Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crisis on the Planet of the Hairless Apes (Part VIII): Defining The Crisis

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity;and I am not sure about the universe.
Albert Einstein

You can’t fix stupid.
Ron White

First of all, let me apologize for the lengthy delay between my last post and this one. If you have followed me on this journey, you have been very patient and kudos to you. Pardon the cliffhanger several months ago, but it’s been a busy summer, and my only excuse is that I got interested in other things. For one then, I have fulfilled a fifty year ambition to become a ham radio operator. Now, let me get on with it. [May I urge you to watch the 20 minute video, "The Story of Stuff" (see link at right), before reading on. I will assume you have in what I choose to write and leave out below.]

It has taken us a long time and lots of words to get us to this point in our understanding of the human condition – the point at which we can flesh out The Crisis in detail, and begin exploring solutions and options, if any. Defining The Crisis is pretty simple, but it is equally important to understand the factors producing The Crisis. These factors are not so simple and perhaps not so obvious. Also, wide-spread understanding these factors is critical I think as part of any solution that has a real chance of success. As we have seen, the factors producing The Crisis are numerous and complex, and hence there is no quick fix. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think any politician or party can do it, especially in our so-called democracies where policies and strategies look no further than the next election, and where individuals and collectives can be bought by corporations and other special interests.

We have addressed what I think are the main factors producing The Crisis and thwarting its solution: We have emphasized our animal nature – calling our species "hairless apes" has not been intended as a cutesy joke or some sort of elitist put-down, but rather to force us to acknowledge our animal natures. Any approach that ignores our biological nature is doomed to fail. If the word "sapient" (as in Homo sapiens sapiens) means "wise", then the old joke that "the missing link between ape and true Homo sapiens is us" turns out to be a fairly astute observation. Keeping always in sight that we are a big brained primate, we have looked at how the brainworld works, how it develops during the lifetime, and how it is transformed through technology, how intelligence structures comprehension, how the effort after meaning usually trumps (and in our ignorance is often mistaken for) the effort after truth, how spiritual realizations often true our understanding of entanglement among all things and beings in the universe, and how mature contemplation can train the mind to see our conditioning and limitations more clearly. So, it is high time we put all these factors together and define The Crisis in a way that we may be able to consider possibilities and solutions (if any in fact ARE possible).

Keeping in mind that I have become lazy about keeping this blog going, I will complete this analysis of The Crisis in several parts, so as not to frustrate you further.

Let’s start back at the beginning. Here is how I defined The Crisis to start out with:

"These [pollution, overpopulation, energy crisis, global warming, pandemics, asteroid strike, etc.] are all real threats to our ways of life –– no doubt about it –– but what I mean by crisis is something more fundamental to the human condition –– something that lies behind and (partially at least) causes these more dramatic and dangerous threats. What I am referring to is a crisis in consciousness -- namely, that humans collectively are too stupid to comprehend the unintended consequences of their conscious acts. And I mean stupidity literally here: "A poor ability to understand and to profit from experience," as well as technically: we are collectively (as societies and as a species) not smart enough to model our contemporary environment, ecology, and global society as dynamic and vulnerable systems at risk, and take appropriate effective and adaptive action to rectify our destructive actions."

I am not the only analyst to come to this conclusion – not by a long shot. Consider the words of Imre von Soos from his article, "The Four Horsemen" (see link to the right): "Overpopulation, Pollution and Erosion are pseudonyms of one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine. The other three: Plague, War and Death follow naturally in his path. . . Ignoring warnings, this super-predatory subspecies called Homo sapiens lives in the self-generated illusion that he is the crown of creation, and this planet and its other living beings are there, by divine decree, for his pleasure, exploitation and abuse. . . Factual evidence has mounted up beyond ignoring; it has become a problem we must solve, but cannot do so with our present culture's tools and ways of organizing reality." I would interpret his words as meaning in part that hairless apes are too stupid to alloy their arrogance with comprehension of the truth of their condition.

A Metaphor: The Chick in the Egg

As I say, we are now in a far better position to understand the plight of our species. Let me suggest a metaphor which, if we do not stretch it too far, will represent the crisis we face here on planet Earth. As anybody who raises chickens knows, there is a critical period in the development of a chick (the chick of any bird actually) during which it is able to emerge from its shell. Before that period, the chick is too weak to peck its way out of the shell, and after that period, if the chick has not successfully escaped from the shell, its yolk is all used up and the chick begins to starve, become weaker and weaker and then dies. So far as I know, every bird in creation faces this life crisis.

Planets that develop sentient life forms (undoubtedly millions of them in the universe – let’s call them sentient planets for our purposes, without implying anything like the Gaia Hypothesis) are like eggs within the life layer of which sentient species evolve, live and die. Each sentient planet is like an egg, and will present its most advanced sentient species with such life crises. The "yolk" represents the resources required to sustain life and activity until that species "escapes" or "emerges" from the planet and learns to inhabit its solar system. If the species does not establish itself permanently off-planet in colonies that can utilized the vast resources of the interplanetary system before the resources of the sentient planet begin to disappear, then the species will be planet-bound until either another opportunity for escape arises in the future, or more likely the species becomes extinct, taking a lot of other species along with them.

[Sidetrack: Before some eagle-eyed critic accuses me of propagating rank teleology, let me support my contention that the laws of physics produce something like a weak version of the anthropic principle – which is to say, that the lawful evolution of the universe makes the emergence of sentient beings all over the universe inevitable (the principle should therefore be called the sentient principle, rather than the anthropic principle, for we hairless apes are only one of many possible kinds of sentience that could be and probably have been produced on other planets. In sentience, the universe becomes aware of itself.]

Now, while the yolk of an egg is simply a biological resource that sustains the chick’s life until it can free itself from its protective shell, the set of resources that sustain life and evolution of hairless apes and other sentient beings are more complex and involve fantastically interconnected, entangled causal relations among all the different factors that produce a "life layer" on a planet – the life layer being comprised of the atmosphere (life in the air), the biosphere (vegetation above and below the soil and life within and dependent upon vegetation), the hydrosphere (life in the oceans, lakes and streams), and the lithosphere (life in the soil). Together, these four zones comprise a very thin layer on top of the crust of our planet.

How thin? Well the habitable layer of the atmosphere alone is something over 5,000 meters. That’s thin! Imagine the Earth was shrunk to the size of a basketball. The habitable atmosphere would amount to the thickness of a clear sheet of plastic wrapping the basketball, a sheet only 7/100ths the thickness of Saran Wrap, or less than half the thickness of a human hair.* And of course there are the habitable lithosphere and hydrosphere to consider as well. We would not be far wrong in imagining the life-layer of our basketball-sized planet Earth as about the thickness of a Saran Wrap sheet (probably less) covering the surface of the basketball. How thin and vulnerable our life layer really is! Yet this is the source of most of our physical resources, save for those dug up from the lithosphere and hydrosphere below the life layer – principally oil – and, of course, the energy from our sun.

So, humanity’s "yolk" in part consists of what nature has available (remember our earlier discussion of "affordancy") within Earth’s life layer – breathable air, water, habitable climates, nutriments, resources for building shelters, clothing and technologies to aid us in our adaptation to our various niches. More than this, our evolutionary process – a process that extends back millions of years – has provided us with our genetically conditioned bodies and brains. The brainworld we each carry around with us in our body is limited in so many ways by the processes of biological adaptation that have preceded our time. The same "nature" that provides the life layer has provided us with our highly human brainworld, with all its clever tricks and dangerous limitations and activities.

Part of our "yolk" includes our own cognitive and behavioral acts, both individually and in groups. Keep in mind that we hairless apes are a social primate, which means that through all of our past evolution, our predominant adaptive strategies have been social ones. We have more in common, say, with the arctic wolf, which lives in social groups and which hunts both alone and in packs, than we do with the solitary red fox which lives and hunts by itself and has no social strategies to rely upon. Society is such a popular adaptive strategy among animals that according to Edward O. Wilson, social adaptation has arisen independently over 30 times in different phyla during the evolution of life of this planet.

Our strengths and limitations as a social species are thus another aspect of our "yolk." That includes our cultures – that is, the ways we are individually and severally conditioned by our society to see some things as valuable and others as not, to acknowledge some behaviors as proper and others as improper, to do things in certain ways, to interpret events in particular ways, and on and on. We have been through all this before in earlier posts. The fact that we are all culture-bearers is part of our species’ "yolk." If we as a society value material wealth above all things, then it may make sense to allow, even encourage folks to lay waste to the lands and seas in search for minerals. Hence one bit of our "yolk" causes the disruption of another bit or our "yolk." If we have a sociocultural system that values an increase in jobs or material production over a sustainable and renewable life layer, then the life layer will continue to deteriorate, and the window for "emergence" of the dominant sentient species into space may be foreshortened – that is, our "yolk" may run out sooner.

As I say, we don’t want to stretch the "yolk" metaphor too far. It is just a symbol representing, for me at least, the fact that our days are numbered with respect to "emerging" into a fully extraterrestrial sentience and civilization.

[Sidetrack: Soviet Union astronomer Nikolai Kardeshev [] proposed in 1964 that there are three types of mature civilizations among sentient beings: Type I civilizations are those that learn to efficiently utilize the energies and resources available within a planet’s life-layer, Type II civilizations are those that learn to efficiently utilize the energies and resources of an entire solar system, and Type III civilizations are those that learn to efficiently utilize the energies and resources within an entire galaxy. Needless to say, we hairless apes have yet to even approach a Type I economy. The question we are examining here is whether or not we will ever become a Type II civilization when we have such a struggle even approaching the Type I level.]

The Crisis may now be defined as the approaching window of opportunity (a set of "affordances)" for our species to emerge from this planet and into interplanetary space, and to shift our dependence upon the resources of the Earth’s life layer to the resources available from the sun, from the moon, from the asteroid belt and other extraterrestrial materials and energies. We are nearing the beginning of that window and are, technologically speaking, preparing for it. No one knows how long this window will remain open. We hairless apes with have a large say in how wide that window will be. But what is certain, at least to me, is that the window will eventually close. And if it closes without our species accomplishing an extraterrestrial civilization, then we will be in deep trouble, and very likely will face extinction.

Our greatest hindrance to accomplishing an extraterrestrial civilization is our own nature. Frankly, I have a hunch we are really too stupid to comprehend as a collective either the inevitable window, or the factors that thwart our exploitation of that window. There are many individuals who comprehend systems thought at that level, but as a society, our judgments and actions are extremely ignorant, short-sighted and concrete.

Enough out of me for this time. Future posts will examine some of the variables that may hinder and facilitate a collective response to the opportunity of the window – issues such as the importance of the evolution of social democracy, the importance of education for space exploration, the problem of tracking UN-intended consequences of our collective actions, cybernetic approaches to increasing human intelligence, and the role of empathy in producing a climate conducive to a self-sustaining economy and resource base.

* Let’s say that the life supporting atmosphere is roughly 6 kms. high. The radius of the Earth at the equator is roughly 6,378 kms. thick. Hence the habitable atmosphere would be roughly .094% of the radius. Now, let’s suppose the Earth were shrunk to the size of a basketball. How thick would the habitable atmosphere be in relation to the ball? A size 7 basketball has radius is approx. 4.7 inches. That means that the atmosphere of the basketball-size Earth would measure about .00044 of an inch. How thin is this? Well, it would be roughly 7.3% the thickness of a sheet of Saran Wrap (thickness = .006 inches), or 44% the thickness of a human hair (thickness roughly .001 inches).

Wilson, Edward O. (1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Dan said...

Great so far, really looking forward to your thoughts on education and intelligence enhancement.

Scott said...

You've gotten to some bedrock questions and have taken it in a direction I'd not anticipated, actually. You're focused on the "external" world in the concept of breaking out and becoming a Type II society. Might I suggest (and it's a suggestion I'm confident you'll easily accept) that to break out externally, we must also break "in" internally.

My experience is that most hairless apes have as thin a layer to their "inner-sphere" as their bodies experience in their external environment. A proverbial layer of Saran Wrap around their psyches -- often called an ego! (Has anyone coined the word "egosphere"? If not, it's mine. My fragile psyche cannot imagine a world where I don't get credit for each and every brilliant thought I produce! MINE I SAY. My Preccccioussss... )

So the question, as it pertains to the post above, I suppose, is:

Is it that we can break "out" as we break "in", or must we break in FIRST? Must our level of enlightenment reach a certain quantum leap before we're capable of seeing as a collective society the need to break out of the physical shell? Another twist on chick or egg.

In my own spiritual travels, I've learned quite clearly that our brain, as conditioned for survival, is far more easily, and often exclusively, motivated by fear. With a fear-biased mind, we tend to recede from challenge -- literally "withdraw"; this is exactly the wrong direction if we want to expand, engage, move toward, etc.

I am keenly interested in the psychology of fear at the moment as we move through what is shaping up to be one of the most painful periods in American social evolution. Hopefully, we shall survive this affordancy, and move to a higher level of consciousness, rather than receed into the "socialist/communist" constructs of the past. But this is politics and a post for a different day.

Hope these questions add to the discussion!

Christina said...

It is my understanding that you believe certain elements of the universe are sentient (for example, homo sapiens) and others are not. If this is correct, could you please more clearly explicate what you mean by 'sentience'? Moreover, what leads you to believe that only certain elements in the universe are sentient, as opposed to say, all the stuff of the universe being sentient?

Charlie Laughlin said...

Dan: Don't give up on me. I am getting slower at it, but I am determined to complete this project. I have been on the road for months now, and just not in the frame of mind necessary to the task. Thanks for tuning in!


Charlie Laughlin said...

Hi Scott: A thousand pardons for the delay, but I forgot to check the little box that forwards comments to my email. It took Christina to connect via email for me to come back here and read your stuff. Aha! Another Tolkien freak I see!

I could not say it better than you did, to wit: Is it that we can break "out" as we break "in", or must we break in FIRST? Well, my answer has to be that the two are two halves of the same coin, they are two parts of the same process. Remember Edgar Mitchell's profound experience when he got out in space and looked back at tiny, fragile Earth. And he was not the only one of the astronauts to have life-altering spirutal experiences out there. And we are talking here of the "right stuff" types, the high tech, test pilot, outer-directed folks that NASA picked back in those days to "go where no human had gone before." There are meditation experiences that will take one "out there" as well and that essentially have the same profound effect upon the self, and the empirical ego.

I am with you that the ego is like the saran wrap of the psyche, and to my reading, that is kinda what Jung had in mind as well. Obviously, we can send all sorts of people into space. I doubt their spiritual depth is high on the testing requirements (I could be wrong here) -- certainly not as high as intelligence and complexity of thought factors. But the more intelligent a person, the more likely they are to be spiritually moved by the experience, don't you think? Actually, I have taken the position that whatever motivation can get us out there into space permanently -- usually commercial motives are the most compelling to a materialist society -- the unintended consequences of living in space will take care of the more important stuff.

Charlie Laughlin said...

Christina: Thanks for connecting via email. Got me back here and thinking this morning. Actually, I am very curious why anyone would think that material stuff is conscious when the only consciousnesses we come in contact with in reality are beings, and beings are organisms. The only answer I can come up with is very Jungian, I am afraid: That we project our consciousness outward onto non-organic things. Now, there is a lot of evidence for this explanation.

First, the phenomenon of the simulacrum. Humans everywhere "see" faces in the clouds, sleeping warriors in the mountain profile, breasts in stones, penises in stumps, ships or bird's wings in rock formations. This is an automatic result of the pattern-seeking function of the brain.

Second, folks routinely project their dream/vision penomenology out onto reality. If I fly "out of body" during a lucid dream or meditation vision, I assume my psyche is separate and separable from my body, so why can't psyches life in rocks or whole galaxies as well? We are phenomenologically very gullible. The Buddha said: In this fathom high body, 'o Ananda, I will show you the arising and passing of the entire universe (or words to that effect). Meaning that every and all our experiences arise and pass away in our body, and nowhere else.

Third, this question touches on the problem of empathy. Really, the only consciousness I can know directly is my own -- which could lead me into an inescapable solipsism -- into the mind state of a psychopath for instance. But then why am I communicating with you? I am projecting consciousness onto you in the way we all do in a society. You are like me, hence conscious. I empathize with you. New evidence suggests we do this automatically because our brains have "mirror cells" that mediate mimicry, social learning and empathy. So if I project Uncle Harry on that rock over there, I naturally empathize with the Harry rock to some unconscious extent. And to some extent therefore I project Harry's consciousness upon the rock.

That's my take on the issue. I could say a lot more but maybe that will give you a flavor of how I would come at it. Basically, if it ain't got a brain, it ain't conscious.

Artifex said...

A possible scenario:

"The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world". H. Hesse, Demian.

Charlie Laughlin said...

Neat quote. I think the process is pretty much a natural one, without carrying the egg metaphor too far. Another quote for ya: "In humanity the universe becomes aware of itself." And the "destroying" of worlds in the sense of using them up as resoources or "yolk" may well be the cost of that awakening.