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Consciousness and Complexity

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Recently my wife Ramona and I watched a PBS program entitled "Ape Genius." The program sought to uncover the cognitive abilities and limits of the great apes: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans, and Gorillas. Their mental capabilities were contrasted with those of humans. The deep question posed was: Given the many similarities between humans and great apes, why are we so different? Only humans have art, music, global organization and so on? Why?

According to the investigation great apes do not actively teach newly learned skills to others. Learning can and does occur, but only by passive observation of one ape to the actions of another. Also, apes are emotionally impulsive-similar to human three year olds, but dissimilar to human four year olds. For example, if an ape is given a choice of two bowls of fruit which contain differing amounts of fruit, and is asked to choose only one bowl, the ape will invariably choose the bowl containing the most fruit. Further, if the ape is asked to give one bowl to another ape, while keeping one for itself, it will always give the bowl containing the least amount of fruit to the other ape. So far so good, humans would generally do the same.

However, when an ape is placed in a situation where the other ape receives the bowl of fruit which was not selected for it by the first ape, then despite learning that the way to obtain the most fruit is to offer the bowl with the most fruit to the other ape, the choosing ape simply cannot do this. It sees the bowl with the most fruit and always immediately selects it for itself-even knowing that by doing this the other ape will receive the full fruit bowl, and not itself. Human three year olds behave similarly, while older human children soon figure things out and offer the fuller bowl to another child knowing that by doing so; they will receive it for themselves. Great apes are emotionally unable to do this.

Interestingly, if an ape which has learned to recognize and understand the meaning of human numbers is used in the experiment, they will offer the higher numbered bowl to the other ape knowing that by doing so, they will actually receive the greater number.

Abstraction seems to break the grip of emotional impulsivity.

Overall, while great apes have rudimentary technology-including in some instances, manufactured spears, and while they are capable of learning by observation of other apes, their consciousness limits their degree of social interactivity. Apparently this limit is somewhere below the threshold of net interaction at which specialization and complex, coordinated, society emerges. Language is not discussed in the documentary, though I suspect that if chimps could develop a complex language and use it among themselves, their level of organized social complexity might rise above the threshold.

In the case of humans, we are above the threshold at which great organized social complexity emerges. Yet, we may be as cognitively limited as our ape cousins. Consider that we know scientifically, that our actions are destroying the planetary ecosystem, altering the weather, and that this global civilization is based upon ever-increasing use of ever-diminishing hydrocarbon energy resources. Our rational response to this would be to immediately take drastic actions to remedy these behavioral errors.

Yet, our material wealth, the position and power of societal elites, the very way that we have been indoctrinated to understand and interact with reality itself, is based upon preservation of the existing patterns of social order. So we as a global society, effectively do nothing. At least we do not take effective actions in a timely manner.

Global warming: it's a hoax, just ask conservative commentators such as George Will, Rush Limbaugh and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. Not to worry. Same response to peak oil concerns. The market will somehow always keep us supplied with all the energy we can use, or science will, or there is simply no foreseeable shortage of hydrocarbon energy to begin with. Not to worry-all is well. And so on for all of humanity's mounting existential threats.

Like the great apes we are able to comprehend reality abstractly through mathematics, and for humans, science, but at a concrete, tangible level, we are unable, as a species, to translate abstraction into changed action. Humans fail the test, though at a higher level of social complexity than great apes. This conclusion strongly suggests that a creature that was cognitively to humans as we are to great apes would NOT fail this test. Therefore it is possible to not fail. The question before us is: is it possible for humans to not fail it?

Can we change the thinking, the fundamental consciousness, of enough of our fellow humans in the time available to get it right? Alternately, if this can't be accomplished, can we create a parallel social ordering within the midst of the old, self-doomed order, which as the old order self-destructs will endure and replace it?

Both of my books Infinity's Rainbow: The Politics of Energy, Climate and Globalization, and its sequel The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad address these issues in some detail. Basically, I believe that it is already too late to save our very flawed global civilization. Further, I do not believe that this is a desirable goal as its perpetuation means ever greater ecological devastation to the entire biosphere.

However, I believe that we can transform ourselves as individuals, and by organizing with like-minded others we can become the nucleus of a successor societal complexity which will transcend the limitations of the present one. We need to be consciously aware of the entire web of life, matter and energy in which we exist. We need to understand and empathize with others-other humans, other living creatures. Although we evolved in scarcity, we need to learn that ever greater material accumulation beyond necessity is counterproductive to ourselves and to all life.

A complex social ordering based upon these principles, in addition to being environmentally sustainable, would be capable of greater emergent complexity-though not necessarily greater material complexity-than our present one by at least an order of magnitude.

This is the goal towards which we need to organize and transform ourselves. We can start by turning off the TV/Radio for a while and just sit outside and watching the natural world around us. Learn to see what's actually out there. Do this as an exercise at least several times a week.

Better yet, do this mental exercise while taking a walk in a natural setting so that the mental exercise becomes physical also. Beyond this, there are numerous well established techniques for consciousness expansion-meditation, dancing, sacred plants, music and many more. Consider practicing one that is compatible with your own values and personal attributes.

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Michael P Byron is the author of The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad. This book is a manual for taking effective action to deal with the crises of our age including (more...)
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