What follows is actually something that has been brewing for a while. I started writing this a little over a year ago. A recent e-mail list exchange with some other people who have been blogging, mostly about things like climate change, energy depletion, and the collapse of civilization, reminded me of my own evolution in thinking. Several well-known luminaries in the blog and book-writing world have begun to voice a kind of remorse that their voices have been ignored. Meanwhile the world has careened toward the consequences they have warned us of. And now they are realizing that they have been tilting at windmills. Somewhere along the line I did too.
What Am I Doing?
When I started this blog way back in 2007 I started by asking a question: “Why is the world the way it is?” In those days I started QE with the thought that I should be communicating my discoveries about how the world really doesn't work the way everyone claimed it did (or rather nearly everyone as there had been dissenters for some time — the ones I learned to listen to). For years I had been discovering that we were headed for real trouble continuing down a road based on consumption of natural resources at an increasing rate. But I did think there was hope that if people heard the reasons and looked at the evidence they would be able to alter their thinking and start to reverse the damage that they were doing with the economic paradigm of growth. I thought, very naively it turns out, that getting the “word” out would help people reorient themselves to an alternative perception, one of the reality of natural laws. So I set out to save the population.
As the years progressed, as the evidence mounted, and as the general population continued to ignore, not just me — I am really a nobody anyway — but the many great voices, through books, and papers, and documentaries, who were sounding the call to arms it became clear that the likelihood of changes in understanding and attitudes were not forthcoming. Voices such as those of James Hansen, for human-caused climate change (chaos), the Meadows', et. al with Limits to Growth, Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over, and James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency provided more than enough insights to the predicament we faced. These are just a tiny fraction of the people who could see more clearly into the potential future and gave warning, with the thought that their insights might provide the populace with a better understanding of what lay in store if our habits continued unabated.
And what has happened over the past six+ years? Nothing. The general populace remains clueless and apathetic to warnings of danger. The so-called “leaders” in government, business, and the media have remained staunch in their denial of alternatives to the deeply believed economics of growth and profits. They will go on promising everyone that we will get back on track and the economy will grow and all will be well. Even now the news stories are starting to trumpet the latest economic statistics that demonstrate that we are now returning to the old normal. But try to convince the people who have no jobs, no income, no prospects. They are growing in number and the pain they are experiencing will ultimately overshadow the current supposed triumph of neoclassical economics.
During that time my own thinking has evolved quite radically. I took a side excursion into a study of neuropsychology, in particular that of the facility we call wisdom, which seemed to me was the missing element in social decision making. For a number of years I have dug into the psychology research on wisdom and the brain research on what are known as “executive functions” of the prefrontal cortex. What I have been able to piece together is not encouraging in terms of peoples' capacity to make good choices. More recently Daniel Kahneman and others have been demonstrating just how poor humans are at making rational decisions about most aspects of life. We, as a species, are simply not the kind of beings we assumed we were, told our selves we were. In spite of our deep beliefs about our exceptionalism as a species, or our near-divinity (made in god's image and all that), we are not really rational beings.
Kahneman has written about what he calls Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. The latter involves deliberate thinking that we would call rational, not strictly speaking in the form of logic or mathematics, but through conscious consideration of alternatives and attempts to find a “good” solution to a problem. He and many other psychologists and neurobiologists are finding that this form of thinking is not routinely invoked in daily life or common situations. It is only when faced with a novel challenge that most people switch into the slow mode using what Kahneman calls “System 2”, the neural substrates that process data more thoroughly to ascertain the situation and bring to bear memories that will help in solving the problem. But the real problem for most people is that they often do not even realize when a situation demands switching on system 2 — they do not recognize novelty when they see it, especially if it is subtle even though impactful.
System 1, according to Kahneman, is the primitive pattern processing and reaction system of the more ancient brain, the so-called reptilian brain. This system depends minimally on learned memories and is reactive to situations that have been evolutionarily tagged as meaningful. In most cases this means either a dangerous situation (e.g. the presence of a predator) or supportive (e.g. the presence of a potential mate). Many patterns that commonly occur in the course of life resemble these meaningful ancient codes. For example, what ordinary heterosexual male walking down the street fails to instantly pick up the visual cues that tells his brain that the person approaching from a distance is a woman and without ever thinking about it? What male like this doesn't automatically continue to check out features as the woman gets closer, making subconscious judgments about her features as they pertain to her qualities as a potential mate, about their current situation in a public place making any advances totally inappropriate, etc. All the man becomes conscious of is if she is pretty (in his estimate) he may surreptitiously stare at her as she passes, to get a better look. He may vaguely be aware that his thoughts are silly or inappropriate (that is finding her attractive) especially if he is married! Nevertheless, he simply cannot help himself. His reactions and subconscious thoughts are wired in by evolution. If you doubt this just look at our population growth from the last bottleneck event. The subconscious sex drive has been amazingly successful!
Kahneman's characterization of the mind as having two systems, one old and fast, based on genetically programmed circuits that react to the environment, the other newer (neocortical-based) that takes more time to process data is important, but incomplete. There is another system that is not generally recognized yet. That is starting to change with the research on wisdom and veridical intuitions/judgments that influence certain individuals to make good decisions even when they may not have all of the current information that a system 2 “rational” process would require. This system depends on a much higher level of processing and a huge wealth of learned, complex tacit knowledge that can only be gained by years of experiences. This knowledge is essentially our mental models of the world and how it works. The brain basis for this is a much more advanced form of processing that brings together many more concepts and percepts than could ever be attended to in working memory (where conscious awareness occurs). This additional, higher level processing, allows certain individuals to rely on subconscious processing to produce valid influences on conscious decision making. These are experienced as intuitions and judgments that are uncommonly efficacious. I have called the brain capacity for this higher level of processing sapience. My working papers are available here.
The sapience/wisdom capacity should be called “System 3”. Whereas system 1 operates from below (so to speak), from the so-called limbic system, and system 2 operates in the mid-zone where the human form of consciousness controls the processing of data, system 3 operates from above. It depends on the totality of experience coded as tacit knowledge, especially higher order concepts processed by prefrontal cortex areas. Its existence is what makes us human in the first place. But, unfortunately, as I have written often in these posts, for the majority of humanity it is simply too weak to provide sufficient guidance to overcome our baser drives from the limbic basement of our souls. Power, sex, and material wealth are the principle drivers from the biological mandates of our origins. With the capabilities to achieve these goals afforded by our technological prowess (that which wins wars and commercial competition) they have come to dominate the psyches of men and even many women of the ordinary human variety. The effectiveness of the average system 3 is pathetic compared with what is required for humanity to be saved.
My thinking and attitudes toward the salvation of humanity have evolved considerably since the days of first authoring posts to Question Everything. I am still full of questions. There will always be questions. But the nature of those questions have changed considerably over the years. First came "what is wrong here?" And explorations into the human social system and the human psyche exposed some unquieting answers. Next came: "how can we change things?" The motivation was to save our species from deep pain and suffering. But the exploration of those issues and the deepening of the questions only led to a realization that, in retrospect is not surprising, but caught me off-guard completely. In order to change things, in order to not go in a harmful direction, in order to save the day, you need to have control of the motive forces moving something in a given direction. You need to be able to steer the car away from the cliff and that means you have to have a steering wheel and the power to force a change in the direction of the wheels. There is a fundamental problem with that. I should have much sooner recognized it from systems science. But I guess my very basic humanism prevented me from realizing the truth. I wanted to save humanity and therefore I believed I could. My system 1 was hard at work trying to convince my system 2 that it needed to find solutions. My system 3 was prodding my system 1, but was not gaining the upper hand. I needed so much more tacit knowledge. Specifically, I needed more understanding of systems science in the form of deeply understanding system dynamics. I studied the forces. I studied the trends. And I studied the rates of change. I finally realized that salvation was not in the cards.
Systems, Inertia, Time Lags, and Control
Think of one of those oil supper tankers plodding across the Pacific. Even at their top speed it takes many minutes for a change in the rudder to actually show up as a change in the compass heading. They are big, massive, and thus have tremendous inertia (momentum in a given vector) that is not easily overcome.
Large, complex systems often have components whose dynamics are characterized as slow to respond because they carry substantial inertia that requires tremendous power or very long time to change. Too often, the system does not have access to such enormous power and has to “wait” while the component slowly responds to control commands to change direction or speed. This creates time lags that can lead to serious problems in terms of the stability of the system. If there isn't some time computation element in the control signals and if there is any tendency for any other component to overcompensate, then the system can end up overshooting the command signals, leaving the signal too long, and lead to increasingly wild oscillations that ultimately lead to destruction of the system. Time lags in response of one part of a system can lead to other components getting “anxious” (if I can use that metaphor) and overreacting.
Systems that have survived for a long time have internally evolved mechanisms to handle these kinds of time lag effects. For example, in non-diabetic metabolism there are several mechanisms for adjusting the blood sugar level even when there is a long lag in acquiring a meal. These mechanisms rely on buffers (holding storage such as glycogen in the liver) that can supply short-term responses to lags. But they also often involve control signals that are “anticipatory” of a future state and take preemptive action to minimize the effects of lag. Such highly evolved systems are stable over a wide range of disturbances.
Indeed I discovered in my early systems research days that neurons compute anticipatory responses to cues that prevent harm or enable exploitation of resources in adaptive agents. Rather than simply respond to harmful or beneficial signals after they arrive, which would possibly make it too late to adequately respond, the agent, by virtue of the computational capacities of neurons (actually their synapses) preempt those signals with appropriate behavior, using the cue signals that they have learned to associate causally with the affective signals. Wherever I have looked at any kind of complex adaptive system that has proven long-term successful at surviving and thriving, be it an individual organism, a population, or an ecosystem I always find the same anticipatory mechanism accounting for the success.
In the case of the human condition things are much more complicated, as one might have assumed. As individuals we are good at learning causal associations for local-scale phenomena, as would have been the case in our Pleistocene conditions. But we are not really very good at recognizing more global-scale patterns over really long time scales. This is even true of time scales less than a single human life time. But it is severely lacking for scales in centuries or longer. We simply have no mechanisms for grasping spatio-temporal patterns of such immensity. And it is exactly at such scales that inertial phenomena cause us problems.
Though occasionally a rare individual is born with an ability to deal somewhat with these scales of time and space, and with the dynamics of massive system components, the rest of our kind usually treat them as crazies if they say anything to anyone! As a society, as an aggregate mind we are horrible at dealing with this. Even though we record phenomena in forms that extend over multiple generations it doesn't seem to matter. Each generation seems intent on ignoring the lessons of history, of discovering its own truths such as they may be. As a species we do not learn causal associations at the scales of importance to our long-term success. As a species, we are an imbecile.
Consider global warming. Inherent in the phenomenon of increasing the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the incredible inertia in temperature changes and the residence time of the gas. It took a long time for the rising temperature signal to be spotted. And by what we know about how long it takes for CO2 concentrations to diminish once the gas is released it will take a very long time for the increase in temperatures to slow down even after we are no longer pumping the gas into the atmosphere. The aggregate mind seems not to have an ability to process these facts.
And therein is the real problem. It seems the collective consciousness has an inherent inertia when it comes to recognizing and acting on information that doesn't resonate with what everyone believes to be true. There is inertia in the collective mind when it comes to grasping the nature of global warming. We see it at work in our societies now, especially in the United States it seems, but also increasingly dominating in Canada and Australia where conservative (how appropriate the term) governments and sentiments deny the connection between CO2 and warming, let alone climate chaos.
If our collective mind were capable of the same kind of anticipatory learning that individual brains demonstrate then we would have heeded the early warnings. From the Wikipedia article on global warming:
The greenhouse effect is the process by which absorption and emission of infrared radiation by gases in a planet's atmosphere warm its lower atmosphere and surface. It was proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824, discovered in 1860 by John Tyndall, was first investigated quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and was developed in the 1930s through 1960s by Guy Stewart Callendar.We knew in the sense that some individual minds had seen the causal relation and had even worked out what the cue signal would tell us. Had we acted anticipatorily to that signal we would not be in the current situation. We, as a species, would have taken preemptive action to avoid the current crisis. But, of course, we didn't.
The reason is that the vast majority of human beings are at best minimally wise. They don't learn from their experiences. They do not have the scope of thinking to take in the whole world and for long time scales. For them such phenomenon are basically incomprehensible. And since they are in the majority and occupy the so-called leadership positions in society the collective mind is the most inert component of all.
Real control requires feedforward, causal associative learning, and the power to overcome inertia. The governance systems of societies have none of these in any meaningful way. Governance should steer our societies away from danger. Instead they seem to be willing participants in steering us right into the maw of destruction.
The small fraction of people on this planet who actually do have feedforward and have learned causal models of how the world works collectively have no power. Because of the inertia in the collective consciousness not even the power of words seems to have any effect. This mighty ship of civilization will crash into the reef of collapse without even a hint of starting to turn.
What I Will Be Doing
I can't abide tilting at windmills. It is a waste of time and intellectual energy. I've done enough of it. I am weary of complaining about humanity's self-inflicted problems and their lack of response to them. I don't want to spend any more time railing about the stupidity of the human condition. It accomplishes nothing and leaves me continually frustrated. No point in that.
Instead I want to devote my attention back to understanding how things work. Admittedly this might seem silly if the world is going to end anyway, why bother? The motivation is actually simple. I am still a human being with an inquisitive mind. And what humans need is an opportunity to become something more than they are — to learn and understand more. I find this in learning and integrating information into my systemic models of the world. It is my desire to spend my last years continuing to grapple with questions I find most interesting.
I began to realize this while working on my systems science textbook. I found myself happiest when digging into models, especially dealing with the workings of the brain and evolution. Recently I have revived my research program in artificial adaptive autonomous agents (A4). My first project will be to rejuvenate my robotic platform, MAVRIC (Mobile Autonomous Vehicle for Research in Intelligent Control), with up-to-date computing power and add many more sensory modalities. This includes creating a much more interesting working environment with many more non-stationary causal relations for the robot to learn and adapt to. Several grad and engineering undergrad students are working with me on this project. The new objective is to emulate natural intelligence at the level of a mammalian brain by simulating the neural structures found in the neocortex. This is very exciting to me. I can study how the brain works by building one!
There will be more to write about systems science and its application to sustainable living situations. One of the appendices of the book will be about Permaculture in this vein. I want to explore this more deeply than I did in my series starting with What is a feasible living situation for future humans?
My plan is to continue investigating means for encoding something I have called a universal language of knowledge into a compact and survivable form. I have felt that the language of systems science might provide a kind of key understanding that would allow some future society to more quickly unfold the kernel of science to understand the nature of nature, regenerating the good aspects of scientific knowledge (and engineering) while avoiding the mistakes we've made from our materialistic perspective on how to use knowledge. Please bear with. Let an old man have his dream. It seems to me a worthy pursuit even though I could never possibly know the outcome (if any) of preserving a kind of scientific Rosetta Stone.
In any case I plan to no longer concern myself with warning of imminent collapse or a bottleneck. In all likelihood I may, from time to time, simply mention another signpost along the way, like the current draught problems in California as indications that climate change is having its effects much sooner than expected. But I won't dwell on how it could have been different if only people would have listened to the warnings and taken heed. I won't complain about those in governments being so incredibly stupid and foolish. I've said quite enough about it already. Think of this as a kind of retirement from the role of a Cassandra. Future QE posts will be about the here and now, what I am curious about, and what I may find along the way.
 Lest you think I am suffering delusions of grandeur or a christ complex be assured that I have never thought that a salvation operation would be carried on by one individual alone. I only claim to have ascertained that something was not quite right in the state of Denmark, so to speak. Feeling a need for finding what was wrong and then looking for solutions was pretty much the response that most anyone would have once they looked behind the curtain and discovered there was no real wizard.