Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality.
This is now old hat for us, right? We know that the world of experience is not the real world itself, but only our uniquely individual point of view upon reality, trued by constant testing and alteration and growth of our neural models. We feed-forward into the world and get automatic feedback about the obdurate and affordant nature of the object and the world. And the fact that we only see the world from a point of view – the fact that the real world is ALWAYS transcendental relative to any knowledge or view we have of it – has everything to do with producing The Crisis.
But what I have not addressed yet is the internal organization of meaning that becomes attached to the object like iron filings around a magnet. The iron filings of meaning are not isolated islands of information, but rather are organized into systems. This is an issue that is equally important to our understanding of how the consciousness of hairless apes has produced The Crisis, and may yet be able to negotiate their way through The Crisis to a more or less rosey future. I started these posts by claiming that The Crisis is produced by the fact that hairless apes are too stupid to comprehend the unintended consequences of their actions in the real world. This post will examine the issue of natural intelligence directly so that we can see more clearly where the danger lies, and what "stupidity" means. [I want to acknowledge the very important role my late friend and soul brother, John McManus, played in teaching our BS group to integrate a developmental perspective into biogenetic structuralism.]
Let me say right up front that what I mean by intelligence is NOT synonymous with what IQ tests measure. IQ tests are related to natural intelligence, but most such tests are culturally loaded and require mastery of particular content. Natural intelligence refers to the neurobiological systems of control that have evolved to intervene between the sensory input and behavior output of organisms. In humans, natural intelligence refers to the internal cognitive organization of the brainworld. Because these control systems are biological, they have evolved through millions of years, and they develop over the course of each lifetime. So, for hairless apes we are talking about the cognitive development that all humans undergo as they mature. More specifically, natural intelligence involves the growth of increasing complexity of organization, irrespective of content. In other words, how complexly do we comprehend what we are experiencing, thinking, imagining, calculating, so forth. Generally speaking, the more complex our cognitive systems become, the "smarter" we are about what we comprehend and decide to do.
The methods that developmental psychologists and neuroscientists use to research cognitive/brainworld development from our early life in the womb til we become adults are extremely technical, and there have been many controversies over the exact details of theories about all this. I have no desire to get into these methods and controversies, for they are well covered in the literature and on the net, and besides, they would take us off-point. The point is that we are not born as smart as we become later in life. Our intelligence develops over many years, and involves the growth of neural structures, just as our hands and feet grow more and more adult-like and capable over the years.
We have the great Swiss philosopher and psychologist, Jean_Piaget, to thank for having started us down the path of understanding the development of natural intelligence in people and other animals. In his research with thousands of children, he was able to show that the internal structure of knowledge, comprehension and judgment develops through a series of definable stages, each stage organizing the content of the previous stage in ever more complex ways. Cognitive competence grows in active dialog with real life, everyday situations, including engagement with the obdurate and affordant aspects of physical reality. Again, whether or not there exist discrete stages of cognitive development is unimportant for our purposes, and in point of fact, Piaget himself didn’t care one way or the other. What he was at great pains to show empirically is that:
1. Cognition is a biological function, and thus is the same for all members of the species,
2. Cognition develops in the interaction between the cognitive structures and reality,
3. Cognition is an activity or "operation" of the brain, which is to say the drive of the organism is to transform its internal structures in order to adapt to changes in the environment,
4. Meaning and knowing are a product of cognitive structures,
5. Changes in internal cognitive structures occurs as a consequence of accommodating (changing to meet the requirements of) reality, and assimilating (taking into) reality into the structures.
6. The higher levels of cognitive development require and are the products of so-called "reflecting abstraction;" that is, the capacity of the person to contemplate their own cognitive operations, and the properties of their own actions,
7. The higher stages of cognitive development are marked by greater complexity, levels of organization and abstraction from mere sensory content,
8. And cultures can facilitate or hinder the development of higher levels of natural intelligence.
Almost every normal person reaches the level of concrete operational thought. Children begin to demonstrate logical thought around age 7, plus or minus, and continue to develop operational abilities into adolescence. Many factors may influence the onset and rapidity of development, especially diet. Malnutrition is known to slow down cognitive development, and even stunt intellectual development altogether. Remember, we are talking about natural intelligence, hence neural cell growth, and growth of connections among millions of neural cells, all of whom must feed in order to grow and prosper.
Concrete operations are so named because they are logical operations applied to concrete events. A child/person may be fully operational at a concrete level, but find abstract or hypothetical thinking difficult or impossible. The concrete operational child/person can order things according to qualities, like color, number, size, shape, etc. They can learn to count and do arithmetic. They can move from specific instances to general principles – like, observe a flock of sheep and then classify the different kinds of sheep according to general properties (all are wooly, some are white and some are not, some are babies and some are grown up, so forth). They can also perform reversible operations – if five and five make ten, then if I take five away from ten, I get five. They can comprehend that things in one category may be included in a larger, more inclusive category – like "my budgie is a bird and a bird is a kind of animal. So my budgie is also an animal.
A very important concrete operation isolated by Piaget is conservation. Before a certain point, if you pour a tall thin glass full of water into a short wide glass, and ask a pre-operational child which glass has more water in it, they will usually answer the tall glass. But after the onset of concrete operations, the child comprehends that the same amount of water has been held by two glasses of different shapes. Things may change and yet some properties are conserved. Moreover, the child/person who has developed concrete operational thought can to some extent remove their ego from a calculation. If in a story a dog buries a bone under a bush and leaves, and then another dog comes along and finding the bone, re-buries it under a fence, when the first dog comes back, and looks for his bone, the child knows that the first dog will look under the tree, even though the child knows the bone has been moved.
Notice that I keep referring to the child/person, rather than just child, for it is the case that most people never develop very far past concrete operations, if at all. Most think about experienced things and events, goals for the future, things that have transpired in the past. Some eighty years ago, the anthropologist Paul Radin concluded that all societies are like that in that they each produce a handful of "philosophers" while the rest of the population are "men of action." In fact, there are no nations, countries or societies that have any more than a fraction of their population capable of thought above the concrete level, and in many societies, no one develops beyond that capacity.
Those people who do develop the ability to think abstractly are those that have entered the stage that Piaget called formal operational thought. In our society where adequate nutrition is widely available over the course of childhood, formal operations begin to present in early adolescence, but onset may be delayed until much later. Cognitive development continues into adulthood of course. People are not just able to have goals, they can carry out complex systematic planning. They can think about abstract ideas and relations. They become capable of logico-deductive reasoning. Hypothetical thinking (thinking about options that have never been experienced), empirical-theoretical relations (as in science), and higher mathematics make sense to the formal operational person.
Piaget also recognized that abstract thought may not be generalized to all experiential domains. The development of thought may in fact demonstrate a vertical decalages (French for "lag") between domains of content – that is, a person may become abstract in their thought about one set of problems and remain concrete with respect to another domain. For instance, a particle physicist may operate at a very abstract level with respect to her cosmological thinking, while remaining very concrete in her social, moral or political thought. Indeed, few people are universally abstract across all domains of application.
The Work of Michael Commons (1939- )
Work has continued along Piagetian lines, fleshing out what we can know about the development of the internal complexity and functioning of the brainworld. Numerous additional stages of development have been added – which Piaget himself anticipated. Of interest to us is the addition of stages beyond formal operations. Perhaps the most elaborate empirical research so far is that done by Michael_Commons and his colleagues. For Commons, formal operations involves mastering the skill of arguing from empirical or logical evidence requisite to correct scientific problem solving. There follows a stage he calls systematic operations which is implied to some extent in Piaget’s formal operations, and is characterized by the ability to think in terms of multivariate systems. Systems are made up of complex relations, and thinking transcends one dimensional unknowns to consider multivariate coordinates. Following systematic operations comes metasystematic operations which involves the ability to construct metasystems, supersystems, multi-systems and global views of embedded systems. One is also able to comprehend the property of systems and relations among systems. At the level of paradigmatic operations one is then able to construct paradigms from metasystems, and at the final level of cross-paradigmatic operations, to construct entire fields from multiple paradigms.
Without getting into any great detail about these stages (which may or may not prove to be discrete stages at all), the two things to emphasize here are (1) that these higher levels of thinking have to do with cognizing, recognizing and constructing systems of relations at higher and higher levels of abstraction from observed reality, and (2) fewer and fewer people are capable as adults of each subsequent level of abstraction.
Conceptual Systems Theory and Social Cognition (CST)
I. Low Complexity: These people (in fact most people in our society) apply low cognitive complexity characterized by uni-dimensional thinking and very concrete operations. They are categorical in their thinking and judgements. They will see things and people classified by a single attribute – say, all people who are black are in one category that is characterized by the same set of stereotypical qualities. These are people who are the least flexible and adaptable under conditions of change, complexity and stress. These folks have trouble generating alternatives and things are judged to be either black or white – with no gradations. Situations under stress reach rapid closure, and things are either in one category, or excluded from consideration.
II. Moderate Low Complexity: People can comprehend multiple dimensions and alternatives, and rules that connect these dimensions. They are less likely to be "absolutist" about decisions, and are able to consider choices and weigh probabilities. They are less likely to cave under the stress of environmental change and complexity, for they have alternative ways to move and rules for applying them.
III. Moderate High Complexity: Abstract thought begins to prevail, and there is a lot less deterministic thinking. Far more alternatives are available to thought and decision-making. Many more ways of viewing the environment within the same overall structure of thought. Multivariate dimensions and rules may fit without conflict within the same structure. A person can conceive of more than one point of view in social situations, can weigh different views relative to strategic solutions, can evaluate different behaviors to outcomes. Social strategies are far less categorical, and more fluid. This person is even less likely to cave under stress.
IV. High Complexity: The rules for comparing strategies and points of view are more numerous and more flexible and more integrated within a single structure. Highly abstract decision-making among a host of possible strategies and schemes makes this level on at which a person can generate novel solutions to complex problems. There is greater creativity in reorganizing schemes and systems of rules. This person is relatively independent of past experiences and "tried and true" solutions, and is the least likely to cave under complexity, novelty and change.
It is important to our picture here to realize that people who test high on Piagetian and Commons measures, do not necessarily test high on social cognition. But anyone who tests high on social cognition will be capable of formal operations or above. That also means that there are fewer people capable of abstract social cognition than are capable of abstract thought about the physical world.
The Work of Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) on Moral Development
I. Pre-conventional: Preconventional reasoning is typical of children, but many adults retain this level of thinking applied to the moral domain. At this stage people are making moral judgments abut their actions dependent upon their direct consequences – like, if they get punished for doing something, it’s wrong. They are only interested in themselves and reason entirely from an ego-centered perspective. One acts purely out of self-interest. It is good if it is good for me.
II. Conventional: Most late adolescents and adults operate on a conventional level of morality. The hallmark of moral thinking is its social orientation. Interpersonal relationships, especially one-on-one friendships and family relations are at the core, and then later obeying social rules predominate. Things are "good" or "bad" relative to how they effect other people we know and care about. Social rules are "good" because it benefits the commonweal. "Good" citizens follow the laws, and "bad" people break the laws, and the latter harms society.
III. Post-conventional: People at this level begin to view society abstractly and ponder the principles that make society work. They no longer advocate support for society for its own sake, because some societies can do really dumb and unjust things. Not all societies are "good," even though they function well – dictatorships can be very efficient, but are rarely just. There can be "good" laws and "bad" laws. They conceive of an ideal society in which all human rights are valued and upheld, and then make judgements about their own society by comparison with the ideal. Society is now considered to be a social contract among individuals and that contract can be changed, renegotiated and improved. Evaluations are made in relation to "higher" principles of justice and fairness, and to democratic institutions that give everyone their say.
Moral thought, as with thinking about the physical world, develops though application and through interaction with the social environment. They cannot be taught, anymore than Piagetian stages can be taught. Moreover, as with social cognition, one may have reached formal operations in the Piagetian sense, but remain at a conventional level in moral thinking -- remember the phenomenon of decalages (above). The particle physicist who spends her days thinking about multidimensional string theory may also be socially retarded and act like a tyrant at home. But there is no such thing as a person capable of post-conventional moral thought that is not also operating at the formal operational stage of Piagetian development.
NATURAL INTELLIGENCE AND THE CRISIS
What is relevant is that optimal development of natural intelligence is correlated with (1) neurophysiological development, especially development of the prefrontal cortex; (2) diet, especially dietary considerations in the womb, in infancy and early childhood; (3) complexity of social and physical environment during development; and (4) genetic background, for intelligence is heritable. Let’s take each of these factors in turn:
1. Brain and natural intelligence: Intelligence (g-factor) is correlated highly with both overall brain size and with the size of the prefrontal lobes. Hence, any factors that facilitate or inhibit brain growth (disease, inheritance, diet, environmental factors) contribute to the overall optimization of the development of intelligence.
2. Diet and natural intelligence: Diet has a direct impact upon physical growth in the embryo, infant and child. Research has shown that dietary deficits will inhibit brain development and stunt the development of intelligence. When scientists realized this powerful factor, policies were established that created the "head-start" programs in the United States and other countries. But there are societies who’s children are still routinely malnourished, and as a consequence, few if any adults ever reach optimal, higher level cognitive stages. The picture is even worse than this, however. Research also shows that if a pregnant woman is malnourished over the course of her pregnancy, her offspring will suffer intellectual deficits, regardless of whether the offspring after birth have access to a good diet or not. In other words, bad diet stunts brain growth and hinders the optimal development of natural intelligence. Let me emphasize this yet again: bad diets produce unnecessary and avoidable stupidity!
3. Complexity of Environment and Natural Intelligence: Research has also shown that children raised in enriched physical and social environments are more likely to reach optimal development of brain growth and intelligence. Remember when I said that the brainworld grows in dynamic interaction with reality? The more varied and interesting the environment of the child (also kitten, pup, cub, etc.), the more challenges there are for intellectual growth. Conversely, children raised in sub-optimal environments have their intellects stultified.
4. Inheritance and Natural Intelligence: Intelligence is heritable. That is beyond dispute. But as we have seen, the development of the brainworld is complex and there is often no way to parse out how much is due to environmental factors such as complexity of environment and diet. Plus the issue of the inheritance of intelligence got all mixed up with racism and politics which further muddies the water. But there is no doubt at all that individual intelligence is in part due to genetics, and this factor will become important when I take up the future of space colonization in a later post.
Natural Intelligence and The Crisis
Hairless apes can only be as intelligent as their individual brains can develop. And no matter how smart any one person can become, he or she is still too stupid to comprehend all the unintended consequences of human actions in the world, because (1) reality is always transcendental relative to what we can know about it, (2) no human brain reaches a systems consciousness sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the vast systems we impact with our actions, and (3) most of the causal relations we set in motion or alter with our actions are invisible to our senses or measuring technologies. Imagine you are cruising up a river in a speedboat. Can you comprehend all the unintended consequences on the physical world of your outing? You may be aware the waves you cause are wearing away the banks, slowly but surely – but what else? How many creatures have you killed or maimed? What kind of interactions does this cause? What pollutants have you let loose into the atmosphere and water, and what are the consequences of that? And what about all the other causal interactions about which neither your nor I know nothing about, but that happen anyways? See what I mean? Most human beings haven’t a clue about the systemic impact of their actions in the world, nor can they know because they are too stupid to comprehend – in the same sense that a chimpanzee is too stupid, or an elephant is too stupid.
We hairless apes are a species of social primate. We are reared in groups and most of us live out our lives in groups. And we tend to do things and make things happen in groups. We tend to do things we were taught to do by our group and that are valued by other members of our group. Group interactions have an impact upon our strategies and upon the consequences of our actions, and to a very real extent upon the development of intelligence in its members. Cross-cultural psychologists have shown that horticultural societies tend to thwart the development of individual thinking and abstract intelligence, while hunting and gathering groups value and encourage individuation and complex thought. This is in complete alignment with the way the two types of society make a living and organize their social interactions. The one society tends to dumb-down its members, and the other creates conditions that facilitate advanced cognitive development.
While I will spend an entire post spelling out The Crisis in more detail, what I can say here is that planets are organic systems so complex, few if any hairless apes can comprehend planets as unitary systems. To make matters worse, planets are also dynamic systems, changing all the time, so that what impact we hairless apes have on planetary events becomes mangled in with all the other causal factors, so that we have a hard time parsing out our overall footprint. But meanwhile, the population of hairless apes on Planet Earth has, in just my 70 years here, grown from just over 2 billion to nearly 7 billion. If you were born in 1950, the world population was something over 2.5 billion, and if you were born in 1970, then the population was around 4 billion. Do you realize that there are more people alive today than have ever been born and died in the past? Hairless apes are everywhere – a virtual contagion of endlessly jabbering, socially dependant, greed infested, resource consuming, often starving hairless apes! We have known for decades that overpopulation alone is an ecological and economic catastrophe waiting in the wings. People are living longer, marrying later, and using contraception, on the average, and yes, having fewer babies, but still the explosion goes on – estimates have us at over 9 billion people by 2050! Yet there are people by the millions who will argue adamantly for the inalienable "right" of women to make babies, while others take to the streets and threaten violence to protect frozen embryos that will never become babies. Truly, we are collectively too stupid to comprehend The Crisis and to do much about its onset or duration.
Let me repeat, I am not using the word "stupid" in a pejorative, misanthropic sense. I am just stating the situation, sans sugar coating, as best I see it. People cannot help it if there is an inherent limit to what they can understand and know anymore than an earthworm with its rudimentary nervous system can know, or a dolphin with its huge, complex brain can know. We have evolved a brainworld that was very, very adaptive during the hundreds of thousands of years of Upper Paleolithic ("upper stone age") adaptations. When we began the rapid increase of population at the beginning of the Neolithic ("new stone age") some ten thousand years ago, population is estimated as having been between 1 and 10 million people – MILLION, not billion. There were probably way less than half a billion people on the planet at the time of Christ, and still less than a billion people in the world at the time the United States became a republic. So our population growth and its effects on the natural environment is more a result of our very clever technological brainworld, than much in the way of an evolutionary advance in neural complexity and wisdom.
The capacity for advanced or optimal intelligence does NOT guarantee smart choices, judgments and comprehension. And it certainly does not guarantee good or wise choices. Advance intelligence has to be applied to produce really intelligent results. Various factors influence how a person will apply their intelligence, or not as the case may be, including:
1. Challenging environment: The complexity and challenge of the environment is a major factor. If the problem or challenge is not interesting to the person, they may give a less than optimally complex intellectual response. Highly intelligent students get bored in school for instance when the material is pitched to the mean abilities in the class, well below that level of complexity that will challenge the really bright minds, and the bright student may just blow off the tests and projects and end up with a low mark. In a real sense the environment "calls forth" the level of intelligence appropriate to its complexities.
2. Decalages: Let’s not forget that the available potential for high intelligence in one domain of experience may not be matched by that person in another domain – the physicist who is very concrete in his social life or moral judgments. I have personally known members of Mensa who are socially inept and narcissistic. We Americans once had a fabulously intelligent president who was caught out having had embarrassing sexual adventures in the Oval Office. How dumb is that? The point is that a totally rounded-out advanced abstract systems intelligence with no decalages is a rarity.
3. Social pressure for conformity: People can be socialized right out of any inherent intelligence they might, under optimal conditions, apply. People can get caught up in social groups that demand a dumbing down of their intelligence in order for them to be socially acceptable. Bureaucracies all too often have that effect. It is said by some that it is all your job is worth in NASA to voice novel ideas that might require changing things. That is a common situation in bureaucratic organizations with their internal politics and pressures for social conformity. Some people get caught up in fundamentalist religious groups that inhibit intelligence in favor of strict adherence to dogma. Honestly, there are hundreds of thousands of "born-again" Christians so dumb they think Jesus spoke in English! And you want to know what is REALLY scary? They vote!
4. Mood and smarts: It is a fact that those with higher intelligence are more susceptible to depression, and depression has a dampening effect upon interest in reality. Thus depression can inhibit the full application of advanced intelligence. Why are more intelligent people more likely to become depressed? Some clinicians suggest that intelligent people have a greater capacity for internal analysis and self-evaluation, and come to the conclusion that they are unworthy. As many or you know from direct experience, loss of a sense of mastery is one of the root causes of depression. Others think that because highly intelligent people are aware on a daily basis of the general stupidity around them over which they have no control, they are more susceptible to mood disorders, solitary life styles and lack of interest.
5. High intelligence does NOT equal "good": Just because someone has applied optimal intelligence to a problem does not mean that they have reached a "good" solution. Indeed, they may apply their analytical skills in an essentially amoral way. Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was no doubt highly intelligent, but as cruel as a black fly in May, and as evil as the Devil himself. Highly intelligent people can end up in powerful positions in corporations and in government and choose to do destructive and evil things in order to up their profits and keep their constituents happy. So there is no guarantee that intelligence alone can get us out of the pickle in which we find ourselves.
6. Metabolism: The energy state of the body of course influences the state of the brainworld. In order to operate at an optimal level of intelligence, a person has to have enough food. Malnutrition not only inhibits the development of advanced intelligence, it inhibits the application of advanced intelligence. So too does fatigue. The brain weighs roughly 3 lbs., and in a 150 lb. person constitutes one 50th of their body weight. And yet average brain activity consumes 5% or more of one’s metabolic energy. You have to eat to think. Cognition and experience are energy dense activities. That’s how come you can get really tired doing homework or writing stuff.
This has been another dense post, I know. So let me run over the high points we need to carry with us as we examine The Crisis. We aren’t born smart, though we may be born with the genetic potential for smartness. Natural intelligence develops, and development can be facilitated or thwarted by different factors. Most people on the planet and in any particular society do not develop intellectually beyond the concrete operational stage (indeed, in some societies nobody is capable of abstract thought). Other people do develop more complex, abstract thought, but few of these continue to develop full systems consciousness. Development may be optimal in one domain of experience, but not in others (decalages). Moreover, just because a person is capable of complex, abstract thought – even full-on systems thought – it does not mean that they will necessarily apply higher reasoning to particular problems or situations. And, even if they apply higher intelligence to a situation, it does not guarantee morally good, compassionate or wise solutions. Very smart decisions can be made that result in further damage to the environment, loss of human life, and impoverishment of other people.
Second Tower Hit, Sept. 11, 2001
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