Reflection 102: Consciousness of . . .

May 13, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Consciousness combines a great many mental processes all operating outside of awareness, its genius being to bind them as if they shared the inherent integrity of one process alone. I seem to remember Christof Koch pointing out in The Quest for Consciousness that the brain contains more than 40 separate maps of various aspects of visual consciousness (motion, color, different orientations, contrast, depth, etc.)—and that’s but one sensory modality. The neural map we seem to be conscious of has yet to be located—or does not exist in the human brain. Like Botticelli’s depiction of Venus on the half-shell rising from the waves, we are more interested in the culminating image itself than the myriad brushstrokes that went into creating that image on a flat surface.

 

In any nutshell summary of consciousness, I would have to include such components as concepts, sensory figures, and feelings blending together at a sufficient level of detail to enable purposive behavior in any relevant situation. Consciousness is not broken down into its parts in awareness but emerges full-blown as consciousness of one thing or another. Cramming the process into the confines of a gross oversimplification:

 

Consciousness funds long-term conceptual categories with immediate sensory qualities in the presence of feelings at a level of detail appropriate to guide purposive behavior within a relevant situation.

 

Which is what we leave out when we say we are conscious of anything at all. We didn’t make it, it’s just there. Which is why the world seems to lie before us (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “so various, so beautiful, so new,” when our brains work so hard to achieve that illusion from myriad bits and scraps of awareness.

 

In Reflection 40: The Meaning of Our Times (posted December 22, 2008), I quoted a letter from one of my mother’s friends narrating the following incident from her childhood:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

Here is consciousness being assembled by a six-year-old girl operating on the leading edge of her awareness. The idea of banana is coupled to the image of a crescent in the presence of awe and a sense of revelation so powerful that she runs home to apply her new learning within the most significant situation in her life, her ongoing relationship with her mother. She leaves it to us to picture her mother gently setting her straight with a sense of suppressed amusement, and the resulting disappointment and mortification that endured for eighty years.

 

In the earlier post, I treated the incident as an example of an effort to make sense of the world. But making sense of things is the job of the interpreter module in the frontal lobes of our left cerebral hemispheres, so here I offer the same episode to illustrate consciousness hoisting itself by its own bootstraps—and getting it wrong. Which is why the story was committed to memory to be retrieved after so many years. Trial-and-error learning has a powerful effect on the brain because it gives us a hint about how the building of consciousness is properly done.

 

Consciousness is something we acquire through countless experiments we conduct on ourselves. Every experiment is a constrained situation within which we can learn something new. We venture a guess what will happen, then see if that’s how it goes. Yes, we are affirmed or, no, we are disabused. Which is exactly what happened in the mysterious case of the “moon-banana.” Red lights flash, klaxons sound, mother smiles, as, disillusioned, the girl sees her error. M-o-o-n does not spell banana. Ah, I see where I went wrong; I mistook the crescent. Teacher really meant it as a new moon. M-o-o-n spells moon. Now I get it.

 

I remember when I was fifteen getting into the back seat of the car behind my father who was driving, and saying something to the effect that I took great solstice from one thing or another—being immediately aware that I had confounded solstice and solace—so being utterly undone in the presence of the Great Man. Later, I looked the two words up in the dictionary to get them straight in my mind.

 

If, as so often happens, we cannot admit our mistakes to ourselves, then consciousness runs as before and our left-brain interpreters need issue no apologies for not getting it right. We are not sadder and wiser but older and more stupid. There’s a lot of that around these days. We see it in pompous politicians, arrogant bankers, posturing experts of all sorts. Everyone has an answer to all questions, and is more than happy to share it with those who are less gifted. Asked about mistakes we have made, none come to mind. As if misjudgments were cardinal sins. As if our image before the world had to be maintained at all cost. As if making mistakes could actually make us lose face instead of demonstrating yet again the depth of our humanity.

 

The danger is not in being vulnerable to criticism but in pretending we are not because we meet the self-set standard of perfection. The height of folly is to insist the world is as we take it to be without examining our own contribution to how we reach for the world in the first place. We underestimate the gullibility of our on-board interpreters when, for example, pride, greed, or embarrassment inhibit their proper functioning and we are unable to admit our own errors even to ourselves, much less to the world.

 

Life’s hardest lesson is that the world we are conscious of is largely our own doing. Our left-brain interpreters do the best they can under the circumstances. That is, as constrained by other factors and modules in our brains. We are not constrained by the world-as-it-is so much as by that world as represented in our heads. The world we know is our version of the world; the two never amounting to the same thing. The “finite provinces of meaning,” “the fortresses of belief” within which we make sense exist in our minds, not the world. Which is equally true for scientists, philosophers, theologians as for other mortal beings.

 

Political campaigns in the U.S. have come to be theatrical productions of one big lie after another. In pretending to be all things to all voters, candidates end up hollow effigies with extended hands because what they are conscious of is wanting those votes. Nothing for them has meaning if they don’t win the race. Maintaining the charade has become so expensive that only millionaires can afford to play the game. And when they get into office, they forget the people who voted for them and have eyes and ears only for lobbyists representing interests with the highest-paid legal teams who provide wording for the laws—the legal reality—they want imposed on the nation.

 

According to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee or the National Rifle Association, m-o-o-n really does spell banana. The world must march to their drummers, no matter what Mummy says. In their eyes, AIPAC and NRA can do no wrong. The only way to run an economy is to get out of the way of the rich by cutting their taxes. It was our duty to wage war against terrorism by invading Iraq. No matter what it costs, private banks and corporations “too big to fail” must be bailed out with public funds. Guarantees of free speech must be extended to corporations so that they have a constitutional right to defend their interests as they want, no matter how private and self-serving.

 

Until we understand the complex nature of consciousness, and our role in creating the seeming reality it presents to us, we will keep running aground on ledges deep within the assumptions we make about the nature of the real and of consciousness as its proxy available to us all. The truth is, all awareness is a matter of interpretation, and interpretation is subject to pressures and influences we do not admit to or know not of.

 

Consciousness exists to clarify our view of the situations we are involved in. Such clarity is not an optical property but an effort to suppress the clamor of rival views in our mental systems, so is always political in nature as representing the interests of personal survival as it is most easily and conveniently understood. Consciousness is invariably presented to the mind as consciousness of one scenario or another in which we are invested. It is an interpretation of mental events, not an accurate depiction of reality. It all depends on what the meaning of of is. Of the mental mechanics of our situated intentionality at the time.

 

According to Merleau-Ponty, Kant referred to the hand as an outer brain of man. That outer brain is driven by consciousness of to reach into the world as if no different from the interpreted world of consciousness. Which is exactly the problem. If as conscious beings we get the world wrong, then our behavior is maladapted to the hidden world that is—and we can’t tell the difference. Until corrected by experience, our illusions R us.

 

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2 Responses to “Reflection 102: Consciousness of . . .”

  1. Kevin said

    Hi Steve, I have a lot of catching up to do, I’ve been offline for about a week. I’m not as good at building new computers as I used to be, still have a few bugs to work out. I don’t have your email address imported yet, but I finally do have a completely microsoft free machine. (A decades old desire) Send me a “Hi there” and I can get that email finished and off to you.

  2. According to the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, whom I have been studying for over 50 years:

    “Life is the domestication and pruning of illusions.”

    More on his philosophy in later posts.

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