Reflection 174: Mailbox Consciousness

January 21, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

My daily routine includes going to the post office to get my mail. At some point along the way I anticipate what might be waiting behind the window of box 585. I expect some kind of assortment made up of bills, appeals for money, fliers, catalogs, magazines, announcements, and maybe an actual letter. Since I can’t know for sure what I will find, or even if I’ll find anything, my expectations tend to be vague and low key—that is, not very exciting.

Entering the door of the post office, I see my box straight ahead. Immediately I can tell if something’s in it or not. Sometimes it’s so crammed I can’t see through to the canvas carts. That means magazines or catalogs. Most days I can’t tell if it’s The New Yorker waiting for me or The Nation. More often a few envelopes slant at an angle upper left corner to lower right, probably bills. Maybe FairPoint bill or notice from the New England Fisheries Management Council. I dial my combination—then all is revealed. Today’s mail: One letter—oops! overdrawn at the bank; “Registered Documents Enclosed,” another dunning from the DNC; Christian Science Monitor—Send No Money subscription offer; 2009 Maine Resident Individual Income Tax Booklet; Ben Meadows field research catalog thicker than the phone book. That’s how today’s cautious expectations are fulfilled. My mailbox is a placeholder for such transactions.

This non-drama is fully funded by my personal consciousness. Expectancy is the key. To get me out the door, consciousness has to move me to set a goal and act decisively. It tells me my survival and contentment depend on making a trip to the post office. Anticipation just above the subliminal level keeps me going. Things pick up when I can tell something’s in my box. Then abstract motivation switches to concrete fulfillment as I shuffle through the pile. Sort, sort; toss, toss, stuff in pocket. This is how my loop of engagement works, me casting my abstract expectations on the world, the world giving me back today’s mail to riffle through at the post office. The trick is that my expectations are a kind of summary of such experiences in the past, so are necessarily conceptual more than sensory. But that changes when I open the little door to get my mail. Then hands-on sensory experience takes over, and my expectations are fulfilled more or less in the here and now of the post office lobby.

I think of myself as living in real time, but I seldom am. Often past experience takes over and I dwell in the twilight zone of memory. Or I extrapolate from that zone in trying to visualize what the future will bring. And briefly, as in the lobby, I match past concepts to sensory percepts in the present, categorizing the sensory now in terms of the conceptual past. Conscious-ness is the time machine that lets me do that—switch back and forth. And it is consciousness that fools me into thinking I’m aware of the world around me all the time when, in fact, I keep moving between abstract memories, concrete sensory traffic, and abstract projections into what I think of as the future but is really the state of my mind at the moment. The switching is done so fast—on a scale of milliseconds rather than minutes or hours—I don’t even notice the abrupt seams in what I believe to be my uninterrupted stream of consciousness.

Everyday consciousness is far more complicated than we often think. It is a herky-jerky paste-up job, a montage, not an even flow. In Reflection 159: Stop the Press!, I tried to show how an instant recollection of an empty milk bottle changed my life, or at least that one trip to the trash room. Characteristically, I move in and out of focus in relation to my immediate environment. It comes and it goes. Remembering some little thing puts my immediate plans in the shadows. And an overdose of sameness promotes a hunger for stimulation; I come, I see, I move on. And what surprises me is not so much the time travel as the ever-shifting level of attention to detail as it drifts between concrete sensory perception, abstracts from memory, and vague plans for some kind of future. The three time zones are rendered with varying degrees of detail—and I generally don’t even notice the difference.

When we switch too fast under stress, or rely too heavily on preconceived notions, we are apt to make category errors that misrepresent our pasts in the now, or distort current percep-tions in relation to what we can recall in the instant. The clip-art kitty I “saw” when a hinge squeaked and I jumped up to avoid stepping on the tail of a nonexistent cat (Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat) is an example of my confounding a hinge squeak in the present with an imaginary concept of a yeowling feline from the past—in a pastiche that seemed real at the time. This is an out-and-out category error, accounting for a sound by dredging up a preposterous fantasy. I was there and that’s exactly what I did.

When early scientists did not understand the nature of fire, they concocted the concept of phlogiston to account for the source of a flame. It was thought to be the (fictional) impurity phlogiston that burned when released. People didn’t know any better, so a mythical conceptual category had to be custom fitted to the sensory facts. A concept is a placeholder for the sorts of sensory experiences having relevance to our particular outlooks, motives, and values. In a given situation, concepts guide and shape our expectancy until they are fulfilled by specific details provided by the occasion. Concepts are what we look for; percepts are what we actually get. We no longer look for signs of phlogiston. We’ve learned to look for rapid oxidation instead.

Humor operates on a similar plan: it sets up a pregnant situation, creating a kind of expectant tension, which is fulfilled by a punch line that sidesteps our anticipation. Humor depends on category errors or misconceptions leading us astray, only to be set right by the surprising but non-threatening solution to a situation or riddle—like the magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The punch line of a joke fulfills the humorous situation with a novel flourish. We didn’t see it coming, so laugh with glee, a sure sign of relaxed tension. When we take matters seriously, surprise endings are heresy, so are not allowed.

It is written: God created the universe.

The universe currently exists.

Therefore, God must also exist,

Making whatever happens, happen.

That is basically Osama bin Laden’s point regarding Allah in his “Letter to America” I referred to in my last post. True believers will win against the infidels because they are agents of Allah, who will see that it happen. If you don’t see the humor or irony in the initial assumption’s cropping up in the conclusion as if derived from the evidence, this blog probably isn’t for you. That’s the kind of trouble consciousness gets us into by not distinguishing between the level of detail in concepts and percepts. As my mailbox stands ready to receive its contents on any given day, concepts are mental boxes waiting to be filled by specific sensory details, fleshed-out or embodied, as it were, mythically if not factually. However you put it, concepts are empty containers until given sensory content to substantiate or fulfill them on particular occasions. To mismatch the two is to create category errors, which we mortals are prone to doing all the time.

To take such convenient fictions as entropy, inertia, gravity, evil, sin, Satan, phlogiston, probability, or God herself as explanations for specific events is to switch from one level of consciousness to another midstream without knowing. Resident in the human mind, God is a category error waiting to happen again and again. We have the word; it must label something out there in the world, or so we believe. When concepts in set minds forcefully drive experience, the world is remade according to ideology, as if personal belief could be mapped onto the outer world of sensory events, taming it, cutting it down to the size of the mind rather than allowing the mind to grow by accommodating to actual experience. Creationism and theocracies are ample proof that we are prone to forcing ourselves on the Earth rather than attending to what the master teacher has to show us.

Consciousness is given us so we can learn from experience and act appropriately in a world full of pitfalls and dangers. But we have increasingly come to put that process in reverse, using consciousness to adjust the world to our preferences. If the world doesn’t conform to our idea of what it should be, we whip it into shape by changing the world to our liking, rearranging it so incoming percepts conform to conceptual expectations we already have in mind. Instead of immersing our wild bodies in the flow of wild events—instead of learning the ways of the world—we domesticate the world by breaking it to our beliefs, forcing it to live up to our expectations and specifications. Beyond hubris, that leads to the end of the world as our ancestors once knew it. In the instance of my post office box, it leads to junk mail and endless solicitations for money.

Concepts and percepts can only complement or complete one another; they are not causally related. They arise from different sources of experience, much as my mailbox cannot account for the mail it contains. It gives that mail a place where I can get at it, but there is no causal agency or relationship between them. Such mental slight of hand would be a category error, no matter how much I might want it to explain why things happen as they do. But I can’t blame my mailbox for the bills it contains. The causal agent is the hand of the postal employee who sorts the mail and inserts it into my box, and behind her, those who pay postage to have access to my mind and bank account.

In the realm of the conscious mind, expectation, wishful thinking, and knowing about things share a similar low level of specificity, that is, abstraction. Which is very different from the level on which sensory events actually happen, the level of immediate sensory experience. Even the concept of the color red is colorless until exemplified. Just as my having a mailbox does not imply there is any mail in it, the concept “red” is a kind of code that acknowledges that red exists without providing an example or explaining how the eye sees it. It is more a particular wavelength or energy level, an idea in the mind. The concept of a circle is not a circle; it is more the recipe for generating a circle if you have a compass or a stake in the ground and piece of string. The concept of an automobile is neither Honda nor Chevrolet, though such brands may exemplify the concept. The concept honey cannot elicit the taste—that takes molecules on the tongue. The concept peace cannot calm a battlefield. Ideas are built from concepts in memory; things are built from sensory phenomena in perception. Joined together, related, or balanced as a conscious proposition, memorial concept with existential percept, we can eat strawberry shortcake (sensory fulfillment) for dessert (anticipatory concept), or design a mousetrap perhaps better than the ones we are familiar with. I can even reach into my mailbox and get my mail. But uncoupled and apart, one remains an empty idea, the other an uncategorized percept about which almost nothing is known.

Jokes come in categories: men, women, sex, lawyers, sports, animals, religion, ethnic/national, elevators, etc., or simple challenges such as who?, what?, when?, where?, how?, why? A conceptual situation is set up, creating tension, which the punch line resolves in a specific yet surprising sensory payoff, the release of tension eliciting a smile or laugh, usually from an audience of a particular age or level of experience:

Who was that gentleman I saw you with last night? That was no gentleman, that was my husband.

What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Snowflakes.

Where do snowmen keep their money? In a snow bank.

You know you’re from New York when you think the major food groups are Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Indian.

How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.

Why do hummingbirds hum? They don’t know the words.

Real life situation: Yesterday I came across a group of eight people in a knot trying to figure out how to move a woman in a wheelchair from an icy sidewalk into the passenger seat of a car at the curb. A voice apologized for blocking the sidewalk. Stepping into the street to get around, I asked: “How many people does it take . . . ?” Everybody laughed, the tension eased. They saw I wasn’t put out.

The only mailbox joke I know is from a ten-year-old, so I’ll leave you with that: What do you call a man who sits in your mailbox? Bill.

PO Box 96



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