If not the Beneficent Hand

Some people think there is a beneficent hand guiding the world. Everything is unfolding as it should. Konrad Lorenz suggests we are here to propagate, divide up the territory, and establish a hierarchy. Darwin suggests those that fit better into this unfolding are here to proceed. Yes, but man can think. He has free will. But most believe this free will, as manifested by behavior, is like the tail of the dog – seemingly acting independently but actually following the dog which, is being lead by the beneficent hand.

However, if there is no beneficent hand, human behavior is shaped by present social and physical conditions, as sensed by the body and processed by the mind into predicted benefits and liabilities of any act including no act.

Some of these predictions/behavior derive from cultural transmissions. Some derive from experience. However, these predictions and behaviors can be displaced by others derived from mental processes.

These processes a) motivate the space search to identify a need for a predictive model, b) build the model and create predictions, c) create empathy for future victims contained with these predictions, d) identify the behavior that creates the conditions, and e) finds a behavior that changes the predictions.

These thinking processes are sequential. Like links in a chain, any broken process results in behaviors that produce unintended or unexpected results. These surprises often reinforce beliefs in a beneficent hand. But for me they also point toward underdeveloped thought processes which if fixed could solve humankind’s most intractable problems.

I call these weak thought processes temporal blindness. Temporal blindness is a failure to use causal inference to create and value predictions. Prevention of time blindness requires further cognitive development of an individual’s causal inference processes.

By individual I do not mean leaders of institutions. These leaders even if they know the correct behaviors do not have the power to coerce a time blind constituency to take them. The change I envision means that everyone in some future generation can behave in a way that reflects the physical environment. That is, he or she behaves in a way that limits the human burden on the environment to nondestructive levels and addresses scarcity as it relates to social unrest.

There are two courses of action. The first is putting caps on both individual expectations and population. The second creates continuous reductions in population to allow expanded expectations of individuals.

The meaning of the two solutions, individuals must give up expectations of ever increasing well being or take on the responsibility of implementing ever-decreasing population.

The first is by far the weaker solution. While if implemented it could stop increasing social conflict and increasing load on the environment, the footprint is already too big. Human beings are already depriving each other of the good life. They are already occupying too much land and depriving other spices of living space. Human beings are consuming nonrenewable resources; they can not replace and may need later. They are already consuming renewable resources at greater than the replacement rate. Human actions that erode soil and accumulate hazardous waste are already decreasing the earth’s productivity.

Assume technology could take care of these existing problems if caps could be implemented, could institutions limit families to two children and personal consumption to past levels against their personal will? I doubt it.

Individuals would not let themselves be trapped at whatever material level they were in society when the caps were implemented. Individuals will never adopt codes that deny improvements in their condition. The first time a child gets sick because the water system did not deliver clean enough water, the "no-improvement" contract will be broken.

The second solution rapidly decreasing population, while more powerful, is difficult for institutions to implement in the face of a constituency that will not agree with the required one child per family behavior. To get an individual to want such a behavior, to give up the benefit of a second child, requires a very strong view of future abstract benefits, which include peace, abundance, and a clean unspoiled environment.

Currently our thinking processes do not provide these views. Our thinking does not even provide a clear view of our future problems. And finally our thinking processes prevent the discovery and implementation of the behavior that would decrease population enough to solve such problems.

Rapidly decreasing population is the only condition that improves environmental quality and reduces social conflict while not requiring caps on individual's expectations. It allows an ever-increasing good life, by establishing a graceful balance between the total human footprint and available resources.

All we need to do is take on the responsibility for our current predicament and begin the process of learning how to create an individual who is not temporally blind.


Jack Alpert (Bio)     mail to: Alpert@skil.org      (homepage) www.skil.org      Other position papers

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