Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness

February 22, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

In certain situations, each of us acts as if his personal views were absolute truth, not mortal opinion. On such occasions, we pass ourselves off as more certain than our life experiences warrant. But we plunge ahead on the basis of unsupportable enthusiasms nonetheless. What we mean by “I know this for a fact” is “Let me tell you what I think,” as if truth were in the telling itself. Which is exactly the impression we want to give. The more we doubt, the louder we spout our views. If we see no humor in doing so, we fail to recognize our own zealotry.

It is easy to see pride in others, but not ourselves because it is none other than our selves who gauge the earnestness of our assertions. If we didn’t make such judgments, we wouldn’t be able to act. The actor must feel he is standing on bedrock and not a cloud (think of the skywriting pilot whose jottings are wisps of smoke) to assert anything. He must act as if he were right or not act at all. Imagine a president making a State of the Union Address, modestly declaring, “Well, folks, I kinda’, sorta’ think maybe this might be the pickle we’re in.” Congress would not only shout him down, they’d run for the door. The nation would go into cardiac arrest.

Sacred cows are sacred cows because they give us an excuse to insert at least some sense of order in our lives. Tradition is better than . . . well, nothing. Take Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits, for example. In Darwinian circles, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has been an inside joke for 150 years. Evolution is run at a snail’s pace by selection for the rare mutation that gives a particular genotype a better chance to reproduce, spread, and survive than another. Everyone who is anyone knows that. But the brand-new field of epigenetics recognizes that our genes are influenced by other factors (besides mutations) that affect conditions under which real, live babies are conceived in real time and real places, and subsequently grow to sexual maturity. Factors like diet, for instance, sanitation, maternal anxiety, smoking, or disease. This is hot stuff—making a lot of smart people reevaluate the conditions under which they have any right to claim they are as smart as they claim. It’s back to the drawing board for the staunchest of Darwinians.

Orthodoxy is a plague upon us, like smoking cigarettes or overeating. It chokes the mind, forcing it to suck in the same stale thoughts over and over again, desiccating consciousness, making it dry and listless. Taking shelter behind accepted opinion makes us feel safe, or agreeable to the powers that be who have control of our lives. It puts us on the “right” side of the issues that drive us apart, such as abortion, religious practice and dogma, social conventions, fads or anti-fads, displays of allegiance, and so on. We acquire many of our views before we are old enough to be exposed to alternatives, so they become set in our brains. We miss the point that if we’d been born in a different household or culture, we might be the very person we rail against today. Inconceivable! Impossible! Yet a sure sign we rely on traditional pathways burned into our brains when we were young and naive.

Where there is a divide between peoples, there are orthodoxies on either hand. Rich/poor, old/young/ male/female, red/blue, black/white, straight/gay, them/us, out/in, familiar/strange. Stereotypes are rigid kinds of categorizations—seen one, seen ‘em all. Which help us think we know more than we do, be bigger and wiser than we are—immediately, with very little effort. How sad that we shun, beat up, or kill one another simply because of the categories we carelessly project onto those who differ from ourselves. In the saying, there is safety in numbers, “numbers” suggests like-thinking others, the known world, as it were. Unknown others are expendable. And if you make yourself an agent of that world, you become a hero in its eyes, or even a martyr if you sacrifice yourself for the common cause.

These dramas take place in our minds, our acts only reflecting the state of our ossified brains as education, indoctrination, training, and belief have made them rigid. As we are led to categorize others, so do we follow those who lead us as if in a dream. And for all we can tell, that dream is real. We are overtaken by missionary zeal and self-righteousness. Instead of flub-dubbing around, we know what we are doing at last. All is perfectly clear. There are only true believers and infidels, Catholics and protestants, Aryans and Jews, Jews and Arabs, Pashtuns and Indians, Turks and Greeks, Home and Away, Them and Us. We cling to our schisms in spite of all evidence that things aren’t that simple, that the facts point to each person being unique, and for that reason deserving of respect as a complement to ourselves, who are but seeds blowing in the wind.

In the abstract, we know all this, and claim to believe it. But in practice we invariably excuse our own actions as the only course open to us. I couldn’t help it; she asked for it; he made me do it. Overwhelmed by circumstances, we do what we do. But it isn’t world circumstances, it’s the circumstances in our minds that drive us. It is consciousness that pulls the trigger, thrusts the sword, throws the grenade—because that’s how we’ve been trained. Be a man, not a weakling. Stand up for your beliefs. Show ‘em they can’t mess with us. Throw the rock; give the finger; hit them before they hit you. Shock and awe, that’s the stuff. Catch ‘em off-guard. You’re in the right; if they complain, it’s because they’re prejudiced. Infidels!

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read this week is David Margolick’s piece, “The Return of the Neocons,” in Newsweek (Feb. 1). He points out the differences between them, yet what unites their views is their orthodoxy in being outsiders who have infiltrated the system, so to a man they see themselves as performing heroic service. Eternal underdogs, double agents, they thrive in their culture of orthodoxy in which one side can do no wrong, the other no right. They make defensiveness on behalf of their cause a primal virtue requiring no justification.

As historians note, the impulses the neocons represent—the Manichaean world view, the missionary zeal, the near-jingoistic view of America, the can-do spirit and impatience with nuance—are as old as the country itself. . . . [They hold] that the United States occupies a higher moral plane than any other nation, and should act accordingly. . . . [favoring] a muscular, aggressive foreign policy, anticipating and preempting problems worldwide (by military means if necessary), unencumbered by corrupt or pusillanimous international organizations like the United Nations (pages 34-35).

Margolick paints the neocons as an ad hoc cadre of Israeli sympathesizers within the Republican Party, doing their best to steer American policy abroad without drawing attention to themselves as un-elected officials pushing a stealth agenda of their own. In that sense, they serve as lobbyists without having to bother with credentials—missionaries doing God’s work in the guise of laymen without common cause.

Life is a test to see whether our habitual characterizations—the way we see the world—stand up or not. As the bow is drawn, so flies the arrow; whether it hits the target or not is almost irrelevant. Being true to hardened beliefs takes precedence over getting it right. That is, posturing is all, accomplishment not worth considering. Such is a good portion of consciousness, the timed-release of routines stored from childhood. Come what may, the self stands true to the circumstances that prevailed during its earliest formation. Events are merely the fuels that feed the flames within to keep us moving ahead—that is, familiar to ourselves, no matter what. Orthodoxy allows us to recognize ourselves in changing times because we strike the same pose in each situation as it arises. Self-preservation is the name of that game, the primary business of mental life. Reacting to the strange as if it were perfectly familiar, we see ourselves as masters of every occasion. The world may turn, but we refuse to turn with it. That is the essence of dogma, fundamentalism, and ideology. No thinking is required because every idea is prepackaged for ready consumption.

Here there is a close connection between categorization, the storylines we live out, and the situations we get ourselves into again and again. Michael Gazzaniga finds an interpretive module in the lift side of the brain which makes sense of ongoing events no matter how senseless they seem. Who is this interpreter? None other than our self of old, all the way back to our days of language acquisition. What did we know then? How critical were we in applying our judgment? Not much; not very. Yet we are still the same creature, always a little off base, trying to understand what’s going on. So we hazard a guess in keeping with who we were then. Creativity is painful because it means moving away from who we once were into the uncharted territory of the now. Staying sane in novel situations is best done by remaining the same as we were then. We all mimic the Pope in believing in our personal infallibility. He is the eternal child, young at heart, supposedly wise as the hills of Rome in always coming up with a ready answer. A great gig if you can pull it off with a straight face.

I see signs of this back-tugging force all around me. The old ways were better because we were comfortable then and knew whose child we were, while today’s world is fearsome and dangerous, and we’re not sure how we fit in. Fundamentalists read from that script every day of their lives. We survived childhood; the message is clear: More childhood is better. Long live the child within. What worked then is a good bet for what might work now. Formative episodes of experience at a young age set the course of a lifetime.

In my own case, I am definitely the same kid I was at age ten when I was chiseling trilobites out of the damp, black walls of gullies in Hamilton, New York. The thrill of those discoveries is still with me, translated into the idiom of Taunton Bay, Maine. Tracking horseshoe crabs at the northern edge of their range, as I did from 2003 to 2005, put me on the leading edge of my personal curiosity and wonder. Studying the antics of herons, eagles, loons, harbor seals, and wildlife in general, I reach from the depths of my personal history and project that old, familiar feeling of adventure onto the world of today. What conservationists protect may not be the Earth itself so much as their longing to restore Earth as they knew it.

When I was six or seven, my father got a truckload of pebbles to firm up the driveway. I was in the garage, idly playing with a hammer. I placed one of the smooth pebbles on a cinderblock and gave it a sharp tap. Amid the smell of rock dust, the stone split neatly apart, revealing a fossil shell sharply sculpted in high relief. Not sculpted, molded; it was the creature itself turned to stone. Why I picked just that pebble, and hit it just as I did, I’ll never understand. But there it was, a major discovery of my dawning life. Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

As a kid, I loved the month of March when snow on the hills around Hamilton melted into rivulets rushing for the valleys below. I’ve told this story before, but I’ll replay it again because it shows how orthodox I am at the core of my being. I launched boats made of bark and twigs into the flow, and ran with them as they coursed toward the valley. I built dams by pushing rows of twigs into the mud at various angles to the flood, learning about hydrodynamics experientially, not conceptually. The only notes I took were recorded in the mud on my knees, and the sopping pants I wore home. That early learning is with me today as I row across the salty currents of Taunton Bay on an incoming tide. I can visualize the forces acting on my little boat, and choose my heading accordingly.

I worry a good deal about the state of childhood education as we’ve formalized it today. We’ve taken muddy pants out of the curriculum and replaced them with the concept of muddy pants. That way we stay clean and acceptable to our care givers, who seem not to know that concepts gained through physical experience driven by personal motivation outlast the abstractions foist on us by others. Horseshoe crabs and trilobite fossils are existentially real to me because I have a history of hands-on experience with them. Learning about them through books, they start out as ideas in the mind. That is, as in Monopoly, they go straight to jail (memory) without passing go (the senses), creating a kind of half-baked experience wholly dependent on the cards we draw from the stack, cards telling us what we are to do in the world. If The Cat in the Hat, say, or the Lorax, becomes a stock character in my orthodox beliefs—along with mermaids, angels, and unicorns—I will swear to the collective existence of such creatures based on first-hand experience, not suspecting how fanciful my bookish acquaintance really is. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause. But a Santa in the mind is not the same as the “Santa” who eats cookies left on a plate by the fireplace.

In each instance, behavior justified on the basis of orthodoxy, belief, or ideology is always of questionable authority. Even in John Weir’s percept language, the concept of self is of doubtful origin, so does not necessarily represent the real “me,” if there can be such a thing. That is to say, even the self is a construct or characterization, and as such, is a product of complex mental operations and influences. Because experience comes with a valence either positive or negative, good or bad (for me), the first-person singular “I” is more apt to be the good guy than the bad guy. As George W. Bush—and the male animal in general—amply illustrate, it is often hard to acknowledge errors of personal categorization and judgment. Self-criticism is an oxymoron because the self makes the rules. If we dutifully rock back and forth memorizing the Qur’an as children, then truth is on our lips ever after. We become cocky in our beliefs because all doubt and uncertainty are effectively suppressed. We live out our lives as stock characters in a drama fulfilling the dreams of an author living in another time and another place. Because that author dwells within us, not before us, we do not see it directing our actions ever after.

Consciousness by the book—orthodox consciousness—makes us commit crazy (inappropriate) acts while feeling perfectly sane and rational. On cue, we become that innocent child again, wobbling about and asserting ourselves like so many mechanical toys driven by coiled springs. Which I offer as an apt depiction of the Republican phalanx in Congress lock-stepping the party line, bent on destroying our elected system of government from within. And of the neocon cell in Washington awaiting another golden opportunity such as the felling of the Twin Towers to further its covert agenda for proper deployment of America’s might in securing Israel’s toehold in what used to be called Palestine.

And me, I’m just here doing my thing—digging trilobites from gully walls. Characterizing the world around me in terms I learned through early engagements with my environment. Writing a blog is like looking for fossils—I never know what I’ll find. I have a word or a hunch or an idea to begin with, and see where it leads me. Discovery is the issue, coming up with something to fill the gaps in my understanding. That’s my agenda, more-or-less focused on my personal consciousness, which is the vehicle I use in these serial reflections. I can’t help myself; I am a creature of my own making, clinging to the only childhood I know inside-out because I lived it with my very own brain, which dutifully took note of what was happening along the way, and established the original connections that keep reinforcing themselves through everyday use. In being me, I am fulfilling the dream of the child who set the course of my life without knowing that’s what he was doing at the time.

So, I submit, are we all driven by the fundamentalist within because we have no comparable exemplar to follow. Claiming to be reasonable and rational, yet staunchly orthodox at the core, it is wrenching to discover the child we were still rules the day. The art of the possible, as politics is sometimes characterized, inevitably stands against the art of the ideal, the way things should be if orthodoxy had its way. Like you, I could have been the littlest neocon, jahadi, or zionist, but that wasn’t to be. The circumstances of my birth were otherwise. I was the son of a man whose mother’s giving birth to her first child was her last act on Earth. He was baptized at graveside during her burial. He never knew her, his own mother. Because he was remote and inaccessible, I never knew him, my father. Like him, I am a project-oriented, free-thinking loner, more by social inheritance than by choice. Will my sons ever know me? Perhaps, at a distance, if they follow this blog.

UNIFORM

 

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3 Responses to “Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness”

  1. insomniac said

    Howdy Steve,

    The situation you describe is a great example of how the “life as an information processing system” view can be helpful. Not as a “new god”, but another point of view that brings us new insight.

    I have often complained about the inertia of the old ways. And like you, i have found it frustrating to find myself participating. This reluctance to accept new ideas, (our fundamentalism), in the systems view, is a fundamental necessity of Life.

    The system of Life processes matter, in the same way that a computer processes ones and zeros. From that view, matter and its interrelationships are its code. In this view, DNA is code, but so is every sugar phosphate crystal is its construction. In this view, the entire system is held together by information, stored in physical matter.

    “One of the repeated patterns we can see in adaptive complex systems is that there exists a bias towards established behavior. This gives a solid baseline from which to introduce change. The challenge is for the system to maintain stability, while at the same time retain the ability to adapt rapidly to environmental variation.

    Resistance to new ideas is not bad, it helps protect the status quo. In a System where everything is infinitely adjustable, it can’t be too easy to make adjustments, especially in areas fundamental to homeostasis. Since it is all interconnected, even minor adjustments in one area can affect all others. The status quo has to have a strong bias to maintain systemic stability. Any adaptive system relies on what has been successful in the past as a baseline to plan the future.”

    This is why i like the systems view. It acts as a conceptual common denominator. Sort of like a fractal, the patterns repeat regardless of scale. The patterns you identify, from your inside point of view, i see being repeated throughout the system. From DNA, up through all biological systems to include social interactions, a plateau in the dynamic pattern is necessary for stability.

    This is a very opposite view from yours, in that the systems view pays no attention at all to the meanderings of the human mind. Humans become just another species, processing matter to its own ends, while at the same time, participating in larger systems. We become just like crabs in the bay, scurrying around on our important missions, oblivious to our affect on the Whole. Hanging on to our obsolete behaviors long past the time when their survival value has disappeared.

    BTW, glad to see you sre still at it.

    Cheers,
    jim

  2. Jim, glad to know you’re alive and kicking. Yes, we definitely are concerned with many of the same kinds of phenomena, from very different points of view using different sets of terms. Where you start with information in material systems at differen levels, I start with what I can know of my own mind as a subject in itself. Yes, very different starting points, entailing very different assumptions, leading to widely divergent paths and destinations.

    I am particularly drawn to organic systems and the orders they support. Clearly, they derive from inorganic matter–from star stuff in fact. So there is a definite relation between material and organic systems. Which makes the origin of consciousness a very interesting question. Being no biologist, I will never probe the substrate of consciousness to its roots because I don’t have the knowledge or the skills. I wonder if anyone will be able to explain how consciousness emerges from matter. Certainly a lot of folks are tackling that very issue, but they seem to be stuck in a material world.

    Starting from the phenomenon of consciousness, I only want to show how it is consistent with the material order of the universe, not explain it. I’m on journey enough for one lifetime. We have to leave something for coming generations to ponder, after all.

    Thanks for writing. We are near relatives, speaking somewhat different tongues, but brothers nonetheless.

    –Steve

  3. insomniac said

    Howdy Steve,

    Yeah, i’m still here. Just had to take a few months off from cyberspace and poke around in the real world for awhile.

    You said: “Starting from the phenomenon of consciousness, I only want to show how it is consistent with the material order of the universe…”

    Well, that’s my goal as well. Just like a fractal, patterns of intelligent action(observe, evaluate, plan and act) repeat throughout the system, regardless of scale or implementation.

    So we agree that the world of the ethereal and the world of the material are consistent. From our different points of view, we come to the same conclusion.

    cheers,
    jim

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