feasible. Systems naturally seek and find states where the least energy use is needed to maintain their form, and distortions of their form take additional energy input.

We may be able to find energetic stability arguments for certain forms of human society.

Second is the observation, proven in studies of a wide variety of complex systems, that the statistical properties at least of the system as a whole are predictable with a simple model of the constraints on the interactions of adjacent elements of the system. Such models typically ignore most properties of the individual elements, and model the collective effect of only a few essential properties of the elements as system-constituents. Many systems are complex enough that the exact evolution of any particular instance of such a system at any time is inherently unpredictable. So a statistical model (stochastic model) that provides probabilistic bounds on the system’s form and behaviour is the best that can ever be achieved. Those statistics are in some sense the essence of the stability that characterises the system. So the fact that the statistics of the system evolution may be determined by simple rules applied to a small set of essential properties of system elements is profound. It is an essential truth about many interesting complex systems.

Third is the observation that a stable or meta-stable complex system, while generated from the interactions of its elements, also becomes the environment of those elements. The whole imposes constraints on the evolution (the form and behaviour and arrangement, over time) of its elementary parts.

We will look to see examples of how society imposes constraints on individuals, and how in turn, these constraints contribute to the stability of society. We will see how upward causation (individuals acting in ways that create, constrain, and sustain society) and downward causation (society constraining but also sustaining individuals) lock together to create a stable complex societal system, but only if the form of the society conforms to certain simple principles.

By combining observations about systems seeking energy-use minima, and observations about mutually reinforcing patterns of upward and downward constraint and causation, we may arrive at a surprisingly simple predictive model of the form and stochastic behaviour of a wide class of complex systems, including human society.

Libra Descendant: Weighing with the Wrong Scales

Posted March 9, 2008 by erichawthorne
Categories: environment, politics

When making a political or economic choice, we weigh the pros and cons of deciding either way. And when we weigh, we usually heavily discount a consequence that may lie in the future, in proportion to how far out in the future it is. Similarly we discount a consequence that lies far away, on the other side of our city, or our country, or the world. We are situated beings, living in the here and now.

Being 6 foot tall animals our important “here” has a definite spatial scale to it. It is from the smallest size we can see, up to a size several times our armspan; a region we can directly manipulate, or that can directly, immediately, and perceptibly harm us. Beyond that, we may give considerable thought and weight to our town or city; the region we can easily walk, bicycle, or these days automobile around in. The region we see and experience day-to-day.

Concern for any geographic domain or population further out than or larger than that requires highly abstract and speculative thought on our part. It is inherently difficult for us.

What about our important “now”? We are often concerned with what we can get done before our next meal or sleep, and we can easily imagine and plan our next day’s and week’s work. We may be able to plan a year or two. How do you make God laugh? Tell her your plans, or more specifically, tell her your five-year plan.

Most corporations focus on planning a quarter or a year or two. Our democratic governments fare little better. They spend much of their energy managing daily or monthly crises as they arise in the media and the public’s attention, and their planning horizon seldom extends past the next election.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Not only is the bush far away, but your capture of the two birds is in the future, and may be prevented by the fickle hand of any number of unpredictable intervening events. Generally, our strategy is to optimize the long term by “integrating over” our tactic of always optimizing for the very short term which we can do with the greatest certainty.

But by getting together into large societies and corporations, and by specializing and hierarchically organizing our means of production, we have managed to organize large-scale and even global-scale industrial activities and urbanizations. These are now causing planetary and centuries-long transformations of the land, sea, air, and of life itself. And yet the 6 foot tall situated and selfish ape is expected to plan these activities in order to avoid large-scale disaster. Our present industrialization and urbanization, unplanned as they are at the spatial and temporal scale of their effects, are akin to the unplanned scourges of locusts or cancer.

Only by putting our best minds to work collectively on our large-scale, long-term problems and opportunities will we improve the certainty of our knowledge about these, and thus be able to avoid excessive discounting of the far out and far away when weighing consequences.

More importantly we have to figure out how to make the democratic majority of us support and believe intellectuals and un-self-interested institutions that would be capable of making unbiased and rational pronouncements on these issues. Some of our number, who ought to be credible, do understand the long term implications of our large-scale actions. But we are pathologically unable, as mass societies today, to listen to these more knowledgeable people, because other people and organizations with vested interests in the status quo have perfected the art and science of managing popular belief and diverting attention.

We are going to need to superimpose a new global scale of governance of our activity, to match the global effects of our high-throughput, high-impact world-transforming activities. Many of the solutions may involve a re-localization and downsizing of activity and governance, but to make that fair, it will need global oversight and regulation.

We’re going to have to figure out how the necessary global scale of governance could be democratic and representative of situated, selfish and short-lived hairless apes, and yet also have as its primary responsibility the weighing, prevention and cure of global problems, like climate change and ecosystem destruction, that take 500 years to have their full effect, and 100 years to slow down.

Solving that puzzle will be the next leap in our maturity as a civilization. Not solving it will mean a depletion of readily accessible natural resources worldwide, a severe alteration of climate and agriculture, a global breakdown of eco-systems, a collapse of our present large-scale human civilization, and an end to the comfortable lifestyle to which the developed world has become accustomed.

Denying We Are Animals

Posted March 8, 2008 by erichawthorne
Categories: philosophy, psychology

The biggest error of our historical, civilized period as humans is that we deny that we are animals. Our dominant cultural teachings insist that we actively deny this. To ascribe animal behaviour to a person is a grievous insult.

In our capacity for abstract thought and imagination of ourselves and the future, we have transcended the capabilities of other animal species on Earth, to be sure. Yet most of what motivates us, much of the time, are concerns and desires that we share with the other animals. We are driven by needs for food, drink, shelter, personal security, and reproduction, as are all other animals. We spend much of our “bandwidth” managing and optimizing co-operation and competition in the quest for surer survival, by forming complex hierarchical social groups, as do most “higher” animal species. Occasionally, we have the time to muse about, or futz about with “higher” concerns like literature, cosmology, and baseball, that other animal species can’t get around to. Occasionally.

Plato separated the ideal from the real. Descartes the mind from the body. But notions of soul and body, of sacred and profane, long predate these, probably being included among the earliest forms of abstract thought. It is one thing, though, to notice a separation between the human soul or mind and its thoughts on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other, but quite another thing to denigrate the latter and exalt the former. Certainly not all belief systems did. West Coast North American spiritual belief places human people as equals among bird people, bear people, and tree people, and I suspect most “Animist” religions did the same. The grand denial occurs only in the more “advanced” religions and philosophical and legal systems.

By denying we are animals, we lose a lot. We fail to understand the reasons for our conflicts, and for our societal structures. We fail to understand the raison d’etre for the moral guidance that our cultural stories provide us; that they glue our societies together against individual organismal selfishness; that they provide ancestral wisdom needed to reign in the dangerous combination of our animal motivations and our big brains’ imaginative capacity to invent many forms of unsuccessful life story.

By denying we are animals living animal-motivated lives of varying abilities and fortunes, we fail to acknowledge the primary causes of despair, depression, schizophrenia, and addiction, and we fail to appropriately counsel our young and our troubled.

By denying we are animals, we fail to understand the interdependency we have with the eco-systems we live in. We naively assume we can engineer something better, without understanding the essence and value of what we are destroying in the process.

This is not a very high form of transcendent intelligence, that misguides itself so.