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Dharma as Education for the Metacrisis (Part V)
Generalized Bias Training
The Way (according to conventional English translation of Lao-tse) that can be spoken about is not The Way. Is it possible then that the Way-of-Correcting-our-Ways is The Way?
Well, if we’re speaking about then probably not, but it is worth considering the degree to which the meta-enabled protoskills (that distinguish developmental education from ordinary adaptive skill-acquisition) may be based on internal tactics for overcoming our cognitive, social & habitual biases.
That’s another way (sic) of saying that wisdom is always in dialogue with folly.
This occurred to me recently while I was sitting outside, typing and freezing in the encroaching winter of the shadowy backyard. A little sunlight peaked past the house. It illuminated a golden space over by the ash-tree. “Ah,” I thought, shivering, “if I could sit somewhere warm and sunny… like it is… right…over… there.”
What I fool I had been!
And how often does wisdom, even as little as I myself possess, express itself in that curious piece of self-awareness: What a fool I have been?
I should have known. In my late teens, I was lucky enough to meet my boyhood hero, the author-philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, just before his death. He told me (and it is repeated in some of his writings), “Literally the only proof you have that you are getting any smarter is the realization of what an idiot you’ve been until just now.”
Like his close friend, Dr. Timothy Leary, ol’ Bob tended to speak about a generalized, multidimensional life-intelligence but I think he meant basically what we are discussing as Wisdom. The idea being that Wisdom is a corrective, a modification, a re-view, a transvaluation. And of what? Of Wisdom’s partner… Folly.
The last hundred years of neuropsychology have revealed a growing grab-bag of human cognitive biases. Several have become common knowledge among the preening contemporary intellects of our civilization. And rightly so. General conversation is starting to include the fact that we over-estimate the truth of things that come too easily to mind (usually because they are often repeated). We know that we are in “bubbles” of news — rather than getting an objective take on the world. We understand that a lot of people who do not consider themselves to be prejudiced nonetheless take a few microseconds longer to associate certain colors of “faces” with positive words. Implicit bias.
A whole bestiary of bias is emerging.
This, of course, is not news from the point of view of a generalized notion of Dharma. The wisdom-traditions of the various cultures of humanity have frequently concluded that something is wrong with us. Sin? Ignorance? Ego? Over-identification? Bad emotional habits? Moral weakness? Failure to train ourselves in the art of concentration? Too quick to judge? Separativeness? Refusal to participate? Unwarranted arrogance? Laziness? Attributing lucky outcomes to our inherent worth and skill?
Yes. All these and more.
The Dharma can be viewed as largely corrective.
Likewise, this corrective function is intrinsic to many models of educational development. In Piaget’s work, the cognitive levels of maturation are associated closely with overcoming fallacies (things disappear when you can’t see them, tall fluids are more than short-wide fluids, etc). In fact, this becomes a very plausible distinction between developmental education and horizontal-adaptive skill training. Education, in the idealized sense that might produce an ongoing trajectory of understanding with a plausible change to grapple with the metacrisis, might be specifically distinguished from training by the presence of assimilated fallacy-recognition.
Consider a simplistic scenario in which one human mind gets 10x better at invalidating arguments sourced from morally disreputable people whilst another human mind learns only one thing —that ad hominem attacks are never logically valid.
The former has perhaps undergone more straightforward skill development adapted to particular circumstances, but the latter’s growth moves him or her “up a level.” An a higher level exhibits a broader perspective taking more “areas” into account.
Why am I so wise? Because I have never considered problems that are NOT.
-Nietzsche, Ecco Homo.
Initially, we can gain great advantages without any wisdom. Ordinary “animal” learning is a hit-or-miss relationship between our innate talents and our situations. If these factors “hit it off well” together then, maybe, you become a great swimmer, financial schemer, socialite, waitress, conspiracy enthusiast, panther, henpecked husband, middle-level porn star, or town drunk. Although you make real efforts, you have not real control over these outcomes, they lead to various successes and failures, and they usually leave other important areas of your life under-served.
The capacity, in principle, to observe your own cognitive and relationship patterns, to practice internal self-modification, generalize your successes into other areas, make pragmatic and satisfying general conclusions about life, clarify your underlying values, balance out your tendencies, make yourself follow through on improvement projects that you agree with, catch yourself before you do things that wreck your favorite situations… these capacities are both the root of Dharma and educational improvement in a broad sense. All of these involve noting your patterns, making intentional adjustments, and relating to your in-built tendencies without excessive identification or recoil. And none of this would be necessary unless there were (relatively speaking) errors and limitations to discover in our normal learning processes.
Let us say you have a wound that is healing. It is itchy. You scratch it — which makes it worse. You don’t want it to get worse. You decide not to scratch it. You catch yourself about to scratch it. You focus your attention on something else. You’re… learning. Not just learning anything but learning in a way that seems to garner sage nods of moral affirmation from the lingering spirits of the ancestors — so to speak .
This education is a process of observing the trajectories of your current habits and correcting them toward goals operating over longer ranges of time or at higher scales of inclusion-of-concerns. This is exceeding general. It applies both to overcoming your latent racism and overcoming the wandering interest and unfocused attention that resulted in your failures in math class or art class or gym.
Left to our normal “devices,” some people will do well at math or art or gym. Others will not. We specialize. That’s fine. However, it is not wise. It is being steered by our pre-given habits and structures in a situation. The results will be sporadic, imbalanced, non-generalizable, and will eventually plateau — causing frustration, lack of self-awareness, and incorrect views of reality.
Wisdom is an excess. It is more understanding than you need for a particular situation. It is a view that straddles multiple variants and types of the given pattern and has seen it play out on multiple time scales. It takes value into consideration in multiple ways and has the capacity to act on that. Where do you get this excess? You have to use less of your energy in regular activities. More efficient is gained by moving activity into the subconscious, yes, but also adaptive behavioral recognition of fallacies and biases allow us to block off certain areas of skill-response — conserving the energy that would be expended in those pathways and forcing it, like a fluid, into higher, more constrained pathways that paradoxically exhibit greater, more generalized reach.
Continued in Part VI…