Reflection 3: Mea Culpa

October 9, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Have you ever looked at something that’s right in front of you and not seen it? I have, many times. Take this example.


Where’s the mustard? I open the refrigerator and scan the shelves. I know just what I’m looking for: a small, squat, thick-waisted jar of clear glass half-full of my favorite, dark-yellow condiment. I don’t see it at first. Probably behind the milk; no. In back of a low shelf; no. Left out on the counter; no. In a cupboard; no. I know we have some, I used it yesterday. Check again. Move things around to peer behind them. Pickles, yes. Mayo, yes. Relish, yes. Broccoli, carrots, leftovers wrapped in foil, yes. Mustard, no. Misplaced in the freezer?, no. On the table?, no. Aliens must have taken it. I go through the search routine again; then in reverse order. No mustard anywhere. Major frustration. Man-child has taken it to his room? He never does that. Slowly fuming, I open the refrigerator door one last time. Aha! I spy the round, bright red lid. The jar was right in front of me all the time, next to the milk, lying on its side. I was looking for its profile while it was presenting its top. Wrong gestalt. Blindsided again.


Such is consciousness. Full of pitfalls and surprises. We generally find what we look for. When mental phenomena don’t match our expectations, we tend to disregard them as if they didn’t exist. They don’t measure up to our search criteria. Like the current economic crisis. Who saw it coming? Yet it was in view all the time. Partial view, anyway. Some saw the parts they were interested in creeping up, but very few saw the big picture because they weren’t looking for it. It just didn’t jibe with the conventional mythology of open markets and laissez faire capitalism, which were alleged to heal themselves.


I have read lots of explanations of what happened. And how it could happen. But the picture is shifting every day. And so far, I haven’t ready anyone who is even close to the truth. It is viewed variously as a financial crisis, a failure of government, an investment-market-insurance-banking catastrophe. Pundits review their notes on the Golden Age, the Great Depression, the oil embargo, the savings-and-loan fiasco, the collapse, the Enron-auditing game. And now the mortgage meltdown based on worthless paper selling at inflated prices so all concerned could get their piece of the action. First from over-stressed homeowners, now through Big Brother bailouts. Like me and the little mustard jar, the experts are looking for what they want to find, not what is actually looking right back at them.


How many crises does it take to signal the approaching collapse of Earth as a self-sustaining natural system because too many humanoids are demanding too much from what they take to be a cornucopia but is actually a minor planet orbiting its second-rate star, which happens to support all the life we know of in the universe? The crux of the problem is we are forcing natural systems to behave in an economic manner as if we designed Earth’s ecosystems to meet our needs, while in fact we didn’t produce them—they produced us. We are the butt end wagging the dog. If that dog isn’t free to lead its own life, we don’t have the smarts, background, or imagination to manage it from our limited point of view.


No wonder capitalism is falling around our ears. No respecter of natural ecosystems, we insist they serve us as resources regardless of our population or level of consumption. This crisis is telling us we can get only so much support from Earth’s ecosystems before they become stressed to the point of collapse. Simply put, there are too many mouths to feed, too many fortunes to be made. This is more than a warning sign; like global warming and preemptive warfare, it signals the beginning of the end.


Consciousness, our greatest gift, has failed us because we have substituted our own mythology for what it could have been trying to tell us all along. We get this one chance at life and then we are all going to die. We twist that into demanding to live high on the hog now, promising to worry later about aging and death when we can spare the time. Which (we chuckle to ourselves) is nevermore. So death stalks us throughout our lives, just as economic collapse stalks us, which is how we choose to deal with truths we’d rather not face.


If we think government bailouts and beefed-up financial oversight will do the job, we haven’t gotten the message. These signals are being sent with increasing frequency. Wake up, they cry, look around! Rise to consciousness! Be aware! Life is not about comfort unto luxury, and not about personal influence and power. Life is about fitting ourselves to Earth’s ways and means. About opening ourselves to phenomena rather than suppressing or ignoring them. About being curious and asking the hard questions. Then doing our best for the Earthling community—the only community we will ever have—not just for our trivial (street-corner) selves. In some quarters, not seeing the obvious is taken as a sign of stupidity. Mea culpa. How about you? ¦


7 Responses to “Reflection 3: Mea Culpa”

  1. epiphileon said

    Hi Steve,
    We seem to have a number of similar conceptual formations…

    “How many crises … approaching collapse of Earth as a self-sustaining natural …but is actually a minor planet orbiting its second-rate star… “

    Why can’t people see that exponential growth in a finite system is unsupportable?
    A barely encrusted ball of dirty molten iron, circling a rather garden variety star, near the edge of a non-spectacular galaxy, in a remote part of the universe.

    Then there are places where it seems our thinking diverges, for example…

    “Consciousness, our greatest gift, has failed us because we have substituted our own mythology for what it could have been trying to tell us all along.”

    I do not view consciousness as a gift per se, gifts require givers, and I think consciousness arose by evolutionary processes. Don’t get me wrong, “I” wouldn’t be, without it , but from a completely objective viewpoint, consciousness was evolutions big mistake
    Untold thousands of years passed between hand held flint tools, and the idea of attaching a handle to make an ax; less than 500 between bows and arrows, and thermonuclear weapons.

    Back to where I believe we would agree, consciousness is now the only, the only thin hope, for the survival of H.S. Sapients.

    • Steve Perrin said

      Consciousness got our ancestors through the last ice age, which must have been extremely difficult. It hasn’t evolved much since then, so we’ve invented culture on our own to make up the difference. Clearly, we don’t have a good grip on what we’re doing. I don’t feel we disagree on all that much–so far. We are in an ethical bind. Knowing how stupid we are, yet knowing also the job to be done to save the Earth from ourselves, do we really think we are up to the job? For myself, I have to do the best I can if I am to live with myself. Hence this blog. –S. fr. P. Earth

  2. epiphileon said

    Oh a critical piece of information; what most people have is first order consciousness, what we are talking about is the consciousness of consciousness, and the exercise and development thereof.

  3. Kevin Gorman said

    Good morning Steve, You seem to have absolutely no problem dealing with radical concepts, so I’ve got another one for you. There is a very convincing argument that consciousness is only approximately 6000 to 8000 years old. Yep, showing up between 4000 and 6000 B.C.
    There is considerable archaeological evidence for this notion, albeit inferential, however; there is as well evidence in some of the earliest recorded literature of the species. Much of this is in Jaynes’ book, as well as supported by the evolutionary record of the development of the brain, i.e. overall brain case capacity at birth stopped expanding roughly 30,000 years ago. Further increase in complexity thereafter came about as a result of increased surface area due to more, and deeper “wrinkling” of the brain.
    But on might say, there were complex human societies 6-8 thousand years ago. Indeed there were, but was consciousness part those city state societies?
    Not necessarily, in fact much points to it’s absence.
    Then consider what is actually needed for a functioning H.S. Sapient? I would submit that all that is needed is the basic trinity of human beings’ Intelligence, personality, and emotions, all of which are lower brain functions than consciousness.
    One implication of all this leads to another radical concept.
    “Free will is a myth, up until the point that a conscious entity acknowledges this, then and only then does it become a possibility.”
    This one, if I’m not mistaken is implicit in much of what you have written, and fits perfectly into this model of consciousness, as does many other points you raise.
    I’m wondering however, if you would agree with it stated in that manner. Basically although not completely a helpless spectator, for the most part consciousness sits atop all that is necessary for decision making, making up nice stories for us about why we do the things we do.
    Very little of the above is my opinion. When I first came across the information that leads to these conclusions, I fought it tooth and nail, but in the end the evidence was overwhelming, What I discovered on the other side of the process was that there are possibilities for the future that are truly astounding. Possibilities only if those who may, or may not, think they are up to the task pursue it diligently. For we are duty bound, in blood honor.
    Kevin, from behind my eyes.

    • Steve Perrin said

      Kevin, fascinating line of thought, indeed. The core of my discipline is to take my consciousness as I find it from the perspective of my current situation, which pretty much restricts me to events occurring during my current embodiment. I know consciousness has a history, and my current embodiment is embedded in that history, traces of which may be available to me if I can interpret them rightly. But I have little confidence that I can do that. I would have to read Jaynes’ book to bring myself up to speed. I thank you for the tip-off, and I will follow up when I can.

      As for free will, that immediately requires I separate myself from my consciousness as an agent unto myself, which I am not willing to do. For now, I am my consciousness–or am at least its guest. I am seeking the integrity of my entire mental life, such as it is, so am not about to cut myself off from that which sustains me. I am a body as well as a mentality, in a surrounding situation as best I can make it out. The whole package is me, the full engagement. If I am to claim free will, who is the “I” making that claim? That sets up a duality I am not willing to own.

      I deeply appreciate your comments, questions, feedback, and general spirit of inquiry. What more exciting adventure can there be?

  4. Kevin Gorman said

    I forgot to annotate at the end of my last comment one of the other sources drawn on,
    The Mindful Brain: Montcastle and Edleman
    In this book is contained, in a sense, all the wonder of the Universe, for in it is a description of what gives us the facility to experience wonder.

  5. Kevin Gorman said

    What more exciting adventure can there be?

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