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L. Neil Smith's
Number 641, October 23, 2011

"Mercantilism and capitalism, that's what the
fight is really all about—and always has been"

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The Primacy of Consciousness in Action
by C. Jeffery Small

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

The Weirding Way:  From the science fiction novel Dune, by Frank Herbert

The basic principle behind the weirding way is that, as Farad'n Corrino says, "My mind affects my reality." A user of the weirding way has to know that the action he or she "wants" to perform has already been performed. For example, to imagine oneself behind an opponent at the current moment in time; when trained well, this knowledge will place you at the spot desired.

From Wikipedia

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Science Fiction Author, Philip K. Dick

Whether held consciously or implicitly, everyone operates from an underlying set of ideas — a philosophy — that has practical consequences. Each person's philosophic system rest upon a foundation which presumes a position about the fundamental nature of reality, and throughout human history there have been two dominant and opposing schools of thought:

    The Primacy of Existence: This holds that reality is an absolute, existing independent of conscious thought, and therefore it is the function of the human mind to acquire knowledge by discovering and identifying the nature of this external reality in order to be able to then manipulate it towards productive ends — or as Francis Bacon put it, "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."† Here, existence precedes consciousness.

    The Primacy of Consciousness: This is the belief that the "reality" that is perceived with one's senses is not external and independent, but is instead actually the creation of consciousness. This view implies that knowledge is acquired through introspection and that the nature of existence can be shaped by thoughts and beliefs, or as John Lennon put it, "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination." Here, consciousness precedes existence.

Many people live their lives, failing to reflect upon this issue and stake out an explicit metaphysical stance on the nature of reality. Nevertheless, the daily choices that they make are dependent upon one or the other of these positions. Often people compartmentalize various aspects of their lives, allowing themselves to inconsistently apply one methodology to certain areas while adopting the opposite method for others. However, every choice to act still rests upon some implicit belief in reality's fundamental nature.

Those who consistently subscribe to the primacy of existence hold the scientific method inviolable, recognizing it as one of the principal tools for the exploration of the world and a means of ascertaining truth, while those who adopt a primacy of consciousness viewpoint believe that by altering the content of their mind, they can alter (or avoid) the nature of reality. For them, the scientific method is not merely useless, but utterly wrong in its approach.

Now, consider the following two examples:

The Citicorp Center Tower Crisis:

The renowned engineer, William J. LeMessurier, was hired to provide an innovative structural design for the NYC Citicorp Center building which was completed in 1977. In 1978, prompted by a student's inquiry pertaining to aspects of the design, LeMessurier took another look at his calculations and at that time a new thought came to him to check a unique wind loading pattern that had not been required by the applicable codes. To his surprise, he discover that under these new conditions the structure was underdesigned! Now this, in itself, did not pose a serious problem as structural components are typically designed with a 2:1 safety factor which would have dealt with this new condition. But LeMessurier had also recently learned that, without his knowledge at the time, the steel subcontractor, in order to reduce costs, had redesigned the frame using bolts rather than welds, and these two factors now placed the building in danger. He immediately began further investigations which resulted in the discovery that his design team had also treated certain critical components not as columns, but as trusses which did not require the normal safety factor. Taken together, he realized that the building faced a very real risk of collapse in a high wind condition.

Despite his reputation being on the line, LeMessurier immediately contacted the architect, a consulting engineer, and the building owners, fully informed them of the situation, and set into motion a plan to rectify the crisis. The story of how this was accomplished is a fascinating tale that can be read in detail at the link above. But what is most interesting is that all parties recognized the serious nature of what needed to be done, and worked cooperatively, without recrimination, in order to insure a positive outcome. And as the article's author comments, "The crisis at Citicorp Center was noteworthy in another respect. It produced heroes, but no villains; everyone connected with the repairs behaved in exemplary fashion ."

This is an example of the primacy of existence in action, where reality is recognizes as an absolute, to be faced head on, not avoided. Each party maintained a clear focus on the facts as they were uncovered, and as new knowledge was ascertained, actively acknowledged and pursued the consequences. Emotions of fear or anger were suppressed as being unproductive to the goal of averting a disaster and saving lives. Without a doubt, this is a story about heros.

The Challenger Shuttle Disaster:

On January 28, 1986 the Challenger Space Shuttle was launched and a little over a minute later, exploded. Subsequently, the Rogers Commission was formed by President Reagan, and charged with investigating the circumstances of this disaster. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was one of the commission members, and the tale of his involvement in determining the cause of the accident is recounted in the fascinating story, "Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington: Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster."

As Feynman describes it, while the other commission members were being led around as a herd and presented with information that NASA management wished them to see and hear, he was off conducting his own independent investigation and acquiring a unique perspective on what had occurred. When it came time for the commission to submit a final report, Feynman refused to sign off on it unless his own findings were included, which subsequently made it in as a ten page appendix.

It was Feynman who discovered that the direct cause of the explosion was due to joint rotation in the rocket booster sections that were deforming the O-ring seals and allowing hot gas to escape, coupled with a seal resiliency failure due to improper launch under abnormally cold conditions. However, of greater importance was the revelation that the joint and seal problems had been identified early during the Shuttle's design, and yet had never been adequately addressed. Forensic studies conducted after each mission had revealed many cases of charred O-rings, where partial failure of the seals had occurred, and yet the missions continued. As Feynman determined, NASA management treated each case of partial O-ring failure which did not end up compromising the mission as evidence that the problem was of less concern than design specs. indicated, and therefore, "certification criteria used in Flight Readiness Reviews often develop a gradually decreasing strictness." When O-ring erosion was observed one-third the radius, NASA management determined that this indicated the rings had "a safety factor of three." But as Feynman so obviously pointed out, "The O-rings of the Solid Rocket Boosters were not designed to erode. Erosion was a clue that something was wrong. Erosion was not something from which safety can be inferred."

When asked to estimate the Shuttle's probability of vehicle failure and loss of life, engineers responded with values in the neighborhood of 1 in 100, while management reported 1 in 100,000. Feynman asked: "Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask 'What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?'" As Feynman points out in his book, the answer was that while the engineers were applying standard statistical metrics to arrive at their estimates, NASA management was working backwards in their models to arrive at the predetermined number required by political necessity to appease Congress and keep funding flowing.

This highlight only some of the fantastic rationalizing that was being done by NASA management, demonstrating a clear case of the primacy of consciousness in action. While the engineers were grounded in science and had a clear grasp of the nature of the problems and the risks they were dealing with, program managers were completely disconnected from reality, having replaced respect for facts with their internal wishes for desired outcomes — an approach which inevitably led to truly disastrous results.

The Age of Aquarius:

These two examples dramatize the consequences of adopting different philosophies with respect to reality which is, in fact, independent of our hope, dreams, wishes, desires, or intentions. Comprehend and incorporate the laws of nature, along with the relevant facts, into one's actions, and goals are achievable. Ignore them at your peril. And while most of our personal day-to-day decisions do not rise to the level of life or death, the success or failure of the outcomes remains very much a product of those underlying premises.

The sad truth is that the primacy of consciousness world view has been adopted by a majority of people and drives actions in many areas towards sub-optimal, and sometimes extremely harmful outcomes. In the conduct of their lives, many individuals mindlessly adopt all sorts of misguided fantasies that, to any thinking person, are obviously disconnected from reality. Some read horoscopes based upon the alignment of planets at the moment of their birth and then adjust their daily activity to avoid hinted-at pitfalls or to achieve a hazily-defined positive outcome. Some pay fortune tellers to advise them about life-altering decisions that should be adopted based upon the creases in their hand, the position of tea leaves in a cup, the order of a set of playing cards, the position of falling wooden sticks, and by many other methods. Beliefs of this type, when applied consistently, result in a holistic approach towards life as embodied in the New Age movement, resting squarely upon a foundation of astrology (the Aquarian Age), and incorporating mystical aspects from many cultures. Consider the following quote:

There is no objective morality in the New Age philosophy. We should have tolerance for all systems of truth, meaning and purpose. We should create a world of pure relativism, where morality and religion are strictly relative to each person's individual notion of reality itself.

All About Spirituality

There could be no clearer and more explicit statement demonstrating the primacy of consciousness in action. But wait, where have we heard this before? Moral Relativism? Arguments for tolerance of all systems of belief, regardless of their content? These are the very bedrock principles of "political correctness" that drive the policies of the far-left, progressive collectivists.

Now, when an individual decides to diverge from reality, they primarily harm themselves, and possibly those with whom they directly interact. But when the government, which implements and imposes its actions by force upon all of its citizens, evades reality, then the collateral damage becomes massive. So do we see evidence of the primacy of consciousness in play on the political scene? In spades!

A Confidence Game:

Consider the devastating economic crisis that we currently face. Are these problems existential, being the inevitable consequence of specific actions that have been taken, or are our difficulties social, being merely the byproduct of our thinking? In the first case, a solution would clearly call for the abandonment of those policies causing the harm and their replacement with others based upon an awareness of the actual facts of the situation. In the latter case, all that would be required to turn the economy around would be a change in our collective mental attitude. Which view guides our politicians? Let's see.

From an article in the New York Times, by Robert Pear

"Republicans blame Mr. Obama for the slump, saying he has issued a blizzard of regulations and promised future tax increases that have hurt business and consumer confidence."

From an article in Bloomberg, by Steven Matthews

"Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last week the U.S. is facing "a national crisis" with the jobless rate at around 9 percent since April 2009. The European debt crisis, political haggling in the U.S. and a plunge in stock prices have prompted a drop in consumer and business confidence that may hurt spending and hiring. "

From President Obama's October 6, 2011 Press Conference Transcript

"[T]here is no doubt that the economy is weaker now than it was at the beginning of the year. And every independent economist who has looked at this question carefully believes that for us to make sure that we are taking out an insurance policy against a possible double-dip recession, it is important for us to make sure that we are boosting consumer confidence, putting money into their pockets, cutting taxes where we can for small businesses, and that it makes sense for us to put people back to work doing the work that needs to be done.""

[All emphasis added]

That's quite a preoccupation with people's confidence! In fact, it is so important to the decision-making of our government officials that we have an entire organization, The Conference Board, devoted to producing the Consumer Confidence Index, a major indicator used by the Federal Reserve when setting interest rates. According to Wikipedia, "The Index is calculated each month on the basis of a household survey of consumers' opinions on current conditions and future expectations of the economy."

Over and over we hear from the media, as well as from Republicans, to Bernanke, to Obama, just how important "confidence" is, and how it is the "lack of confidence" that is keeping the economy down. The problem is not that past economic policies have failed. They all believe that it has nothing to do with business regulations that destroy the ability to plan, compete and innovate. It's not the burden of increased taxes and expanding liabilities promised by the full implementation of Obamacare that throttles business growth, nor is it the legislation that encouraged overbuilding, spending and lending in the housing market. And it's not vast entitlement incentives that encourage people to freeload rather than work. These are merely concrete issues which have no important economic impact.

Instead, they know that the real problem is that people don't believe that everything is just fine. If the public would just change its stinkin' thinkin' and stop worrying about underwater mortgages, outstanding debt, lack of savings, evaporating retirement funds, and future job prospects, then they could get back to the business of carefree spending and the economy would be back on the tracks! Why? Because our politicians know exactly what the New Agers know, that reality is nothing more than the notion that we each hold of it. If we can only come to believe that good times are just around the corner, then reality will conform to those desires and there will be no need for government to back down from any of it's wonderful totalitarian programs and policies. So look no further in an attempt to understand why, after two failed rounds of stimulus, Obama doesn't hesitate to propose a third. What's important is that he wants you to know that he's got your back, so cheer up. Please!

Yes, people and businesses are indeed very uncertain about the future, and that uncertainty is having a profound effect upon their actions. However, it is not their "state of mind" that is creating the woes we all face — just the opposite. It is an awareness of the very real problems we face that is justifiably creating our uncertainty. Our economic and social problems are the direct result of very specific actions which have, and continue to be implemented by interventionist politicians in their attempt to centrally plan not only our economy, but every other aspect of our lives. And until those policies are reversed, no manipulation of the public's mind is going to have any effect on the predictable and inevitable consequences of those policies. There's no escaping it. Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed, and Greece is the poster child for this inescapable fact.

Tell Me a Bedtime Story:

If there is one thing that our politicians do accurately understand, it is that after generations of indoctrination in our public school system, the ability for critical thinking has been significantly eroded in a large percentage of the population. As a consequence, they do not worry that their own lack of knowledge, their own inability to reason critically, or their many contradictions, failed promises and the bad consequences resulting from their acts will have much lasting impact on a culture possessing an extremely short attention span. The public can effectively be treated as though it were a child.

Today, most voters are unable or unwilling to parse what politicians say in order to tease apart the salient facts from the fluff — a task requiring far too much time and energy. And the general level of illiteracy in history, geography, science, logic and current events insures that most people are incapable of assembling for themselves an accurate understanding of any reasonably complex issue, leaving them open to having that void filled with prepackaged conclusions supplied by others.

Politicians and the media also know that most people react badly if they feel that they are being brainwashed or forced to accept someone elses opinions or analysis. However, the public does like to be entertained, and this has led to a transformation away from what was once the simple presentation of facts and positions (news), to the telling of stories which contain an implied conclusion that is received more through osmosis than by conscious thought. Obama clearly understands the power of this approach.

From an article in the Wall Street Journal, by Peggy Noonan

"Throughout the [Suskind] interview the president seems preoccupied with 'shaping a story for the American people.' He says: 'The irony is, the reason I was in this office is because I told a story to the American people.' But, he confesses, 'that narrative thread we just lost' in his first years.

"Then [Suskind] asks, 'What's the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?' [Obama] answers: 'What the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people' about where we are as a nation and should be."

Noonan then comments:

"Tell a story to the American people? That's your job? Not adopting good policies? Not defending the nation? Storytelling?"

[Emphasis added]

But not everyone is as disturbed by this as Noonan. Take, for example this comment by Ezra Klein while discussing Obama's State of the Union speech:

From an article in the Washington Post, by Ezra Klein

"All in all, it was a good speech. But it was a good speech because it told the story of a good presidency and an able president."

[Emphasis added]

For Klein, what makes Obama's speech a success has nothing to do with it's actual content, which must be depreciated to the level of pointless facts. What is important is its storytelling, and the emotional impressions that it conveys to the public. Is Obama actually a good and able president based upon the record of his administration? Irrelevant. What's important is that he make the public feel that he is. And here we have another example of the primacy of consciousness in action. There is no objective truth regarding anything, including the very nature of of the man himself! All that matters for Obama is what his perception is in the eyes of others. When Obama faces an adoring crowd, he basks in the glory and radiates a sense of content condescension as he senses his own greatness. But as has been reported on numerous occasions, when challenged, his self-image evaporates, revealing the nasty reality that lies within.

Others on the left understand how critically important the story is for maintaining their particular notion of reality. If the public forms another image in their head, then the jig is up. Here is Maureen Dowd expressing those concerns:

From an article in the New York Times, by Maureen Dowd

"It's not a good narrative arc: The man who walked on water is now ensnared by a crisis under water.

"But unless he wants his story to be marred ... he'd better seize control of the story line of his White House years. Woe-is-me is not an attractive narrative."

[Emphasis added]

And here is Jason Horowitz, discussing the Obama administration's handling of the BP oil spill, and pointing out that the emperor really is missing his clothes:

Excerpts from an article in the Washington Post, by Jason Horowitz

"The Obama 'narrative' is overshadowing this presidency's real stories."

"Sing to me of the Obama narrative, Muse, the narrative of twists and turns driven time and again off course."

"Journalists and politicians know that voters, like everyone else, are hard-wired to understand the world through stories."

"But now his narrative has taken on a life of its own."

"'So much of the coverage and commentary has to do with the narrative, stagecraft, the political implications of what he [Obama] is doing,' said David Axelrod, Obama's special adviser for narrative, stagecraft and the political implications of what the president is doing. 'When you are president of the United States, the most important thing is that you cope with the disaster.'"

To which, Jason Horowitz adds:

"Not, that is, the story line of the disaster."

[Emphasis added]

Despite their best intentions to the contrary, that pesky old reality continues to rear its head, dashing the ship of consciousness on the shoals of the primacy of existence.

It's All About the Narrative:

Today's politics is just one good story after another, and when you wrap them all together with a pretty bow, what you end up with is the narrative that Dowd mentioned above. Here is what one reporter has to say about the Obama narrative:

From an article in the Huffington Post, by Dan Carol

"This is not to give Team Obama an A-plus across the board on communications or implementation, but the notion that the President doesn't have a core philosophy is simply ridiculous. The problem is Obama's governing narrative does not fit neatly into traditional boxes."

[Emphasis added]

Now that's funny! Much like the health care bill that Nancy Pelosi informed us we would have to pass before we could find out what was in it, Carol is just sure that Obama has a core philosophy, but his narrative is unfortunately too complex to let us discover exactly what it might be. Wait, I though that the whole purpose of the narrative was to feed simplified stories to the public in place of the complicated facts that were beyond our comprehension. Instead, this once domesticated narrative has broken free from its corral and returned to the wild. Giddy up!

The concept of the narrative has now trickled down to the masses — a tool to be used by even self anointed "working-class" Wall Street protesters such as Jesse LaGreca, who was recently interviews on the Sunday panel discussion show, Roundtable.

From an article in the Wall Street Journal, by James Taranto

"At one point, [panel member Peggy] Noonan posed a question: 'What is your plan? You going to spend the next six months blocking the Brooklyn Bridge? Or are you going to harness a movement into political action?'

"LaGreca's response: 'What I find amusing is that now people are looking to us to solve the political problems, and they should. But I'm not going to support one party or the other. I'm not going to tell you who to vote for. But I will encourage you to be a voter. I think we have succeeded tremendously in pushing the narrative."

To which Taranto remarks:

"And we all know what backbreaking work it is to push narratives!"

[Emphasis added]

But seriously, exactly what narrative? LaGreca doesn't have the faintest idea. So, let's turn to the man in the street and see what sort of story he has to tell:

And here we have reached the end of the line, to witness the narrative of the primacy of consciousness in all its glory. Fully detached from the last vestiges of reality, the mind soars towards new heights and new possibilities, fueled only by those two magic phrases, "It's what I want" and "That's what I think."

Reality, I command thee to bend to my will!
After all, if it's good enough for my president, then it's good enough for me!

The Choice:

Today, on many fronts we are engaged in an epic battle for our future. At the most fundamental level, it is a fight for the metaphysical underpinning of our most precious resource — our minds. The outcome of this struggle will determine whether we survive as a civilized culture to pursue the glory represented by the Citicorp Tower, or are relegated to suffering the Challenger's fate. Choose you side and then fight for your future as if your life depends upon it — because it does!

You know, wishing won't make it so

Hoping won't do it, praying won't do it

Religion won't do it, philosophy won't do it

The supreme court won't do it,

the president and the congress won't do it

The UN won't do it, the H-bomb won't do it,

the sun and the moon won't do it

And God won't do it,

and I certainly won't do it

That leaves you, you'll have to do it

Todd Rundgren, "Fair Warning"

† Note: In the original version of this article I misattributed the quote, "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed", to Ayn Rand, who often quoted it herself, rather than to Francis Bacon. My thanks to Garret Seinen for pointing out my error.

First published on Mr. Small's blog

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