Some migratory birds may use the stars to navigate by. And we humans have long relied on the stars to guide our travels at night. We are born to them, after all, to the sky at night as well as the day. Once we escape the glare of city lights, what else is there to see at night than the moon, planets, and stars?

We may not be taken by individual stars so much as the luminous array stretching across a dark sky. Who (in the northern hemisphere) has not oohed and aahed at the sight of Orion in winter months or the Milky Way spread overhead in summer?

Our primal relation to the stars is demonstrably preverbal. We utter appreciative noises that hint at the awe within us as we lift our eyes to them, but words generally fail us, as they fail astronauts gazing down on Earth from their capsules, shuttles, and stations in near space.

It’s not so much that stars have no meaning as that we aren’t accustomed to grandeur on so vast a scale. There’s nothing else like them. The stars may be remote, but the feelings they engender in us are at the core of our being aware. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Navigators, of course, have long steered by the stars. And along with clouds, winds, currents, and waves, have used them to populate remote Pacific islands. Astronomers make a living trying to understand the stars, along with astrophysicists and cosmologists. Tell an astrologer your time and place of birth, and he or she will plot the positions of sun, moon, and planets against the twelve houses of the zodiac, producing a horoscope that is yours alone.

Imagine modern life without images provided by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, or many orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope. I have to admit to being star-struck as a kid, ogling meteor showers, passing comets, and, lower down, displays of green and sometimes red auroras borealis.

I am struck by fireflies, too, and glints off the water, but anything to do with lights in the sky at night commands my attention, including airplane lights and sun-glinting satellites. The cosmic aesthetic may be ethereal, but it is compelling nonetheless.

Too, we are all born to the lore of the constellations that guided early explorers on their far travels across deserts, snowfields, and oceans alike. When we peer at the stars, we subjectively group them into familiar patterns, whose names we then cast onto the heavens. The constellations are in our minds more than in the stars, but we use them nonetheless to map the skies at night as seen from our respective locations on Earth.

From my perspective in midsummer Maine, Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre are high overhead amid the sweep of the Milky Way. Whether seen as bear or dipper, Ursa Major and Minor round the (north) pole star through the course of a year. Sagittarius the archer (or teapot) is more to the south in summer. On maps of stars of the Southern Hemisphere, I find Horologium the clock, Sextans the sextant, Musca the fly, Telescopium the telescope.

Constellations are a cooperative venture between meaningless stars and the pattern-seeking minds of humans on the lookout for meaning by projecting recognizable shapes onto the heavens. Even the patterns are illusions in being made up of stars distributed in three-dimensional space (not spread thinly across the supposed “dome” we make of the celestial regions). In that we do violence to the stars for the sake of making them conveniently familiar and comprehensible.

Seeing a parade of godlike figures along the zodiac is no different. All of astrology is in human heads, along with the naming of planets after ancient gods, envisioning the stars as circling the Earth in twenty-four hours, and the sun as gliding through the twelve constellations of the zodiac in a year’s time.

Such doings illustrate our human yen to engage the stars to discover their meaning. If we don’t find it there, then, well, we make it up to suit our needs at the time. We’ve been doing just that—and then painfully trying to undo it—throughout the course of recorded history. It is one thing to see what we see; something else again to take responsibility for our part in the process of putting mind and night image together as if they were one and the same.

That is a profound lesson the stars have to teach us because we now know there are no actual groupings of stars such as the houses and constellations we chart on our maps of the heavens. As I personally know that the figures I project onto the wavering filaments of the northern lights are a result of my mind doing its best to find familiar shapes where no such disciplined forms actually exist.

It might seem like our home planet is at the precise center of universal goings-on, but that is a story told by our Neolithic perspective, which gives no account of galaxies, arms of galaxies, minor suns in the arms of galaxies, or of minor planets circling such stars—of which we now know there must be billions.

It only strikes us that we occupy the center of the Great All because our minds are trapped in their black boxes in our heads, and that’s what we make of the puzzle of the outside world in a kind of grand guess about what may be out there in clear view above the horizon of what our naïve minds have any chance to understand.

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In themselves, stars are meaningless. It takes human minds looking through human eyes (and perhaps a telescope or pair of binoculars) to make stars meaningful. The meanings are in us, ready to be mapped onto stellar features and characteristics—position, motion, relationships, color, brightness, lines of spectral absorption or emission, and so on.

The meanings of stars are in our minds, as all meanings are in our minds.

What, then, are meanings?

I view meanings as the qualities or dimensions of a situation we discover in our minds, a situation made up of some combination of experiential and intellectual values, motivations, emotions, understandings, imaginings, sensory phenomena, remembrances, aesthetic qualities, comparisons, polarities, judgments, thoughts, attitudes, urges to action, and so on, all driven by our personal quota of the life force as delivered by our metabolism.

Meanings and situations are often associated with particular words as supplied by our culture and families for our personal use. These various qualities of inner awareness (what I refer to as dimensions of mind, experience, intellect, or consciousness) are present in greater or lesser degree, forming configurations in our minds that characterize the specific mental situations in which they arise, so constituting the meaning of a given situation in our experience as witnessed from our perspective at any given moment. The proper reference for our meaningful mental activity is the situation we are facing as we configure it at the time.

Words may symbolize such meanings, but the meanings are not in the words themselves. Meanings are properties of the experiential situations that words refer to or represent, however concrete or abstract, specific or general they may be.

I think of words as arising from (or being called forth by) what I sense as preverbal kernels of awareness. Each such kernel is a seed of meaning bearing its particular set of qualities of inner experience as a nugget, node, or item in awareness. I associate each such seed with a particular kind of experience kindled by life situations as they occur (present themselves) to my intelligence as so situated. When I speak, that seed sprouts and blossoms as a stream of words issuing from my lips.

If I find meaning in the stars, what I find is the inner meaning comprising the dimensions of my mental experience activated by a particular occasion for stargazing. That meaning is in me, not the stars. It is something I bring to the stars, not something they give to me.

As visual impressions, stars are gleaming, glistening nonentities, minute dots of radiant nothingness. I can’t hear them, touch them, smell them, heft them, taste them, collect them, or affect them in any way.

How can I engage the stars if they answer me only with silence and their chorus of fixed smiles overhead? I can see them arrayed before me much as I see grains of sand spread out as a beach. It is more their overall effect and relationships that I see, not individual stars.

I can’t even imagine how remote stars are from my everyday world. That remoteness is measured in light years, the distance light travels in the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun in one year. How far can light travel in 365 days at a speed of 186-thousand miles each second for every one of those days? How about 5.88 trillion miles, give or take?

Excluding the sun, our nearest stellar neighbor is the star that astronomers call Alpha Centauri (the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus), which is about 4.4 light years away, almost 26 trillion miles.

What experience can I have of something as remote from my everyday life as that? Contemplating that non-event, I feel overwhelmed by a hypothetical thought experiment of the most trivial kind. I’ve got errands to run and groceries to buy; how can anything as minute as Alpha Centauri rise above the horizon of my concerns? Who needs Alpha Centauri? Who needs the stars?

 

My contention in this blog is that I, you, we all play the same game. We are smoothers-over to suit ourselves. We can’t help it, our auxiliary loops of perceptual adjustment and refinement do the work for us in the name of clarity, good contrast, and proper emphasis. To a man, to a woman, we are biased toward our own predilections, the teachings of our personal life experience.

Far beyond Dr. Roget’s influence, the evidence is all around us in the polarities with which we apprehend the world. In the military battles, political in-fighting, religious strife, business practices, sporting contests, artistic preferences, social engagements, entertainments, literary tastes—we know what we like, like what we know, and dispense with the rest.

Our minds work in ways that are almost as pat as that. As set according to our gleanings from the survival niches we have sowed and harvested up until now. We are self-made in ways we hardly suspect because we filter our own interests out of our engagements, seeing those of our partners with far greater clarity than we do our own—almost as if our interests played no part in our dealings with the world.

As if our personal meanings were accurate, just, and true, while the unmeanings of those we engage with are no more than scrabble, scribble, scrawl, and daub.

I am certain that Dr. Roget never recognized such a state of affairs in his own mind. How could he have? He was convinced that he was writing about states of affairs in the world, not in his mind. As scientists filter out their very standpoints as trained scholars in dealing with a supposedly objective universe of pure events happening within reach of their instruments of observation. As the Pope is considered to be infallible in his judgments as referee of all proper human engagements. As politicians paint their opponents as caricatures, themselves as noble knights in armor. As Buddhists avoid human suffering by declaring the individual self to be a mere construct, so how can anyone suffer in a mind focused on nothingness?

Without our knowing, the answers we seek are contained in the questions we ask. We don’t want the truth; we want affirmation of our proprietary truth as only our loyal prejudgments can deliver it. The ones we recognize as familiar because they are already within us, safe from harm in our very own black boxes, where they are part and parcel of any effort we might make to engage the world beyond our perimeter.

Talk about self-interest, we can’t live without it, which puts everyone we interact with at a disadvantage in being respectively self-interested in their own welfare. If we weren’t self-ish to the core, without a fairy godmother, we wouldn’t survive for one day. So we tilt the playing field in our favor, and do just fine on the basis of foregone conclusions that aren’t conclusions at all but unquestionable axioms of personal faith.

Who could imagine discovering such an outrageous position backed up by no less an authority than Dr. Peter Mark Roget? I, for one. Lone wayfarer that I am in hot pursuit of any secrets my mind might be holding back. I identify with Roget in having a lifelong interest in the workings and foibles of my own mind.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of the very ideas I am talking about in this blog. I may be only one authority, but I certainly serve in that office for the only mind I have access to. As you yourself serve in that capacity in service of your own mind.

I am trying to provoke you into examining your credentials for holding that office. Are you as fair and impartial as you believe and maintain? Can any of us be that fair? Can we seriously believe we are rational beings in any sense of the word?

Rather than dissolve the constructs that bind us together as conscious beings, I truly believe our best option is to get to know ourselves without the self-support system that comes with the territory of being an earnest and well-meaning person.

I think we can work around that inherent support system by regarding ourselves as if we were total strangers, and had no power to edit the data on which our conclusions are based. Yes, we can see ourselves with new eyes, hear ourselves with new ears, correct our self-image by including the very data we’ve been suppressing for all of these years.

A priori, we are neither good nor bad. We are what we are, wayfarers on a minor planet for a brief instant in the history of the universe. Imagine going to our deaths not knowing who we are. What we have truly accomplished, and at what cost to others and to our home planet.

It is never too early to take stock, and to keep taking stock for the rest of our travels. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to get to know ourselves before we inflict unwitting harm on others, believing all the while we are blameless.

Facing into myself, that is my project in this blog. No one can do it for me. The buck stops with me. As it does with each one of us. If we don’t respectively rise to that challenge, we know that no one else ever will. We are born to that challenge. It comes with being human. If we don’t take it on, can we truly claim to have lived, or claim to have lived truly, being stuck in the darkness within our personal black boxes for the duration of our lives?

Thank you, Peter Mark Roget, for unwittingly reflecting that wisdom back onto your readers, if only we would take effort to follow the line of thinking you set before us in your work as a light shining on how our minds might be organized.

The moral being: that everything we notice from our privileged position sheds light on our minds if we will but look for that hidden message.

Mindfully play and watch baseball; mindfully pore through Roget’s Thesaurus; two down—mindfully ogle the stars yet to come, starting with my next post.

What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

It was in 1852 that Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

As I view it, that book gives us a portrait of his mind striving to map meanings onto words in English, a task he began early in life to support his own writing, and completed well after his retirement from medical practice in 1840.

In 1805 as a young writer, he first compiled for his own use “a system of verbal classification” that he later believed would be useful to all who take care in selecting words to suit their intended use in particular settings. Throughout his life, Roget kept his mind active in pursuit of a wide range of interests. The Thesaurus is but one of his many accomplishments—the one for which he is cited today, even if its author is only dimly remembered.

I am of two minds regarding Dr. Roget and his Thesaurus. I admire his identifying a thousand categories of meaning in his own mind, and then systematically sorting his personal vocabulary of words and phrases among those headings. As one who takes his own mind seriously, I identify with him in making that effort.

But, too, I feel almost claustrophobic in wending my way along the quaint and weedy pathways he treads among the meanings and feelings he discovered within himself so long ago. His era is not my era, his reverence for Latinate expressions not my reverence, his verbal style not my style.

I cringe at many of the word clusters he amassed from terms he believed to share a core sense of meaning. I find myself silently dusting off and editing his lists, which, fortunately, others have done overtly in updating his now antiquated original to suit the needs of changing times.

But even so, I feel pinched in reading through earlier editions of his Thesaurus as I try to get as close to the man as I can from my remote perspective in the twenty-first century. Mine is a labor of, if not love, then of fellowship with a kindred wayfarer on his then journey through a now forgotten inner life.

Some would claim “we are all one” and it should be no labor at all to enter the mind of another. Tich Nhat Hahn has declared “We are here to recover from the illusion of our separateness.” I have heard it said that “We can escape from the self-imposed prison of personal isolation by deconstructing through personal meditation the bonds imposed by the delusion of selfhood.”

But endless repetition of the mantra “We are all one” does not make it so. As a convinced separatist, I believe that each of us is born either with or to a unique genome, immune system, neural network, memory, lifelong accumulation of experience, dream life, and succession of daily engagements, which taken together confirm each of us as a unique and separate experiment for which he or she is wholly responsible for perfecting, much as Peter Mark Roget was born to the task of refining his system of verbal classification precisely for the lifetime he was granted.

If I meditate, I am struck by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings—the psychic Armageddon—that would result if our fundamental separation turned out to be delusionary, a mere construction and convention of the culture we live in.

In my view, the workings of evolution depend on us responding differentially to the forces acting upon us; we tailor ourselves to the niches we occupy for the sake of survival. If we all thought and acted as if we were of one mind, we would self-destruct in an instant.

Instead of solving our common problems, deconstructing our individual minds would bring about the end, not only of personhood, but all humankind. Only discrete selves can take responsibility for their actions, and join cooperatively with others who are doing the same as led by their respective—and demonstrably separate—points of view.

My discomfort at approaching Dr. Roget’s mental processes too closely is a faint shadow of what might happen if we knocked down the walls of separation between our individual minds. Imagine having access to others’ minds in such a way that we could witness their thoughts and feelings from the perspective of our unique life experience!

That thought doesn’t bear thinking. I value Roget’s Thesaurus as the compilation by another man of his semantic struggle to ensure that his words reflected his personal thinking, as he hoped the words of others would reflect theirs. He was out to provide each of us with a tool that would do just that in each case. I find his effort—if worn and musty in places—to be not only admirable but remarkable in creating a set of word clusters that provide partial access to the workings of his subjective mind while, at the same time, are broad enough to allow the rest of us to do somewhat the same.

 

My last two posts (Nos. 462 & 463) have been about my view on our mental perspectives on changes we bring about through our own actions, or that some aspect of the world brings about in such a way to affect our perception. I also dealt with such changes in an earlier post (No. 393). In this post I will conclude my treatment of our human engagement with baseball, leading to our engagement with Roget’s Thesaurus in the coming several posts.

Have I been convincing about time and space in relation to baseball? Perhaps not. But there it is, an idea in one man’s mind, based on his serial linkage of perception, judgment, action, and outward engagement. Blogging requires me to put my ideas on consciousness and mind to the test in every post. That is, put them on the block for you to judge and buy or not as you wish.

I ask you to bounce my ideas on time and space off the walls of your own back box to see what you can make of them in relation to your own life experience of change when you are still, and again when you are moving. Do you see any difference?

Having raised the topic in relation to baseball, I will take a look at my two styles of hiking in the same light. In one, I stride ahead along the trail, concentrating on where to place my next step. Then I stop every few minutes to look around and listen to the new surroundings I have come to. In the first style I move right along with an emphasis on getting somewhere new. In the second, I stay perfectly still in order to appreciate the new place I have gotten myself to.

Go and stop; stop and go. That’s me on the trail, alternating my engagement with my surroundings by adopting two general strategies, one of taking step after step; the other of taking no steps at all. Always staying aware of what’s happening around me, but in two very different ways. Taken together, those alternating means of wayfaring provide me a good sense of the terrain I am passing through, while moving me ahead toward my current destination.

While moving ahead, I appreciate the steepness of the trail, the footing, available handholds, ice, water, and both birdsong and squirrel chatter as I travel. While standing still, I notice vistas of hills, ponds, ridges, treelines, spider webs, roots, brooks, shadows, insects, wildflowers, mossy banks, and other details of a setting I will likely never see in the same way again.

While driving my car in a sitting position, I can fix my attention on one thing (say, the license plate of the car ahead of me) giving me a snapshot in time. Or I can take a much broader view of the roadway ahead sweeping through my field of vision as I speed at fifty miles-an-hour in the opposite direction. In my mind, I discover two different strategies for dealing with change; how about you?

One last word about baseball. As played during the World Series (when skills have been honed for a full season), it is one of the highest forms of performance art. Imagine having to express yourself using only a ball and a bat. Put two well-rehearsed casts of characters (teams) together, playing from identical scripts, but from complementary perspectives, like Yin and Yang, taking turns on offense and defense. One cast limited in one scene to the perspective of time, the other to the perspective of space. Let each cast play at its best.

Then switch them around so Yin becomes Yang, and vice versa. Let them have at it again from where they left off in the last inning. Repeat that cycle for nine acts and see how they stand at the ending in the bottom of the ninth inning (or, if the score is tied, in overtime), how many rounds of the diamond each cast has made.

Award the year’s trophy to the cast that works best together, making the most of their individual talents at shifting from time to space, and back again. Discipline, that is the secret. Aesthetic prowess and discipline. True art for the people. Time and again; space and again. A true celebration of human perception and action, what we know as life itself, both outer and inner.

There you have it, a tribute to creativity under highly restrictive conditions, using only a ball and a bat to stir up almost every emotion humans can bear. Genius, pure genius. It happens every year. And fans love it because it is their show all along.

 

A sense of space results from our having to subtract our own motions to be sure of where we are in relation to objects in space, such as opposing players, bases, balls, and sidelines.

A sense of time results from viewing changes we are not responsible for—and so require no compensation on our part—as exemplified by the shifting hands of a clock, regular ticks of a metronome, sweeping shadow cast by the edge of a sundial aligned with Earth’s axis, complementary proportions of upper and lower reservoirs of fine white sand in an hourglass, or the looming approach of a ball hurled in our direction.

Scientists who claim to find time and space in the universe are casting their own abilities, perceptions, and cultural calibrations onto what they observe. Our customary senses of time and space work very well if we apply them consistently to personal observations within the normal range of conditions we are used to.

But projecting such observations—as Albert Einstein did in imaginative thought experiments that transcended the everyday conditions of his mind as cast not only into the universe but while traveling at the speed of light—is a very different matter. He meant his thoughts as goodwill ambassadors from Earth to the far reaches of unobservable space, but in so doing, he violated any conventional limitations imposed by our normal tolerance during extreme acceleration and deceleration in which he could only assume they held true, even while far exceeding any reasonable expectation for our bodily integrity under such conditions. After almost a century, judgments are still pending on whether spacetime is a helpful addition to our view and understanding of events in far space. As far as I am aware, the evidence in favor is not all that compelling.

Speaking of great leaps, it seems a far stretch to get from baseball to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But what I am pointing to is the very different skill sets opposed in offensive and defensive encounters in each play within each inning of each game of baseball.

Both teams may be in the same league, but the players are sure to be processing each play in a game from very different perspectives. Of course they are, being unique individuals trained and managed differently, and coming as they do from different cities and cultures.

All of which adds to the allure of baseball as a medium for individual players to truly express themselves in their own ways. And for fans to respond in kind. Baseball is no thought experiment. It is played in the minds of players and fans, but batters must hit the ball in real time, and fielders catch that same ball as it speeds through real space.

Fortunately for us, through practice and great effort, players get good at performing such acts under difficult conditions, and the rest of us genuinely enjoy the gripping engagements that result in our mindful experience of baseball.

The same can be said of our mindful experiences witnessing or participating in soccer, ballet, ballroom dancing, Olympic Games, cribbage, poker, chess, bird watching, mountaineering, sailing, cooking, dining, glass blowing, filmmaking, jazz, playing an instrument, singing, and all the other engagements that thrill us inside-out and make us glad to be alive in that space at that time.

Do I know what I am talking about? How do I know that I know what I think I know? I don’t believe I can know anything for sure. I make stabs in the dark based on situational insights and conjectures. What I have in this instance is a feeling. A sense of the texture of my thinking. Like fine sand on a shore darkened by the sweep of an incoming tide. I find that texture reassuring. It is more an aesthetic judgment, a sense of pleasing relationships shared during the run of ideas through my mind. In this case, ideas about baseball as played out in time and space.

I am speaking here of my sense of balance, harmony, unity, symmetry, and coherence at this moment. I am pushing that envelope of senses as far as I can in applying it to my experience of baseball. All the while gauging the fittingness of that envelope to my train of thought.

Space and time are two perspectives on change—change due to my own actions when I am in motion, change due to some other motive force when I am still. Both sorts of change calibrated in units agreeable to the culture I grew up in.

Space gives me a perspective on changes as I move about; time gives me a different perspective on changes that do not flow from what I am doing. In that sense, I make space happen around me by moving my body. Time happens to me as a response to changes taking place around me.

Two kinds of changes: changes I create by acting in the world; changes I perceive by the world acting on me. Two different segments of my ongoing loops of engagement. Self-changes; it-changes. Like the batter hitting the ball with his bat, or the fielder catching that same ball in his mitt while running and reaching, I switch from one perspective to the other. Often, while I am acting and perceiving at the same moment, I take the conjoined perspective of spacetime, a way of dealing simultaneously with two very different sorts of change at once.

In my next post I will extend this line of thought to my style of hiking. And question whether or not you recognize two different strategies for dealing with change in your personal experience.

It is difficult to appreciate the profound difference between offense and defense in the game of baseball. From the batter’s point of view as he awaits the pitch, he is almost rooted in the ground like a tree, unmoving, watching for signs that will tell him whether or not to swing.

When the pitch comes, again from the batter’s point of view, the ball quickly grows larger and larger, not by any doing of the watchful batter, but seemingly on its own, like an asteroid bearing down on the Earth.

Before he swings, if he does, the batter’s eyes are the only eyes in the stadium that look from that exact perspective, so exist in time, wholly removed from the approaching ball that grows larger in his eyes as it subtends an increasingly wider arc on his retina due to no effort on his part. Just as we all observe the sun moving though the sky due to no effort of our own, its motion serving as the very standard of uncaused movement by which we gauge time itself, and set our timepieces accordingly.

But if the batter swings against the oncoming ball, his personal actions shift him from an orientation in time to an orientation in space within which he is accountable for his movements if he is to keep his bearings, the smack of the ball against the swinging bat being a consummation of his framework of time turning abruptly into a framework of space, requiring him to compensate for his motions if he is to keep a clear head, because now the ball’s decreasing size is the batter’s doing, and he owns it by watching the struck ball fly out over the field of play as fielders jockey to be in the right place to catch that very ball when it returns to Earth. While he, meantime, picks up speed on his run to first base, no longer watching and waiting as time passes, but now on the go along one leg of the diamond, moving, shifting his position in space with all the speed he can muster.

I first became aware of watching and listening in time and acting in space during the opening minute of the film, Lawrence of Arabia, a sequence in which the figure of a distant camel (viewed through layers of desert air shimmering with heat waves) looms larger, ever larger, as I, the stationary viewer in my theater seat, experienced a sense of change over time because I was just sitting there, doing nothing to affect the illusion that the camel was growing larger by moving toward me on its own without any help from me.

Sitting still watching the opening of the movie, I had no need to compensate for any effect I might have had on the camel, so the change in size came to me gratis, on its own, much as the sun and moon apparently move through the sky without any help from me (though secretly powered by Earth’s rotation, which, unappreciated, dips the horizon of my silent chariot, creating the illusion that time is passing before my eyes).

That scene with the looming camel opened the eyes of my understanding, giving me a Eureka! moment in which I grasped in a new way something I had never doubted before. We still talk of “sunsets” and “moonrises,” when in both cases we should admit to witnessing Earth rises and Earth falls or turnings.

The preceding excursion may sound like nonsense to you, but it is the kind of nonsense that when ignored, lets us think of time and space as properties of the universe when, in truth, change may be such a property, but calibrated changes in the case of time and space are properties of human discernment that we unwittingly project onto the universe, while they are truly our own doing because representing different ways of our engaging the world.

Without situated or moving observers being present to impose a calibrated framework on change, there would be no sense of time or space, only change, uncalibrated change in appearance without reference to standardized units of measurement

As Immanuel Kant maintained, time and space exist in our perspectives before we cast those perspectives onto events in the world. In his terminology, time and space exist a priori in our minds and ways of perceiving. We bring them with us as our frames of reference for judging changing events we may come across; they are not inherent properties of the universe.

Or of, since this post deals with baseball, baseball itself. Time and space are inherent properties of the way pitchers, batters, catchers, and fielders see the world around them. Depending on whether or not they are moving or stationary in their points of view, which travel with them wherever they go.

In Baseball, I think we sense the difference between the viewpoints of opposing teams at any given moment, depending on whether they are scattered around the spacious green field of play, or stand in serial order still and alone at the plate awaiting the pitch that is about to come, and so must decide how to respond to that pitch.

That is, players’ perspectives are determined by whether they are moving about the field under their own motive power—and so constantly compensating for their ever-shifting positions and changes in perspective—or they are still-as-a-post, alert, yet poised, waiting for the ball to appear due to no effort on their part, so requiring no compensation, but expecting the ball to appear as propelled by the pitcher’s motive force. To hit the ball where they want it to go, batters have to begin their swings at just the right moment in time. Fielders, to catch a fly ball, have to be in the right position in space.

Hitting pitched balls hurtling toward you and catching balls having trajectories in space are two entirely different skills. Some players can do both, others can do one or the other, still others can do neither very well (but they can steal bases, say, or pitch screwballs). Not everyone makes a great baseball player. As it is, players vary tremendously in their skillsets, some being able to play every position, others being specialists in doing one thing exceedingly well. It takes all sorts of players to complete a team.

Having here raised the issue of time and space as aspects of baseball, I will continue and conclude the discussion in my next two posts (Nos. 463 & 464).