410. Outer Reaches of Mind

January 20, 2015

Engagement is a crucial concept in my approach to consciousness. I use it in almost every post. But what does it mean to me when I use it?

We each have an inner life of the mind and an outer life in the world around us. The inner life begins with perception and consists largely of what we make of incoming sensory impressions, as well as judgment upon what we take those impressions to mean against the background of our experience.

That inner life leads from judgment to outgoing action in the world as our response to previous incoming impressions.

The inner life of the mind from perception to judgment and on to appropriate action makes up half the story of consciousness. The outer half is what happens in the world as a result of our taking the actions we do throughout the day.

That outer half of consciousness narrates how the world responds to what we did and, equally important, relays that response to us so that we can grasp the effects of our actions. Which we do by comparing that incoming response against our outgoing intentions in order to gauge the effectiveness of what we did.

That comparison generates what I call a delta signal in our brains that tells us whether or not we accomplished our earlier mission. If the delta signal bears a positive tone, it tells us we are on the right track. If that feedback is negative, we interpret it as telling us to try harder, or take a different approach.

What we are conscious of in such a loop of engagement is precisely the delta signal that bridges the gap between what we tried to do and what actually happened. That is, consciousness depicts and assesses the high and low points of the relationship between our inner self and the world around us. It tells us by way of the feeling within us whether we are happy or sad, glad or mad. In light of our intentions, happy is good news, sad is bad news.

That psychic relationship is what I mean by engagement. It prompts awareness of what we did in comparison with what actually happened, and stimulates an affective response to guide us in making our next move.

Consciousness is the inner venue where that awareness takes place, including the crucial feeling tone accompanying that awareness.

Given what I have just written, with this post to my blog I change my focus from the inner world of perception-judgment-action that has occupied my preceding posts to consider what it is in the outer world that we engage with. From now on I will be taking on the other half of consciousness, the half that does not reside in our brains, and cannot be found there no matter how hard or long we may search for it. We may discover our view of the world, but not the world as it is in itself, which is our partner in engagement.

To help you picture the many partners we might engage with in completing the outer half of our personal consciousness, I ask you to visualize the following maps all superimposed on one another.

  1. A map of the GPS locations of every cellphone in the world.
  2. A map of all the roads, highways, and byways in the world.
  3. A map of all the sea lanes across the oceans of the world.
  4. A map of all the flight paths between all the airports in the world.
  5. A map of all the server farms supporting the internet throughout the world.
  6. A map of all the capital cities of the many countries in the world.
  7. A map of all the grains of sand on the surface of the beaches of the world.
  8. A map of all the catalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  9. A map of all the uncatalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  10. A map of all the trees in the world.
  11. A map of all the postal codes in the world.
  12. A map of all the street addresses in the world.
  13. A map of all the country and area codes in the world.
  14. A map of all the TV and radio stations in the world.
  15. A map of all the places where photographs have been taken in the world.

That massive skein of the sorts of places we might engage with in one lifetime of consciousness is surely a complementary match for the most complex system we know of in the universe—namely, the human brain.

My focus in this blog now shifts from the makeup of individual minds to the engagements we actually or potentially might make with the world in one lifetime. My aim is to suggest the other half of consciousness that does not reside in our heads, but is ours to selectively engage with at any time.

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409. Earthlings to the Core

January 19, 2015

In the most basic sense possible, our minds are features of the natural world, so our perceptions, judgments, and actions are natural as well. Any claim that our thoughts might be unnatural or immoral is nonsense. We are what we are, and that is an outgrowth of the planet that supports us.

We are Earthlings to the core, made of Earth’s materials, thinking Earth’s thoughts. As are ants and termites in building their nests and tending their eggs, as are amoebas, birds of paradise, slugs, snakes, and rhinoceroses, all in our respective stages of genetic development and evolution.

As outgrowths of the Earth, there is an inside and an outside to each of us. Outside is our environment, source of all that we need to live on the inside of our outermost layer, our skin, hide, or integumentary system.

Both historically and individually as fertilized eggs, we begin life as one-celled organisms separated from our surroundings in utero by a semi-permeable membrane that allows a selective exchange of materials and energy across the boundary layer between inside and outside.

Food and oxygen flow outside-in to sustain our metabolism and rapid development; waste and carbon dioxide flow in the opposite direction, inside-out.

From the beginning, we live in a state, not only of exchange, but of active engagement with our natural environments, trading what we no longer need for what we need to live and thrive. The story of life on Earth is the story of life’s natural engagements.

As natural creatures, we cannot live without the essential resources Earth provides us—food, air, water, shelter, warmth, and protection in their various forms to preserve what Thoreau called “the vital heat” of our bodies as generated by complex metabolic processes we each sustain for a lifetime.

We live by the grace of our biological mother’s metabolism (governed by her—not our father’s—maternal line of mitochondrial DNA), first in the womb, and after birth until we are weaned, and even ever after that while our families and cultures feed and provide for us, until the day we die.

In that sense, we never outgrow our natural mother’s care and bodily warmth; it is built into the structure of every cell in our bodies from conception on.

After birth, our respective cultures, communities, and families offer us a range of choices for diet, shelter, clothing, the purity of the water we drink and air we breathe, so the choices we adopt reflect their several influences in modifying how we choose to meet our biological needs.

In speaking a dialect of one language or another, adopting a particular style of dress, favoring particular foods, and living in certain types of housing, we show that our essential genetic makeup is covered by a veneer of cultural, community, and family conventions and habits suited to the local climate and terrain.

Without doubt, we grow into ourselves as creatures of not only nature, but also of culture, community, and family as well.

 

Action is the payoff: demonstrable proof of the mind. It is how we move ourselves ahead from one moment to the next. Initiating a process I call “wayfaring” as our mode of being in the world by means of taking one step after another. Getting ahead is our religion and our profession. It is not a product but a process as told in the playing, not the winning or losing.

The issue is always: What now? What next? What next after that? In other words, threads of engagement. By which we exercise our perceptive and active skills as joined by the judgments we make and the meanings we find in the process of advancing the flow of energy through our minds from perception to action.

My focus on action ends with a glimpse at sex as one act we all share in common. I have reviewed the route within the figurative black box sheltering each of our minds, from arousal, expectancy, and attention on to the formation of sensory impressions, recognition, categorization, to meaningful understanding.

Then I have traced the various routes that connect perception to action via reflexes, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and orthodoxy, all of which bypass full conscious deliberation and awareness. Consciousness centers on the mediating faculty of mind I call “situated intelligence” that create the situations we face in their various mental dimensions such as I have listed throughout these posts. Those dimensions include understanding, imagination, emotion, biological values, ethical values, ideas, thoughts, the life force that drives us, and the many contributions of remembrance.

Consciousness answers three questions. Perception fields the question, “What’s happening?” Judgment fields, “What does that mean in my current situation?” Action gives our answer to, “What shall I do under these circumstances?”

These three stages of mental engagement also entail unconscious loops within the brain that shape, sharpen, and emphasize aspects of the mind’s ongoing engagement with the world for the sake of clear judgment in forming an appropriate response to the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. Each action we make leads on to the next moment, setting up the one after that.

Our situated intelligence forms what we think of as the durable “I/me” at the juncture of perception and action where our sequential rounds of engagement come to completion as staging areas for the cycles to follow—hopefully with increasing refinement.

The self is no independent observer of that flux; it is the ongoing flow of engagement itself, the inner wayfarer at the heart of our being active, alert, and alive.

In the following posts, my task becomes that of extending the inner portions of our loops through perception, judgment, and action beyond the figurative—yet functional—walls of the black boxes in which our minds are sheltered by the outer limits of the bodily membrane or skin that separates our inner personhood from the great world beyond.

In that outer world we find our way along the shores of a world ocean much as our one-celled ancestors swam in the primal, energy-rich seas of ancient Earth. We take what we need to live from that ocean, in trade for our waste. I divide that world ocean into the four great bays which we explore during our life travels: nature, culture, community, and family.

Those divisions of the world ocean conduct the waves we make by our outgoing gestures to far shores, where they reflect and return to us in flowing waveforms of energy representing four aspects or levels of the world’s response to our actions. Which we study from the perspective of our personhood and life experience, interpret, and transform into our next round of engagement.

The world ocean is the basis on which our consciousness is founded. We exist to interpret its messages as accurately as we can. So do we place ourselves in the situations that drive us forward. Consciousness is not ours alone. We share our interpretive abilities with the stimuli striking our senses from the ambient in which we live. We are creatures not merely of our brains, but of our home planet. We are Earthlings to the core.

On to the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family!

 

 

 

407. Three Cheers for Sex

January 16, 2015

Sex is our ultimate activity. Without it, none of us would be here. Generation after generation, our ancestors have engaged in it, as our descendants will after us. Sex is a big deal. The biggest of all possible deals. The single most important of all human engagements. We are born of it and to it.

At the same time, we seldom talk about it. Why is that? Sex is in a class by itself that exists beyond words. Sex is more a matter of urges and emotions than it is an intellectual concept. It is certainly pre-verbal. Our progenitors had sex long before they had words. Words come after sex. Before sex, we talk about anything but, as if it never entered our minds.

We may not put it into so many words, but we think about it all the time and see it all around us. And lay plans with sex at the heart of the evening’s activities. All those candle-lit dinners, moonlight cruises, shared entertainments, shopping sprees, exotic vacations, new cars, engagement rings—what do they share in common if not an allusion to sex?

Each in our own way, we are all sexual beings, taking a particular place somewhere along the sexual spectrum of desire and fulfillment, appetite and release, as our parents took theirs, and their parents theirs. Even if childless couples, gays, and lesbians may not raise youngsters of their own, they contribute more than their share to communities that do, fairly meeting their generation’s obligation to its children.

Our sexuality is driven by the same life force that fuels our metabolism. Beyond that, it is a response to hormones that drive formation of the specific organs, body shapes, and urges we all exhibit in one way or another. Not that sex acts are consciously grounded on reproduction, which is often the last thing on partners’ minds when engaging in sexual behavior.

In fact, most of the time, we are trying our best to make sure that not one sperm reaches the egg it aims to hook-up with. Even without some form of birth control, the odds of a sperm’s being successful in meeting up with the egg of its dreams are inversely astronomical, that is, hugely minute.

A sexual engagement may be aimed at reproduction, but much more commonly that is not on the mind of either partner. Sexuality is more often aimed at gratification of passions, the sooner the better. The mind is thinking: soon, sooner, and now!.

If things work out to mutual satisfaction, particular pairs will want to stay together to make the passionate moments last not for seconds but for days, weeks, or a lifetime.

If they make a contractual agreement to do so, that’s what we call marriage, meaning our families and communities respect their intentions, and so back them up for the long term. At one remove, a community shares the joys of its members’ passions. Engaging on the deepest levels of physical intimacy, those members enable others to imagine and then perhaps realize their children and their grandchildren.

So do sexual engagements spiral through the decades like propellers driving ships ahead through vast oceans. Attraction and affection are one dimension of life, love and desire another, enduring passion and release a third. This is equally true for heterosexual couples, gay and lesbian couples, transsexual couples. The commitment to caring engagements is the essential ingredient that resolves the tension of being alone and unattached. Caring engagement, along with creativity and adventure, seems to be a good part of the meaning of life.

I remember watching young solo snowsledders race around turns that blocked their view of any machine that might be coming against them. With a lady riding tandem, that same turn was invariably negotiated slowly and cautiously. Which is it to be, devil-may-care, or we’re-in-this-for-the long haul? That depends on our age, and our committed engagements.

The art of life is in surviving reckless youth to reach the promised land of mature relationships.

 

 

 

When as adults we put child’s play behind us, we continue to live a life of illusions in a world of illusions. We run every trick by our attorney and public relations office before we commit ourselves to a course of public behavior. If we don’t have an attorney or PR team, we all do have internal censors and dressers that provide the same services.

How many hours do we put in dressing and grooming our wild selves before making a public appearance? Illusionists all, we thrive by editing our minds and performances so others will see us as we want them to, not as we are. And we expect others to do the same in joining us in creating a so-called civilized society we can agree on beforehand.

That is a different kind of “play” entirely. Think of Bernie Madoff gulling his friends into investing their life savings with him. Think of financial institutions bundling worthless debts as attractive investments, and insuring themselves against loss whether their offerings are worthless or sound. Think of groomed politicians posing in their neckties and suits before an American flag and wall of books, all wearing lapel pins as miniature bumper-stickers their constituents would approve of.

Even on the highest level—especially on the highest level—what you see is sure to be an illusion meant to deceive you. You can’t tell the difference between a TV serial and real life. Rampant deception is the name of this game of conning the public to believe true is false and back is white.

Judging by the headlines, there’s a lot of it around these days, making it seem the national and global pastime. The state secrets that Edward Snowden revealed add weight to that view. The discrepancy between public and private postures was too much for him. In the right situations, our sensitivity to conflicting signals in our minds makes each of us a potential whistle-blower.

Which is exactly the sort of engagement I am talking about in this blog—the linking of perception to action for the sake of mental clarity and effectiveness, not deception. On an individual scale, each of us supervising her own mental processes so that what friends, family, and colleagues see is what they get.

No one can do that work for us. It is we who have the responsibility of learning from our own mistakes on the basis of our personal judgments of right or wrong. True or false. Good or bad. Win or lose. We receive the gift of mind at birth, but, sadly, not the instructions telling us how to use it. That we have to pick up on our own as we go.

As illusionists, every time we learn a new trick, we have to maintain our reputation by going ourselves one better the next time. Life becomes a massive Ponzi scheme, and we become slaves of our own illusions, which is the worst kind of addiction. The only way out is to break the cycle of engagements we undertake to maintain the phony self-image.

That is called learning from experience. Our salvation depends upon it. Not fooling ourselves. Being simply who we are, not who we pretend to be. We can recognize our true friends by whether they support us in making that effort or not.

People love to play games. My partner and I have enjoyed what must be thousands of bouts on opposite sides of a cribbage board over the past twenty years. And hundreds of games of dominoes. We move rival pegs and pieces about board and table in a state of total concentration as if everything hung on our progress as make-believe wayfarers.

Those games are a good part of our mythology as a couple, known only to us.

Such weekend games keep us sane by diverting our minds from concerns that occupy us during the rest of the week. Others play games of cards such as poker or solitaire, bridge or old maid. Many games feature fields, courts, or courses—marked-out territories occupied or traversed by opposing players or teams trading roles as defenders and aggressors. Mythological contests, again.

Humanity spends countless hours each day engrossed in nonviolent contests of skill, chance, strength, speed, and endurance. Ice hockey, boxing, and American football occupy niches close to the edge of being harmful and dangerous physical play, but for the most part sports and games, in their claim to being nonviolent, fall short of battles to the death.

Games are universally played by rules, and are officiated by umpires, referees, scorekeepers, and the players themselves. The essence of games is in the taking of turns so that players alternate in facing more-or-less equal opportunities and conditions.

I bring up sports and games in this reflection because, being governed by rules of play, they are examples of the kinds of engagement I am discussing as fundamental features of mind. Rules of play are rules of engagement are rules of thinking are rules of mythology are rules of the conscious mind.

Games are human activities in which our minds play themselves out in full public view. The game itself is what each player and spectator has in mind at the time. Here we see expectancy, attention, understanding, emotion, motivation, values, the life force, judgment, goals, strategies, and skilled action out in the open for all to see and take part in.

In films and TV programs the action takes place on a set that blocks our view of the chaos behind the scenes, so we are allowed a cut-and-spliced version that makes sense only from the camera’s point of view. That is, we are being manipulated by actors and directors and costume designers and producers and hundreds of others to see what they want us to see.

But in sports and games, we take the leading roles, so put ourselves—our innermost minds—into play, in the company of others who are doing the same thing. Which is fun because risky but safe, each side playing by the same rules of engagement. We are wayfaring in joint engagement together. That is, in friendship earned along the way during the journey at the heart of the game.

The apparent innocence of children is achieved much the same way—by being unreservedly themselves in translating thought into action. Lion cubs, ditto, when they roll about nipping each other’s ears and throats. They aren’t simply playing, they are being fully themselves at their level of development and understanding. Games are mythological enactments of the selves our children want to be.

We love them for being that honest and that free. Qualities rare among the rest of us in defending our private lives and innermost thoughts as we do so others won’t get too accurate a picture of what’s going on inside our private black boxes. In play it is safe to venture forth because we have rules to protect us.

 

Our actions are driven by feelings and approved by judgments we make on the flow of sensory energy as felt in the moment. They come not so much from our muscles themselves as from the forces that spur our muscles to flex or relax. Our deliberate actions flow from the situation—the particular set of mental dimensions that make up the living space of the intelligence at the core of our minds.

When we speak, our actions take the form of words arranged in sentences because that is how the culture we are born to understands and expresses its felt situations. Our birth culture calibrates our minds in the words and numbers we will employ ever after.

That culture includes a vocabulary suited to the variety of situations its members are likely to face in leading the many aspects of their lives. The makeup (syntax) of that speech is meant to convey the structure or meaning of the inner situation as experienced by the speaker.

We speakers are both subjective agents who put energy into intentional acts, and objective recipients acted-upon by energies taken in by our sensory receptors. Which is why we as individuals reflect ourselves in speech as playing both complementary subjective and objective roles: we do things, and things are done unto us.

Our speech is always purposeful. We have reasons for saying what we do. The burden of checking on our motives falls to our listeners. Who have a list of questions they can ask in getting the clarification they need to figure out where we are coming from so they can make a suitable response. Questions reflect curiosity, uncertainty, doubt, interest, and suspicion, among other states of mind.

Conversations unfold according to the interests of those who take part. Casual conversations bounce from topic to topic, driven by connections that participants make with something that comes up. Such connections serve as some sort of reminder that stirs a particular memory or line of thought.

One mentions a trip to “Cincinnati,” say, and someone tells a story about her uncle in that city, and someone else tells of going to school there, then someone else again tells of traveling by train through the city at night in the winter, and so on. Not much gets said, but everyone present has their personal say on the topic of Cincinnati.

Inclusion in the circle is the name of that game, putting your oar in the water, being a player. Little gets accomplished, but everyone goes away feeling good because connected, even though she remained snug in her personal black box the whole time.

Other conversations draw people out of their black boxes, a riskier kind of engagement, requiring trust of those involved. Some find confessional gatherings unseemly, others thrive on the tidbits they glean. Still others are genuinely interested in getting to know their friends and neighbors, so systematically inquire about backgrounds, schooling, jobs held, hobbies, cities lived in, families, and aspirations, often modeling the behavior they seek by taking the lead in sharing such information about themselves.

Conversations among professionals tend to stick to business, some aspect of a topic of interest to all who are present. There are as many uses of speech as there are speakers, so I am only giving a smattering of the social possibilities. I will repeat that everyone has a purpose in saying what she does, and sooner or later, everything that can be said will be said by someone.

After all, words (among other gestures and activities) are the glue that binds us together as friends, families, communities, and cultures. There is no way to underestimate their importance when we link our respective situations together. Or their misuse in various forms of skulduggery by which we take advantage of one-another.

 

 

403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.

 

 

 

 

402. Expletives!

January 10, 2015

Following-through on my previous post: The question is, can we avoid becoming creatures of our technologies by controlling our urge to revel in the thrill and novelty of the latest electronic gadget we don’t need?

As I said, the world we live in is shaped by our subjective opinions and motivations. The lesson of my study of mind is that each of us is responsible for the workings of her own. When it comes to saving the planet through yet more technology, let believers beware. Particularly believers in technologies that boast of being artificially intelligent. Our numbers are already far too large for our planet to bear at current levels of consumption and life expectancy.

We talk a lot about saving the world, but it is our actions in that same world that count. Speech saves effort, but it can also interrupt and divert us from more meaningful engagements requiring bolder action. So to continue on the topic of action I will briefly speculate on the origin of the movements of breath, tongue, lips, and teeth we call speech.

We justly pride ourselves on our skills in speaking, reading, writing, and comprehending, the very skills that separate us from our animal neighbors and ancestors. Speech has evolved as a kind of substitute for exerting ourselves by flexing our larger muscles. It is far more efficient to gently release air through our throats and lips than it is to lunge forward while making threatening gestures with raised arms brandishing sticks. It is also less risky.

It is humbling to think that the origin of speech might have been in uttering expletives whenever our ancestors’ engagements were thwarted or went awry. That is my belief, largely resting on observation of my own behavior in dealing with my tired old computer, which is programmed to do its own thing, and so pays no heed when I want it to do something else.

My vulgar outbursts wrest attention from all ears within range. I shout curt obscenities at my laptop when it goes off on its own, but having no ears (mine is an older model), it ignores me and sits there doing its thing whereas I paid good money for it to do my thing. Why else would I buy it?

Why, indeed? I mean to use my computer to facilitate my many projects depending on use of words and pictures. All my writing, all my photographs, all my illustrations are on my computer. Books, articles, PowerPoints, slide shows, pechakuchas, notes, lists, random thoughts, address—my entire creative output all stored on my hard drive.

So when I can’t get at them because my computer is busy doing something else—installing updates, scanning every file, printing pages I didn’t ask it to print, posting inexplicable error messages about not being able to do some task it thought up on its own—I get—how shall I put it?—upset. Mad. Angry. Finally furious after not being able to get through to it to get it to stop what it’s doing and do what I want it to do.

By nature, I am a very calm person. I have confidence in making that judgment. People are amazed at my not getting upset in situations that would have driven them batty. But when engagements requiring my deep concentration are interrupted, I have trouble restoring the focus that my balance of mind depends on. I am forced to switch my mind to some irrelevant task. I am on a roll, but can’t continue.

Imagine my distress. Which requires some kind of outlet as a stand-in to release the energy that I was putting into the project I was focused on. So these sounds come out of my mouth. Not words that fit the sentence I was writing when so rudely interrupted, but sounds out of nowhere. Shit. Fuck. Chert, click, runt, frump, fart, muck, flack, blat. Expletives. Sudden explosions of sound that bear the burden of my frustration and annoyance.

That, I believe, is the true origin of language. Or at least a contributing factor in drawing attention to the urgency of some issue or another. In this case, an issue with a negative valence giving evidence that breaking into an ongoing engagement is wrong, bad, undesirable, annoying, perturbing, frustrating, immoral, unsettling, etc., and ought to be against the law.

In the opposite situation (consciousness thrives on opposition, remember), when I am caught unaware by something surpassingly pleasing that gives me pause, I say, like astronauts ogling the Earth from above, Wow! Oh boy. Amazing. Beautiful. Stunning. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Hallelujah. Hooray. Lookadat! Or some cooing expletive suitable to such an occasion. In which case the issue of expression is to release a gasp of sudden joy, happiness, surprise, wonder, satisfaction, insight, gratitude, and other such utterance suggesting a positive valence that gives approval to an engagement that is right, proper, good, desirable, affirming, pleasing, enjoyable, and essentially positive in deserving to be called to everyone’s attention.

It is in those two opposite situations—the rude interruption and the affirming revelation—that I discover a burst or rush of sound issuing from my throat as if I had invented language on the spot for that very occasion. Extrapolating, I identify with my primitive ancestors who had the same uncontrollable urge so long ago.

 

As unique individuals, each of us might be the only one who appreciates the difference we strive to make by acting in the world as we do. At the same time, we often underestimate the damage we do by undertaking those same actions. We are change agents by nature. And hugely successful. But not as we might intend.

I own a two-volume report of an international symposium sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, held in Princeton during June, 1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1193 pages in 2 volumes, © 1956 by the University of Chicago.) Edited by William L. Thomas Jr., the report details the impact that humans have had on the habitats we have occupied since antiquity, and changed forever after, almost always for the worse.

The report makes fascinating but extremely hard reading. Not hard because of any density or specialized jargon; hard because of its crystal-clear message, which we disregard at our peril. As our numbers increase, our collective wayfaring is inevitably wounding the planet that supports us, impairing its habitability for not only ourselves but for many of the species that share our space with us. Global Warming, also our doing, particularly through our power generation and motorized travels and transport, is but our latest assault on the hospitable planet that supports our every activity.

In his summary remarks on “Prospect” at the end of the report, Lewis Mumford, one of three main contributors to the structure of the symposium, includes these words of caution derived from the decline of Rome:

In the third century A.D. an objective observer might well have predicted, on the basis of the imperial public works program, an increase in the number of baths, gladiatorial arenas, garrison towns, and aqueducts. But he would have had no anticipation of the real future, which was the product of a deep subjective rejection of the whole classic way of life and so moved not merely away from it but in the opposite direction. Within three centuries the frontier garrisons were withdrawn, the Roman baths were closed, and some of the great Roman buildings were either being used as Christian churches or treated as quarries for building new structures. Can anyone who remembers this historic transformation believe that the rate of scientific and technological change must accelerate indefinitely or that this technological civilization will inevitably remain dominant and will absorb all the energies of life for its own narrow purposes—profit and power? (Volume 2, pages 1142-1143.)

Our individual actions—our wayfaring journeys—it seems, have massive collective consequences. Not only those we purposefully strive for, but also the cumulative impact of our species on the blue planet that hosts us in the vastness of space.

We don’t mean any harm, but deadly harm we surely inflict.

Now that polar ice sheets are melting, the race is on to claim the fish and resources that our carelessness is opening unto us in the Arctic. Never mind the polar bears. We are out to consume the flesh of our planet, not realizing our own folly. How cruel, how thoughtless, how ironic is that? We plead innocent, but stand guilty—each one of us—nonetheless.

No, this is not the point of my story about our active engagement with our surroundings. But it is a pointed digression to suggest that minds which evolved to survive in a Paleolithic world may not be suited to a world we have largely modified for our own comfort. Can we further evolve in time to save ourselves and our world, or are we destined to thwart our own intentions—as I so often do in my dreams?

Perhaps we can stage a recall of our advanced model of humans and have chips inserted in our brains that will program us to recognize when we have done more damage than Earth can bear. I merely wish to point out that, as currently equipped, we have outrun our warrantee and are doomed for the scrapyard, proving our mortality yet again (as if more proof were needed).

As I have written, we act to make a difference in the world and, indeed, we are proving successful beyond our wildest dreams, but not in the ways we intended.

We took a wrong turn getting out of the Neolithic, inventing roads and engines and cities and weapons, which led to assembly lines, cars, atom bombs, and the fix we are now in. We would have done better striding on the legs we were born with instead of lounging in luxury motorcars. But that’s a far less-likely ending to our story.