Reflection 177: Tool Consciousness

February 1, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

When I made a cribbage board as a present for my partner some years ago, I used the hand drill I bought at The Tool Barn in Hulls Cove, a place that sells recycled tools. I know the feel of that drill, its weight in my hand, its balance, the snug mesh of the gears. I’ve made it my drill now, an extension of my hands when I use it to engage the world by drilling a hole in a piece of driftwood (such as I used for the cribbage board). Tools are specific, precise, useful—in several senses, handy. As a kid I liked tools a lot. I still do. I remember my grandfather teaching me tools are not toys. I even sensed some of the difference before he firmly taught me that lesson when he caught me at his workbench in his shop in the barn.

I also have a hammer from The Tool Barn, hand brace, two sorts of pliers, and different sized clamps. I get a kick out of just citing those names as I did in that sentence. Familiar tools are parts of my body I keep ready for special projects. It is their feel and their use that makes them distinctive. Tools are sensory objects with, beyond heft, size, and utility, a certain intimate acquaintance. I know their curves and angles, the sounds they make, the smells they give off, the materials they are made of—and what they will do for me when I need them. Tools extend my consciousness beyond what I can do on my own. They solve problems, each in its particular way. They have character and temperaments, like some people I know.

The mailbox I wrote about in Reflection 174 is just a place where a very limited range of things can occur. I don’t much care about my mailbox, it’s more the contents that interest me. Hand tools affect me more strongly. When I grasp them, for instance, they grasp me right back. Working together, we make a good team. I’m talking hand tools, not power tools. Physical, personal engagement, not a bunch of hired electrons doing my work for me. My tools are friends and companions, colleagues and helpmeets, not robots.

As I’ve said, the point of consciousness is effective action in the world. That’s what evolution has tailored our Paleolithic minds and bodies to accomplish in the cause of survival. Artificial intelligence can’t do that job in our stead; it is still up to us. And hand tools can help. Spears, boomerangs, axes, pencils, chopsticks, even paperclips. They help shape us to a world that was built without people, primates, or even tree shrews in mind. The energy behind them has to come from us—from our physical bodies—as directed by consciousness with aid from careful attention and skilled physical effort. Nothing is more satisfying than doing the job right. It involves every part of our bodies and minds, our hearts and our souls. Because in making things, what we do matters in relation to our biological values. Old men sitting around whittling totems—deer, ducks, and chickadees—are doing what matters to them, as making hamburgers and cookies matters to boys and girls learning to feed themselves. Oh, I forget, these are things of the past. You can always eat out. And buy plastic toys made in China.

As tools, computers and cell phones are a different story in that we haven’t a clue how they work; just click or push a button and they do their thing, not ours. The same for computer games, CDs, and videos. Slight skill is involved, which meets no innate survival need. Everything now is cut and paste, which any preschooler can do. You can learn to use electronic gadgets in a few minutes, not months of patient practice spent schooling your body to work with and across the grain. And if these electronic wonders break, you can’t fix them. When the last battery runs down, or the power goes out, you are sunk.

Everything now is pre-packaged, even gift platters and salads at the supermarket. No preparation required, all you have to do is rip open the package and eat. No wonder we’re restless; we don’t know how to do anything with our hands guided by consciousness anymore. That is, our consciousness is on cruise-control pretty much all the time. We just keep whizzing ahead with no need to pay attention to how we whiz. With the result Google does it all for us—flicking insistent ads in front of our eyes so we’ll know what to buy. I went through that bit in my last post (Reflection 176: Heart Rot). We used to know how to make model airplanes out of tissue and balsawood, and build ships in bottles. Those days are gone. But they’ll be back; wait till the grid fails and the power goes out.

In the mailbox story, I started from the abstract end and worked toward the concrete, like boring a tunnel from one side of a mountain. Now I’m working my way around to the concrete, sensory side, boring in the other direction, hoping both tunnels will connect in the middle. Today it’s tools as hands-on aids to existential, sensory experience, not mailboxes as empty placeholders or containers. OK, I’m mixing my metaphors. Never the twain shall meet in the middle. But say I ordered a wood plane or set of carving chisels from The Tool Barn and they sent them by mail. Now my expectancy can picture both mailbox and tools in the same image, mailbox as placeholder being fulfilled in this instance by a box containing tools so sharp you can cut your finger and draw blood if not careful. I intend that sort of image to illustrate what happens when concepts and percepts come together in mutual fulfillment, memory reaching from one side of the mountain, perception from the other, the two coming together in the middle of the mountain, uniting, forming a single item in consciousness—a coupling of both sensory and conceptual aspects of meaning. Ta-da, lived experience as we know and love it every day of our lives!

I know what I mean, even though I can’t say it without resorting to imagery and metaphor. You know what I mean, too, because the two aspects of consciousness come together in mutual fulfillment in your mind as surely as mine. I didn’t make this up, I merely take pains to keep track of the workings of my own mind. Here is categorization in action, recognizing things as what we know them to be, even though they are no such thing in and of themselves—it’s just that for us they go together so naturally we think of them as one. Think of an animal—say, sheep. A sheep is an animal; an animal can be a sheep, an ostrich, or a kangaroo. We know which one when we see it, even though it doesn’t bear a label. The label is in our conceptual memory, tied to an empty (uninstantiated) placeholder, both ready to leap out when perception presents us with a suitable pattern. We put the two together so naturally, we don’t even appreciate the wonder of it all. Or that we are responsible for making it happen. Where we see a flock of sheep, others might recognize die Schafen (Germany), les moutons (France), le pecore (Italy), or las ovejas (Spain). Different category labels, same animals. In childhood, we learn to put them together by imitating what others in our language group do.

So are sheep the same as die Schafen and les moutons? Yes, and no. The same, but different. It all depends on who is putting percept and concept together in a particular instance of categorization. In each case, the concept with the best fit might differ a little, or a lot. Even if we use the same term, that does not necessarily mean our concepts are identical. That depends on our cumulative life experience with sheep, whether we know them only from books, saw a movie about them once, or perhaps grew up on a sheep ranch and herded them with our father in the mountains. But I stray from the tools I began with. That’s easy to do with concepts, one keeps leading on to others. I don’t know how sheep got into the picture, but there they are—purebred conceptual sheep out of nowhere. That is, out of my conceptual memory. No, not nowhere. In North Blue Hill, Maine. The last animals I took pictures of were sheep on a farm that had a lot of farm tools and machinery lying around. Which reminded me of my grandfather’s farm in Vermont. Not farm, really, but house in farm country where he had an old barn. That, I believe, is the connecting link between tools and sheep in my mind. You had to have been there, to have lived my little life.

Tricky, this mind of ours. Hard to keep up with. But easy, once you put in your ten-thousand hours of self-study. If, every time we put a sentence together, we are balancing concepts with percepts, percepts with concepts, you’d think after a time we’d get a sense of what we were doing and develop a sense of responsibility so we could do the job better, that is, more truthfully. Not so with the mind. It likes to keep us dumb and happy. Or, more accurately, we like to keep ourselves dumb and happy precisely so we can avoid being responsible for what we say and do. With results such as that politicians, say, along with economists, lawyers, and priests are all irrepressible liars. To be a pro is to lie the party line. That is, to commit category errors as a matter of principle. Because talking nonsense is safe: you can say anything to anybody at all, and they will hear your words and almost believe you if you keep a straight face. Words, too, are tools, mouth tools if not hand tools.

I will end this post by quoting the letter I wrote today to the editor of Newsweek in response to the January 25 issue on the earthquake in Haiti. I never saw so much categorical gibberish as is packed between the covers of that issue. Here Haiti lies in ruins after a devastating earthquake, and the media—together with the president himself—fumble for a conceptual or rhetorical framework within which to make it all seem fitting that so many people lie concretely and demonstrably dead or dying in the streets. This underscores the importance of categorization—giving character to a given situation—in deciding how to make an appropriate response:

Is it me, or these times? Newsweek, your cloying smugness astounds me. First I read Jon Meacham cynically reducing Haiti to a character in a historical novel. Then Lisa Miller resorts to the will of a stock God in attempting to explain a natural disaster. And Obama himself gets up on his high horse to proclaim the greatness of a country that for years supported a series of dictators in Haiti, as if we were caring beyond any other nation. “Life can be unimaginably cruel,” he intones, as if life, like Miller’s God, were a bad actor. When I got to David Rothkopf’s “I told you this was going to happen” piece, I wanted to throw my shoe at you. As Gertrude said to Polonius, “More matter, less art.” And if it isn’t matter but personal opinion, then chuck it, get the facts, and start over.

 Sheep, pecora, mouton?

 

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3 Responses to “Reflection 177: Tool Consciousness”

  1. tp said

    Found this on a website when I was looking for the full text of Voltaire’s the Lisbon Earthquake, thought it jibed with your current entry somewhat.
    Clergymen, politicians and newspeople will all wind up in the same hell, still talking nonstop.

    tp

    Earthquake of 1755
    in Life, Religion | January 18th, 2010 Leave a Comment

    Share
    The lines below are taken from Voltaire’s “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne,” written in response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Then, as now, there’s a little wisdom here for those (hint: Pat Robertson) inclined to infer moral superiority from the suffering of others.

    What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
    That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
    Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
    Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
    In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
    Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
    Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
    Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
    Let them but lash your own security;
    Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

    Note: Pat Robertson’s controversial remarks contained one basic historical fact, and it was wrong. He asserted that the Haitians brought disaster upon themselves when they broke free from “Napoleon III.” Robertson got the wrong guy here. It wasn’t Napoleon Lite (1808–1873). It was Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) who coopted the French Revolution 50 years earlier and tried to impose his will on Haiti. But, whatever…

    via The Sun Times

  2. “Clergymen, politicians and newspeople will all wind up in the same hell, still talking nonstop.” And no one to listen to them. I am struck by similarity between the craziness of dreams and the behavior of humans around the world. It’s like Brownian motion of molecules each doing it’s waddle, adding to the texture of the whole if not the order. If we aren’t actually engaged in a continuous loop with some aspect of our surroundings, we are living a dream and don’t recognize it. Like Uncle Vanya at the end of the play, we have to apply ourselves to our work to stay sane. Thanks for the Voltaire snippet. Tears mingling with blood sounds very Japanese. –Steve

  3. “Words, too, are tools, mouth tools if not hand tools.” And behind words, concepts, mind tools.

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