391. Darwin Had It Almost Right

December 29, 2014

I see comparison as the common feature of a great many of our mental operations. In fact, it looms in my mind as the essential function of the brain in leading to consciousness.

It is not any particular signal that matters so much as the difference between signals in adjacent or linked cortical columns that sparks and maintains both attention and consciousness, particularly as a comparison between present and former perceptual events. I think of such mental comparisons as producing a delta (Δ, δ) signal in proportion to the Difference, Discrepancy, Disparity, or Displacement between corresponding signals originating in different but closely related regions of the brain

I call these virtual signals because they can only be appreciated from a vantage point that looks upon the relative discrepancy as being meaningful in itself.

Such delta signals are the determining feature of three aspects of consciousness I have already mentioned: binocular vision, binaural hearing, and motion detection in semicircular canals on opposite sides of the head.

I have also provided the image of the helmsman (read helmswoman) at his/her wheel gauging the delta signal representing the discrepancy between the desired and actual heading of the vessel as told by its compass, leading to his/her compensating for that difference by turning the wheel an equal degree in the opposite direction. So do we correct our wayfaring courses every day of our lives.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin himself depicts humans as possessing a moral compass: “A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives—of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.”

In that quote, Darwin holds the key to consciousness in his hand, but never quite inserts it into the lock, so diverting his readers to moral considerations rather than to the human mind as a whole. He continues:

I have endeavored to show that the moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and, thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals.

From my perspective, what he calls “the high activity of his mental faculties” is not merely a factor but is the essence of consciousness itself resulting from comparative judgments of past and present states of awareness. Darwin continues:

Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backward and forward and comparing past impressions. Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future—and this is conscience (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1874], page 698, my italics).

Moral considerations aside, Darwin had stumbled his way to the gateway of consciousness, but was distracted by the moral preoccupation of his Victorian days from actually discovering the true nature of the mind. Just as we helmspersons seek guidance from inner compasses, so do we learn by trial and error, adjusting our behavior to compensate for the many ways we mislead ourselves time and again.

I have frequently said that my true education has been based not on remembering what I have been taught but by going off as led by my own lights, getting lost in the Slough of Despond, then, wiser for my slogging, fighting my way back.

This is the essence of empiricism, learning the lessons, not of ideals or of theory, but of concrete sensory experience.

Which is precisely what our minds provide us via our loops of experiential engagement. Namely, our displacement as the result of a specific course of action by which we discover where our effort has taken us. We don’t look out on the world so much as on what’s right or wrong with the world, to which we direct our attention.

We are all learners by doing. If we don’t make the initial effort, we are stuck exactly where we were before, with no sense of how to correct ourselves. Mind is our means of making successive approximations in approaching the goals we hope to achieve.

If we make a foray, at least we learn whether or not that is the way we want to go. Standing still doing nothing, our learning, as always, is in direct proportion to our effort.


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