Reflection 160: Of Two Minds

November 23, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Like mocha, human consciousness is a blend of two different flavors, natural consciousness and cultural consciousness. Our biological values, drives, and motives are inherently natural; our language, music, art, learning, and skill sets are largely cultural. Human behavior is an expression of natural values as shaped and calibrated by the cultural affiliations of the actors who perform it. We don’t generally distinguish between the two flavors contributing to consciousness—one the base, the other the medium through which it appears—making the study of consciousness more difficult than necessary because the coffee and chocolate that lend it character are so easily confounded.

Every culture has sex, reproduction, caring, and nurture at its core. Without them, cultures wouldn’t exist. Any more than they would without food, drink, shelter, clothing, social companions, health, and personal wellbeing. These are integral parts of the base in any culture because they are of vital importance to every member, male and female, young and old. That’s the coffee.

The chocolate appears in the way individual cultures establish norms for expressing these vital drives so to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of their members (within the framework of social and natural conditions they all share in common). Such norms are intended to enable a diverse population to live in relative harmony by adopting particular ways of expressing their native values, drives, and motives as are deemed to be proper—that is, boosting the probability of individual survival in a socially acceptable manner.

Add cultural chocolate to a natural base of coffee—you get human consciousness with the overall character of mocha. Which some people like more than others. In some cultures women appear in public with their charms draped in dark cloth, while in others they strut their stuff in full view. Some cultures promote hospitality to strangers, others think it wiser to be suspicious of those you don’t know (which is one way of keeping other cultures at a distance).

On the Maine coast, there are a great many subcultures within, say, the fishing industry. Wormers talk to wormers, mussel draggers to mussel draggers, ground fishers to ground fishers, fish farmers to fish farmers, and so on, each staying much closer to the in-group than to outsiders. If you listen to representatives from the various groups speak out in public meetings, you keep hearing each group’s jargon backed by the same-old attitudes, everybody barking, nobody listening to anybody but himself. The problem is always the other guy—the guy you bark at but don’t speak with. It’s the same story up and down the coast as it is between isolated groups everywhere. Could be wormers and draggers, Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans. Once the differences between their respective cultures set into stereotypes, everybody poses as a paragon of the tribe, nobody says anything meaningful, nobody listens. Attitude becomes the whole story, communication is made impossible.

One way around the impasse is to adopt a symbolic medium of exchange to bridge between tribes. I may not like you, but I’ll take your money because money is neutral. I’ll scan your propaganda as long as I have a right to my own opinion. We may even attend the same movies, which our respective outlooks turn into very different movies in our minds.

In our broader American culture, because our currency is the accepted medium of exchange in every corner of the land, everything has a price on the same monetary scale. This speeds and simplifies financial transactions, but makes it easy to believe that money is the prime value in our culture—the only thing that counts—to the point that something without monetary value doesn’t really exist. If you can’t peg its dollar value, what good is it? Thus money becomes not only a medium of exchange but the only culturally acceptable one. That is, it discriminates between what is a socially expedient value and what has true value from the standpoint of personal survival and wellbeing. If clean air or water don’t have a price, they aren’t part of our value system. If ecosystem integrity doesn’t have a price, we needn’t consider it. If honesty or character can’t be priced, do they serve any demonstrable public good? That is, anything existing outside our system of exchange—that is, anything priceless—has no meaning for us. With the result that money becomes the sole scale of value by which we decide what’s important in our culture, and what isn’t.

Which is the root of the national tragedy we are playing out on the world stage. If it doesn’t have a price tag, it can be safely overlooked. Everything can be put on the auction block to see what price it will fetch. If no bids come in, by our scheme it is trash. That is, in settling the differences between us by resorting to the common denominator of cash value—in putting a price on our personal values—we create a system that overlooks what cannot be bought—the truly priceless. Instead of our values running the economy, the economy is now running our values.

Mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have no value other than as open-pit coal mines. Oceans are to fish, trees to cut down, skies and streams to pollute. That’s the level of value the economy’s bottom line has dragged us down to. In a culture where everything has its price, that price is the only thing we share in common, making every other value not only expendable but a possible obstacle to progress. The end is certain: Earth reduced to a forlorn cue ball orbiting in space, no mocha, no chocolate, no coffee—no life at all. Even now we mistake Earth for a globe, a manmade sphere—as if it met our specifications and not the other way around. We speak of the global economy, not the Earth economy, which would be closer to the truth.

In effect, by reducing their personal survival values to the one dominant cultural value represented by the economy, people are acting as if their culture is everything, their personhood nothing. Imagine a culture entire in itself with members so homogeneous you can’t tell them apart to determine if they even exist. All people reduced to consumers, all else reduced to goods. Only money is real. To settle our differences, that’s the world we have created for ourselves, the global economy in which we all play our role.

In that scheme, ecosystem services have a price. Fish have a price. Trees have a price. Bald eagles have a price. Energy has a price. Sex has a price. Mountaintops have a price. Music has a price. Art has a price. Yes, individual human beings have a net worth or a price. Everything is a resource to somebody, somewhere, so has its price. The highest bidder wins all. In the process, stripping the ultimate value—life itself—from the world household or economy.

Writing these words, I cling to the conceit that I am still of two minds. That my consciousness has not been wholly tamed, domesticated, or taken over by my culture, allowing me to stand apart as a wild-eyed observer capable of independent judgment, thought, and speech. If so, we indies are fast disappearing from the scene, along with newspapers, independent media, regulatory governments, mystics, disbelievers, oddballs, heretics, and skeptics of all sorts.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was breached, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of some twenty states in Eastern Europe and beyond as independent nations. America claimed at the time to have won the Cold War, and welcomed those revitalized nations into its sphere of influence known as the global economy. Now China, India, and Brazil are joining the club of our kind of thinkers—those driven by dreams of wealth and power based on free-market exchange of every world resource at a favorable price. With one economic system triumphant over its rivals, human differences are seen as irrelevant. We form a global community of exploiters having equal opportunity to mine Earth’s so-called resources. Along with businesses, pension funds depend on profits from those resources, as do art and religious institutions, universities, and every kind of “non-profit” organization.

Instead of seeing it desirable to achieve a balance between our two minds as in the past, we are fast becoming a single-minded world culture bent on converting the Earth into personal profit. Like Ayn Rand and other prophets of capitalism, we have dollar signs on our minds—and little else. No one seems to think it strange that everyone pictures himself on the owning side of the deal rather than on the working or laboring side. Few, indeed, side with the Earth, even though every benefit we claim flows from the integrity of its biological functioning. From, that is, the mountains and streams of Kentucky and West Virginia before we stripped and leveled them for coal to burn in our power plants, producing cinders, ash, and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Repent, the end is near! Or is it too late to come to our senses and restore humanity to full consciousness? That is, can we still discriminate values that are convenient and cultural from those that are biological and personal? In sacrificing all for our culture, we stand to surrender our individual livelihoods to an economic ideology dressed as the only way to live, forgetting that capitalism works best for the very few who are on top. The rest of us are workers in the vineyard who can’t afford to buy the wines we ourselves produce.

One thing I am sure of, even though I can’t prove it, is that there are no techno-fixes for what ails us because every one of them merely passes our current burden to the Earth in a form future generations will have to deal with. In its day, the internal combustion engine was a boon to mankind; now it is a curse. Before that, three-fourths of arable land was devoted to producing hay for horses, cows, and oxen. Think of the manmade chemicals in mothers’ milk around the Earth, the plastic bottles and can liners that diffuse into almost everything we eat and drink. Hydropower turns running rivers and streams into standing ponds, blocking fish passage and the downstream flow of silt. What do we do with all these electronic wonders full of toxic metals and chemicals when we no longer want them? Are we to assume the technological solutions of tomorrow will not have a downside? There will be no more radioactive wastes, superfund sites, G.E.-ified Hudson Rivers? They won’t appear on the planning board; once in place, the toxic flaws we choose to overlook will appear in due order.

Start to finish, it is better to be of two minds than exclusively one or the other. Having both cultural and personal aspects of consciousness is the original checks and balances scheme. Individuals need to counterbalance corporations lest they become all-powerful (as, in fact, they are now). Cultures need to instill communal values in the common man to remind him he is not alone and can’t justify using others for his personal gain. If I want respect, so does my neighbor. Extending it mutually to each other, we’ll get along just fine. If I lord it over him, he’s apt to set fire to my barn.

The truth is, when I act, I act for all as a representative of humankind. There’s no escaping the fact we are all denizens of the one planet Earth. What I do, I do for all and to all. We are responsible for and to one another. That I can horde wealth for my benefit alone is pure fiction. That I can borrow from others and have a third party pay my debt is a fantasy. That I can leverage other people’s assets to make a profit for myself is nonsense. We keep trying these ploys, but in the end we all pay. And in the last analysis, Earth pays. If we think we can get away with it, we are too clever by half for our own good. As surely as we are born, we will die. Period. End of our little universe. The ultimate sign of respect is to hold positive regard for all those other universes that will come after us, whether of our genetic line or not. And to live on their behalf as if they mattered—which as Earthlings they surely do. They are one of us, of our planet, the only one we know of where life exists.

The mocha image I began this post with is too light to bear the load I freighted it with. I wanted to ease into my topic, so presented it in terms of flavors I thought people could relate to. My personal attachment is through serving mocha sundaes in the Schrafft’s Restaurant on 81st Street in New York back in 1953 and 1954. But neither chocolate nor coffee is essential to life. Water and oxygen, however, are the basis of photo-synthesis, the process that, in feeding plant and animal metabolisms, sponsors most living things. Water stands for the culture we are immersed in, oxygen for the biological values that spark consciousness to life. Consciousness requires a steady diet of both. I offer them here at the end of this post as more relevant to biological systems than the flavors of coffee and chocolate I offered at the start. In combination, they are the beginning, not only of consciousness, but of everything, including life itself.

Air, Water, Sunlight



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