It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.

Standing on Higher Ground

 

I was having a discussion the other day with Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes about heroes. And how we idolize people and then seem almost shocked when they turn out to be human and with flaws. Sometimes they are deep and serious ones (i.e. Bill Cosby). Maybe it’s not too surprising that we do this since most of us grow up thinking our parents are heroes and only over time become aware of the fact that they too have flaws and so maybe it’s a natural tendency in humans. I’ve wrote about hero worship before, so that’s not what this post is about. But I started to think about what a hero actually is and how odd of a concept it really is.

When we think of heroes we tend to think of someone standing alone, overcoming all odds, a man or woman against the world that is solely focused on tearing them down. But isn’t it odd that we should idolize such a figure, given that it never, ever happens that way. Okay maybe not “never”, certainly every once in awhile you have someone walking along who sees someone calling for help from a burning building and is saved, but these heroes are heroes of circumstance. In the right place and the right time, and maybe not heroes at all, just doing what every creature of conscience would do in the same circumstance. For most people we idolize they never really stand alone. Whether it be military, firefighter or police who benefits from the experience of those who trained them, and the coordination and cooperation of their fellow soldiers, fighters, or cops. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, or Gandhi? Such men while perhaps great could not have accomplished any of the things they did alone. Maybe we could argue that heroes inspire, but when it comes to actually accomplishing what they wanted in life they needed support. And certainly their ability to inspire may also have been because of those who inspired them.

Liam Neesons!!

I then began to think about our fascination with heroes in movies and in television. Whether it is superheroes with unique powers saving the world, a cop singlehandedly defeating scores of bad guys, shooting the down one bullet a time, or a vigilante seeking revenge on those that wronged him many are drawn to the lone figure who stands above it all. Is it our fascination that has driven the stories, or the stories that drive us? Probably the former, but either way it is a positive feedback which may not be overall all that healthy. Pop culture here in the U.S. idolizes the individual to a very high level.  As I’ve argued before while there is value in individuality, but ultimately we don’t get a sense of self without looking at ourselves in relation to others.   We are also an evolved species who survive best when we cooperate and practice reciprocal altruism.  We are a social species, and one that has depended on others for our survival and roamed this Earth in groups.  The lone person defeating foe after foe is an illusion. Real victories are at the cost and hard work of many, whether they be through physical battle, social change, or intellectual progress. One person may start an avalanche, but it is the avalanche that does that damage.

I wonder where this fascination comes from?  Is it deeply psychological, is it only cultural?  Most of us face adversity in which it seems there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps the lone hero satisfies our own desire to overcome the obstacles in our own life.  Is it a function of an over populated world in which we struggle to stand out from the multitudes?  So we love our heroes because of how they stand out from the rest?  And yet this is still an illusion and more often than not, when we raise up a hero we tend to cast other people down.  Such heroes in movies and TV are usually facing less than complex bad guys, and throngs of incompetent henchmen who are nameless and faceless and easily defeated.  Does loving the hero oversimplify their character and cause us to judge people by unrealistic standards, which over time we come to realize that even the hero we’ve elevated cannot meet them?  Does our love of that lone hero breed the Dylann Roofs and James Holmes who believe they alone must triumph over the demons in their lives?

I don’t want to imply that there are no heroes at all in this world.  I am quite certain that there are, but we can certainly change our attitude on how we view them.  Heroes are not perfection.  Nobody is.  I am also quite certain there are those who face incredible adversity on their own without help from anybody.  A single mother who works long hours every day to provide for her children is perhaps just as much a hero as Martin Luther King Jr,, Superman, or any military or police officer.  What seems clear is that in reality none of us do everything completely on our own.  There is no successful company that doesn’t depend on the hard work of all the employees.  There is no rich person who has got to where he or she is all on their own.  While I think it’s perfectly healthy to admire and appreciate the virtues of others when we idealize those people we do them a disservice and ourselves.  The great people of past and present are likely just as flawed as the rest of us.  Maybe all we should be worried about is striving to make the world a better place and maybe that’s all a hero really is.

I’d be interested in hearing others people’s thoughts about heroes.

More ramblings about climate change

I was asked to submit an essay to include in an introductory climatology text by a colleague but what I originally wrote didn’t get accepted because it was decided they wanted to place it in another chapter with a slightly different take so I had to make some revisions and changes.  I liked the original though and thought I would post it here.

In 2010 the burning of fossil fuels and the production of cement released 33.4 billion metric tons of carbon into the air.  It’s a big number.  An intimidating one perhaps, but what does it really mean?  Can any human identify with such a number?  A weight we can’t possibly experience for a gas that we can’t see.

Global averages temperatures which are not experienced by anyone. (from http://www.globalsherpa.org)

As individuals we experience only a fraction of the surface area of the Earth at any one time.  Our ability to experience change on a global scale is extremely limited.   The detection of changes in temperature on such long time scales is masked by diurnal and seasonal fluctuations.  We don’t experience average temperatures, yet the important environmental issue of our times asks us to take action based on things we do not perceive in our everyday life.

As individuals we are heavily biased towards survival from the pressures we face every day.  Civilization has given us the comfort of living apart from environmental pressures that other species experience more acutely.  It could be that civilization only gives us the advantage of delaying these pressures and gives us the illusion of comfort.  As an evolved species of animals who depends on other life for our very survival, our ability to fight off the enormous pressures that nature can exert may be dwindling.

In a typical thunderstorm there are approximately 1 x 1018 droplets.  Of course no one droplet means very much, but the collective of droplets in

From http://www.albany.edu

the cloud itself can produce lightning, damaging winds and hail, and flash flooding.  With approximately 7 billion people on the planet it is easy to view ourselves as a single drop.  With the issue of climate change it may be time to focus on what we are in fact part of:  As a species with a massive and growing global population with a great deal of power to change the world for better or for worse.  The question then becomes, “What can we, as individuals, do?”

On September 27th meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus, in response to the 5th Assessment Report on Climate by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), vowed never to fly in an airplane again.  He felt very strongly about his carbon footprint.  A criticism often made against climate scientists who travel to conferences and meetings to discuss the issue.  His gesture is extremely noble and perhaps sets a good example for the rest of us.  He participates in many meetings now via Skype to avoid flying.  There are probably many of us, companies and organizations alike, who may not be taking great advantage of the technology that is available to us.  However, his case may also be an example of our disconnect between experiences as individuals without seeing the whole picture.  A response by William MacAskill, an ethicist at Oxford, pointed out that while Holthaus’ individual footprint might be high, his active participation through face-to-face interactions with policymakers internationally may reduce carbon emissions so drastically that it more than offsets his carbon footprint.  We all have different roles as individuals as part of the whole and although Holthaus’ sacrifice is well intentioned, perhaps he has not chosen the best way to reduce his carbon footprint given his abilities and role in this world.

Life constantly asks us to find that delicate balance between our individual needs and those of the collective.  It asks us to evaluate how our individual freedoms impinge on the freedoms of others.   The consequences of our actions as individuals have never had more far reaching impacts.  Climate change impacts the largest community we are part of: the global community.  The truth is, we all share the same space even if we can’t experience it.  It’s important to remember that in the individual fight for survival we always do it best when we work together.

Terms of Two

Not that I am any great writer or am treating any of my subject matter with a great deal of academic rigor I would nevertheless like to add the final chapter to my blog posts on self and individualism, and collectivism.  There is another facet of the human mind and human behavior that fascinates me and that is our ability to be dual-minded.  I’m not positive if my definition meets any particular psychological definition, but let me describe what I mean.

I often have trouble reconciling how many Republicans can be anti-abortion but pro

From http://www.elfwood.com

war or pro capital punishment.  Growing up with an alcoholic father I found myself always wondering who my father was.  Was he the neglectful alcoholic who passed out and missed spending time with me, or was he the jovial affectionate sober dad?  Is he the bold man whose not afraid to go up to anybody and strike up a conversation or ask a question, or is he the coward unable to handle even is own inner demons and needing the escape that drugs can give just to get through the day?  The somewhat recent passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this paradox as I saw people debate.  As one side would simply praise his genius while the other side condemned him as selfish and stupid for abandoning his wife and children for heroin.  What about those who believe that God wanted us to have free will, but who also believe that everything is part of God’s plan for us?  How do we reconcile those who are scientists whose work depends on forming conclusions based on evidence, but at the same time are people of faith subscribing to a set of beliefs which have no such evidence?  We hate those people who might bud into our private business, but then have no trouble doing it to other people.  Is it a contradiction to want to be part of group, but within that group you try hard to stand out as individual?

It is clear that we are all walking contradictions to a certain extent.  What makes it all so remarkable is that we simply don’t see it.  It seems we are unable to recognize these contradictions within ourselves and our behavior seems perfectly natural and sensible.  Of course we are not dealing with simple opposites like hot and cold, black and white, left or right, but complex behaviors.  So while they may seem contradictory, perhaps if we analyzed them at a deeper psychological level they would not seem so contradictory.  Since we rationalize our beliefs and behaviors rather than base our beliefs and behaviors on reason, if we try hard enough we can bend any two contradictions complex enough to our will.

Of course our brains are complex and contain different systems that have different functions.  Perhaps these contradictions are simply feeding off a different set of neural pathways and there is no communication between the two such that there is no cross-check for incompatibility.  Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion postulates that we may have conceived of the notion of God simply because when we are young we don’t understand that the voice in our head is us.  We are dual-minded from the beginning because we aren’t really aware that the voice in our head is our own.  I, as I am sure all of you have as well, have had many a debate in my mind.  It is clear that our mind can simultaneous take different sides of an argument with sincerity in order to weigh our options in order to make the best decision.  So it seems at least possible that we might have these different sides of our self that remain separate, for which there is no debate or where we can’t resolve the debate.  It could be that a dual sided nature appeals to our sense of self as adding complexity and uniqueness to who we are.

It seems likely to me that this duality, like our sense of self, is quite possibly an illusion.  Perhaps it is part of our need to categorize and separate things; labeling people and actions.  But Freud seemed to think that our minds are always in conflict.   For instance I came up with this scenario in which parents tell their child not to cheat, that it’s wrong.  At the same time they get very happy when their child gets good grades.  So let’s say they aren’t prepared for an exam and they are now caught between perhaps cheating off the person next to them so they can please their parents (because what child doesn’t want to make them happy) or listening to their parents advice about not cheating and do poorly thus disappointing them.  Such conflicts are perhaps simply a series of battles we fight.  Sometimes winning sometimes losing.  Perhaps my father is simply fighting his addiction everyday.  Some days he wins and is able to the be the man I love, and other days he loses and becomes the man that I feel distanced from.  Perhaps for some people the struggle ends in compromise, unable to resolve what is truly right and wrong they allow one answer to pervade one type of behavior and another answer to govern the other.

In the end I think it’s all you.  Our brain can quickly consider many possible solutions to any problem, and not all of them are right, but what does right have to do with it?  Perhaps any solution that helps you survive as well as possible is all that matters.

Join Together With the Band

Whether self is an illusion or not the end result is the same.  We try to set ourselves apart.  Even with respect to those we are closest with.  It can be a simple thing such as the way we style or hair or the clothes we like to wear.  But more often we set ourselves apart from people through bigger traits, such as intelligence, style, athleticism, friendliness, openness, leadership, etc.  To do this often we must make judgments.  Sometimes those judgments are through evidence, but many times they are not.  Our sense of self not only wants us to be unique but often more special as well.

This is all clearly one side of the coin, because on the other side is the part of us that wants to be part of a collective.  Here we find a

From http://www.oakland.edu

strong desire for community, a need to fit in, a want to be surrounded by those that are like us.  It seems that most people exist on a spectrum between pure individualism and pure collectivism.  Some people need community more than others.  Some people value their individualism more than others.  Many people I know who are religious, while they may talk firmly about their religious convictions, when they talk about what they enjoy most about their faith, it is being with groups of people who share the same beliefs.  The sense of community is often strong with them; whether it is fond memories of big family gatherings surrounding religious holidays, or socializing with members from their church.  I know at a lot of Sikh temples, the women get dressed to the nines to go to church because it is much more of a social gathering than a simple practice of faith.

What really interests me about a group or a collective are the mechanisms in which they work.  Besides the psychological comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people, there is also safety and protection with in a group.  A group, singular in purpose, will often be more successful and have higher productivity than an individual.  Sometimes that purpose can be positive such as a group of volunteers cleaning up a neighborhood or park.  Other times large groups can become a mob and be damaging and irrational.

From webteachertools.com

What I think is fascinating is that despite how singular the purpose the group may have, it seems that the most successful groups are the ones in which there is diversity and a good deal of individualism.  A sports team may have an overall purpose of winning a game, but a football team will never win if everybody is only good at throwing the ball.  Each player must have their specialty and those individual efforts must be coordinated in achieving a purpose.    Most things that require a group of people require diversity as well; whether that is diversity in skills, talents and ideas.  Diversity generally benefits the entire group.  All people have a chance to grow as they learn from others and appreciate others for the special skills that they bring to the collective.

I am a big fan of the rock band Queen.  I remember watching an interview once with Freddie Mercury or Brian May.  I can’t quite remember who said the words, but the words themselves have always stuck with me.  It was something along the lines of “We are

From http://s.cdon.com

all very different people and studio sessions are exhausting as all 4 of us fight to get a little of what we want on each album or track.  But because of all that fighting we are able to produce something better than what any of us could produce individually”.    Dealing with diversity is exhausting.  It would be much easier if everybody thought exactly the same way and things didn’t have to turn into arguments, and that you didn’t have to compromise.  When the value of diversity is not appreciated that is when groups fall apart.  This is true whether it’s a leader who doesn’t listen to others, or a team member who forgets that it is teamwork that wins in the end and not solely an individual effort.

Our desire for individualism and being part of a group or community is a fundamental part of humanity.  People say that the U.S. is a very individualistic society and that we are built on a strong sense of individualism. Yet the first words of the Constitution are “We the people…”.   I do think our desire for both does often lead to struggle though.  If self is a product of knowing others than the group even becomes more important as we try to define ourselves as individuals.   As the world gets connected more globally, it is easy to feel more lost and unsure of who we are as individuals and how we can contribute to this large community.    Maybe that’s why I’ve always valued learning and education.  The more I know about the world, the more I learn about myself.