Sunday 24 March 2019

Human Exceptionalism and Brexit Insanty

Why have we managed to tie ourselves in knots? It's (k)not just over Brexit. It's over everything - austerity, welfare, tax, university funding, climate change, the point of education...

Following on from my last post, a thought has been niggling me: is it because we think human consciousness is exceptional?  Is our belief in the exceptionalism of consciousness in the human brain stopping us from seeing ourselves as part of something bigger? The problem is that as soon as we see ourselves as something special, that our consciousness is somehow special, we consider that one person's consciousness is more special than another. Then we hold on to our individual thoughts or "values" (they're a problem too) and see to it that the thoughts and values of one person must hold out against the thoughts and values of another. Is it because consciousness is not exceptional that this creates a terrible mess?

If consciousness is not exceptional, what does it do? What is its operating principle?

In my book, Uncertain Education, I aargued that "uncertainty" was the most useful category through which to view the education system. I think uncertainty is a good category to view an unexceptional consciousness too. Consciousness, I think, is a process which coordinates living things  in managing uncertainty. It is a process which maintains coherence in nature.

This process can be seen in all lifeforms from cells to ants to humans. What we call thinking is an aggregate of similar processes among the myriad of cellular and functionally differentiated components from which we are made, and which constitute our environment. The brain is one aggregation of cells which performs this role. It is composed of cells managing their uncertainty, and the aggregate of their operation and co-operation is what we think is thinking. Really, there's a lot of calcium and ATP which is pumped around. That's the work our cells do as they manage their uncertainty.

The same process occurs at different levels. The thing is fractal in much the same way that Stafford Beer described his Viable System Model. But we know a lot more about cells now than Beer did.

But what is the practical utility of a cellular view of consciousness?

Understanding that cells are managing uncertainty is only the beginning. More important is to realise that organisms and their cells have developed ("evolved") by absorbing parts of their environment as they have managed their uncertainty over history. This absorption of the environment helps in the process of managing environmental uncertainty: uncertainty can only be managed if we understand the environment we are in. Importantly, though, each stage of adaptation entails a new level of accommodation with the environment: we move from one stable state to the next "higher" level. You might imaging a "table" of an increasingly sophisticated "alphabet" of cellular characteristics and capacities to survive in increasingly complex environments.

The cellular activity of "thinking", like all processes of adaptation, occurs in response to changes in the environment. It may be that an environment once conducive to higher-level "thought" becomes constrained in a way that cells are forced to a previous, more simple, state of organisation in order to remain viable. It's a kind of regression. The kind that we see with intelligent people at the moment, paralysed by Brexit. In history, it is the thing that made good people do bad things in evil regimes. We become more primitive. Put a group of adults in a school classroom, and they will start to behave like children....!

Understanding this is important because we need to know how to go the other way - how to produce the conditions for increasing sophistication and richer adaptiveness. That is education's job. It is also the politician's job. But if we have a mistaken idea about consciousness, we are likely to believe that the way to increase adaptiveness is to do things which actually constrain it. This is austerity, and from there we descend back into the swamp.

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