It is not by whim or accident that I visualize loops of engagement with nature as fundamental to mind and consciousness. Our every cell requires water and nutrients if it is to perform its biological function. We are some seventy-percent water, after all, not as self-contained ponds, but immersed in a lifelong flow that requires continual replenishment, each cell drawing its share.

In turn, our conscious minds flow from the engagements of such cells one with another. That flow is not limited to brain or body, but extends into the ambient of our surroundings, the natural medium to which we are born, as one-celled organisms are born to and interact with the fluids that sustain them and dispense the wastes and chemicals they secrete.

The story of nature is simply this: One thing leads to another. And another. And another. There is no stopping it, as I learned from building dams of sticks to divert meltwater when I was much younger. What I could not do was stop the flow.

And now I cannot stop my mind from running on from one thought to another. Sleep provides a brief respite, but each morning I awaken to those streaming thoughts. Our brains are not self-contained, any more than the stem of a plant is self-contained. We are all caught in the middle between input and output, as between dark, damp soil and sunlit air.

As our one-celled ancestors were caught in the middle of what they took and gave to the ocean around them. Two-way engagement is the essence of life, including mental life. Insofar as we are natural beings, our engagements with nature are of the essence.

All life forms, including fungi, plants, animals, and others, take part in ongoing engagements with their natural surroundings. Those with mediating selves that influence the transformation of perceptual input into behavioral output in response to the controlling influence of their inner states, whether consciously or unconsciously, I would say are equipped with minds of varying degrees of complexity and sophistication.

Any such creature that can direct its sensory attention selectively to one thing and not another in a given situation—and behave accordingly—meets my minimal requirement for consciousness. In that sense, consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.

Even if those choices are decided by trial and error, and for a time exert an influence on subsequent behaviors, I see them spread across a range of mental abilities that I would welcome as mindful. I see apes as being more mindful than monkeys, monkeys more mindful than dogs, dogs more than cats, in turn more than birds, more than fish, more than worms (which I rate as about on a par with plants).

Our respective repertoires of behavioral options—and the shadings between them—tell the world who we are. How we choose among them in given situations reflects our situated intelligence.

A good part of the world we claim as a resource for ourselves has a mind of its own and sees the world very differently than we do. Our careless and heavy-handed method of mountaintop removal to get at seams of coal is an example of human abuse of native Earthling intelligence. Fracking to get at buried oil and gas is another. Burning the products of such efforts to generate heat and power is a third. Blinded by our commercial appetites so we can see nothing else, humanity is at war with its planetary habitat as well as with its own judgment and intelligence.

Our collective engagements with nature are a tragic shambles. Yet we keep blundering on as if our blindness and insensitivity didn’t matter. As if we didn’t have a choice. As if we were mindless.

Many of our sorry engagements with nature aren’t engagements at all; they are brutal, bullying assaults—the antithesis of sensitive engagements. As a species, we are ending as each of us begins, in that dark space below the level of worms.

This is my cantankerous self talking, my inner curmudgeon, voice of the baneful discrepancies that overshadow my personal engagements with nature. Nature is the First Big Thing. It will also be the Last. If it isn’t the Next Big Thing to prove that humanity is on the road to recovery, we won’t make the cut. Lowly horseshoe crabs will outlast us all. They don’t foul their nests as we do, and they have lived in nature hundreds of times longer than we ever will.

In truth, wild nature is dead. Starting with the advent of agriculture and deforestation more than seven thousand years ago, we have killed it off. What’s left is nature managed by humans for human benefit alone.

In Maine, the mountain lions are gone, the wolves, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, great auks, Labrador ducks—like woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers before them. Now spruce-fir forests are being driven north by a warming climate, hardwood forests moving in to replace conifers with maples and oaks.

Changing habitats mean changing lives. Within a human lifetime, Maine will have a climate like South Carolina has today. Instead of facing into the challenge and taking responsibility for our collective impact on our home planet, we talk of technological fixes, artificial intelligence, and fleeing to Mars. So much for science, philosophy, religion, art, and our other notable accomplishments. So much for nature. So much for us.

Life is a matter of sustaining a continuous two-way flow between our embodied minds and the outer worlds they inhabit. I refer to such streams of exchange as loops of engagement. Those who have the luxury of writing such thoughts as these are a dying breed. When our native intelligence is replaced by machine intelligence—as I see is happening all around me—who will be left to write the critique?

And that brings me full-circle to considering the so-called rules of our natural engagements that I began early on in my posts on engagement with nature (Reflection 415). To continue the list I began there, here I will add other proposed rules as drawn from the thoughts I have had since raising the issue.

Proposed rules for engaging with nature:

  1. Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe.
  2. To discover the Earth, first know yourself.
  3. Judge what is good for you by what is good for the Earth.
  4. Ask yourself: What is Earth’s situation with a throng of humans on board?
  5. Think: You are built on the same plan as the worm—a hollow tube open at both ends, with a brain at one end but not the other.
  6. If you want something to believe in, try sunlight, air, and damp soil.
  7. What if we split Earth like an avocado so we could mine the iron at its core?
  8. Engage without depleting or spoiling, that is the art.
  9. Earth is here for the long haul; what about us?
  10. Our first duty to Earth: Do no harm.

With my next post I will turn to consider the second level of our engagements with the outside world—those with the cultural setting to which we are born.

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421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

Watersheds are land basins that often contain large amounts of soil. Soil, by definition, is porous. It consists of particles of rock and organic material nestled more-or-less closely together (more closely in the case of clayey soils, less in sandy or gravely ones). Spaces between particles invite water to flow in-and-around them, picking up air and dissolved nutrients and minerals, which that underground water conveys to thirsty roots and microbes on its relentless journey downslope toward the ocean.

The early stages of that journey do not take place across the land so much as within it, by winding routes between soil particles of remarkable complexity leading on to more and more of the same. We are fascinated by the wonder of ocean depths and outer space, while the wonder of the soil beneath our feet eludes us. The French peasant who held up a clod of soil from his field and exclaimed (in translation), “This is France!” had it almost right. He might have said, “This is life!”

The local transport system of individual plants is an extension of the watershed in which it grows. Powered by evaporation through the surface of leaves, a lifting force draws water taken in from damp soil upward into the presence of chlorophyll, where it intercepts energy from the sun, ionizes, and frees a hydrogen ion that triggers the process leading to the production of glucose—a form of sugar containing energy in a form plants can use for maintenance, growth, repair, reproduction, and defense.

With roots in the soil, leaves in the air, vascular plants such as trees have the best of both worlds. If they were not able to rise aboveground to spread their leaves in the sun, or able to draw water up to those leaves, plants would exist only in areas where water, air, and sunlight come together at ground level—humid places such as where nonvascular plants like mosses and liverworts grow in glens and at the bases of cliffs, or in bright and shallow wetlands, streams, and ponds.

But by enabling the aerial, sunlit world of wind and leaves to combine with the dark, subterranean watery world of soil and roots, plants bring two aspects of a watershed together, the upper and lower, light and dark, in a way that radically expands the biosphere’s potential for growth, producing the lush world of sap, fruit, seeds, and leaves where every meadow vole, weasel, hawk, person, fungus, and bacterium lives today.

Plants are the creator of this modern world, and watersheds throughout the biosphere are their patrons, mentors, supporters, and protectors.

In a very real sense, brains, too, are watershed extensions, elaborate expressions of damp soils and sunlight. They take in energy from two sources, food (including drink), and sensory or molecular stimulation through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Food fuels bodily life-support processes, sensory stimulation provides the signal that activate the components of consciousness such as perception, memory, understanding, meaning, thought, judgment, and subsequent behavior.

Sensory stimulation sends ions across brain cell boundaries, causing currents to pulse toward axon terminals, where neurotransmitters carry those signals to others next in line, creating sensory patterns of activation and inhibition that spread across groups of neurons, and those patterns can be compared point-for-point with other patterns, creating consonant or dissonant signals, such as those that provoke consciousness.

Consciousness, then, is an extension of the engagement between a mind and the watershed that provides it not only with life, but patterned sensory stimulation in addition. To even partially understand consciousness, we must consider the life-sustaining environment in which it occurs, the patterned stimuli impinging on the senses within that environment, as well as the actions with which particular minds respond to that evocative sensory stimulation, so constituting a particular engagement between our minds and their surrounding worlds.

In my thinking, a mind interprets or translates patterned sensory stimulation as a situation laden with meaning in light of previous experience (sensory stimulation such as one or two lanterns shining from a tower is not meaningful in itself), and organic intelligence in that situation judges what response to make that would be most appropriate to that (perhaps unique) situation.

Minds, then, convert watersheds, sensory signals, and actions into meaningful life situations, and it is those interpreted situations that minds respond to, not watersheds, signals, or actions in themselves. We all develop repertories of situations we are familiar with, and courses of action to take in responding to just that range of situations. Our world at any given time is a construct composed of such situations as delimited by their specific mix of dimensions to which our intelligence responds, the situation serving as the psychic environment standing in for the “real” environment consisting of watershed, stimulation, and appropriate action.

I assume that watershed, sunlight, and gravity contribute to the context within which consciousness exists in the natural world. In watershed I include a sense of the natural resources available in a given situation. In sunlight I include climate, weather, season, wind, and other natural phenomena. In gravity I include the unstated but assumed background of forces to be dealt with, including mental habits, routines, rituals, prejudices, and other psychic influences.

If I were to hold up a clod of soil today, I might well say, “This is consciousness!”

I carry on like this because I think we often overlook the natural influences that affect everyday consciousness and behavior. Even in a cubicle in a skyscraper in a modern city, we depend on water and food that undoubtedly come from watersheds we may not be aware of. Without such unacknowledged watersheds, urban civilization would not exist, as ancient Rome would not have existed without its roads, baths, and aqueducts. Such hidden dimensions of experience are implicit in our modern-day engagements with artificial intelligence, the internet, drone strikes, and covert security operations.

In a very real sense, modern consciousness rests on basic factors such as watersheds that many of us are oblivious to, yet support our minds in everything we do. To the extent that we might mindlessly undermine those natural factors, such unstated assumptions pose a potential danger to our well-being and security.

415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

Beyond serving as citizens of four great worlds at once (nature, culture, community, family), in the end each of us stands on her own legs as his own unique person. So many factors make up our identities, no other person on Earth has a mind like the one in our private, mysterious, and, yes, figurative black box.

In that sense, each one of us is an experiment to see what we can make of the gifts the universe sends our way. Since evolution cannot predict what fixes we will get ourselves into, it gives us the makings of a mind we can fashion into the very one we need to serve our widely varying purposes.

It is hard to tease out the separate influences of nature, culture, community, or family, so it is easier for us take responsibility for ourselves as agents in charge of our own perceptions, judgments, behaviors, and engagements as a result of the lives we actually lead. We can apply this approach to whatever level of activity we are operating on at the time.

This does not make evolution into some kind of genius with universal forethought. Rather, reliance on personal consciousness works for us today because it was the only thing that worked in earlier stages of our species’ development. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Those who fit the former case will survive, the latter die off. Evolution is that efficient, and that blunt.

So here we are, standing on the shoulders of countless past survivors who in turn met the challenges of their times. As we offer our shoulders to those who come after us. We can’t necessarily provide the support our descendants will need, but at least we can offer what we have in the form of the lives we actually lead.

Which raises a question. What rules of engagement with the natural world might be appropriate for us to live by in working toward a more secure future for the extended family of Earthlings that will follow our faint tracks? Certainly Love your mother is good advice, but no one yet has found a way to forge that advice into a firm rule.

I’ll settle for: Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe. That ought to cover it. Don’t just do as I say, but do what you feel is appropriate in your individual case. And please note that in “our” I include every Earthling of all species.

Think in terms of a water cycle that includes rain and snow, wetlands, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, oceans, and ocean currents, not just your minute portion of such a cycle. Think in terms of watersheds, not political boundaries. Think in terms of natural processes, not products. Think in terms of habitats and ecosystems, not places on a map. Think in terms of quality of life for all species, not just your amassing a fortune in money or possessions. What you “have” is a life in progress, not what we now would call a personal possession. Life is one thing we may have but cannot own.

Could we ever learn to be conscious in such terms? I’ll put it like this: if we can’t, then we’re not long for this Earth. The signs are all around us. Ebola is a clear example of how infectious diseases will thrive among our overpopulated and overcrowded living conditions in the future. It will be with us from now on. ISIS is an example of what will happen if we base our behavior on selectively narrow cultural beliefs instead of a true understanding of the workings of the natural world. And AI (artificial intelligence) is an example of what the corporate-commercial parody of intelligence leads to as a substitute for the authentic intelligence we will need to guide each one of us as an agent of personal freedom and understanding.

My long study of my own mind leads me to entertain such thoughts. We are in this world together, each playing our part in preparing the future of life on Earth. The trends I have pointed to above suggest where we, together, are heading. Taking our planet hostage as we go.

I firmly believe we can do better. And that doing better is up to us as conscious individuals who take responsibility for the lives we lead, not as mindless victims of the most narrowly focused and aggressive among us.

As I said, each one of us is an experiment. Life is a test of our situated intelligence, such as it is.

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.

 

These days, technologists seem to believe that intelligence is one mental property applicable across the spectrum of all imaginable problems as if our know-how were somehow universal, but that can’t be the case. Beethoven being Beethoven, he did not propose a theory of general relativity, and Einstein being Einstein didn’t compose nine world-famous symphonies.

Machines will never possess universal experience, which is why I believe they will never fulfill the expectations of earnest engineers who maintain otherwise.

In humans, intelligence is called for by the situation an individual faces under the conditions that prevail in her experience at that moment. There is a rhinoceros in the road ahead; My best friend died of cancer; My ice cream fell out of the cone and is now a splat in the road. Such a situation has many (what I call) dimensions such as affect, values, understanding, precedents, judgment, meaning, motivation, relevant memories, confidence, humor, temperament, integrity, coherence, priorities, beliefs, imagination, and so on.

No two experiential moments contain the same mix or proportion of such conditions. Each is subjectively unique, so must be dealt with as it is constituted this time around.

Watch a baseball game and you will know what I mean. No two instants have the same constitution. Each must be dealt with under the pressures that develop on the spot. Given that eighteen individual players grouped into two teams are playing off against each other for nine innings of alternately playing offense and defense, the possibilities are infinitely variable. Which is why fans face each game with hope that this time their team will win.

The same is true for each game of cribbage, chess, golf—and for everything else people concentrate on over time. Intelligence exists on a variable scale. It is composed of myriad dimensions arrayed differently in each situation as it develops.

Can any manmade machine even mimic the diverse forms of intelligence it takes for one person just to get through one hour of one day? Machines may be able to master routine tasks, but when in life is a routine performance good enough?

The more I experience the effects that artificial intelligence (AI) imposes on my life, the more I see it as a parody of our native situated intelligence. Once upon a time, corporations employed humans to communicate with the public by answering phones and letters in person. Now I get to speak to or hear from a digital algorithm on a computer. An algorithm meant to serve as the interface between humans and the coded persona of a corporation now risen to the status of a person. Ha! That claim may fool the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t fool me. I can tell if I am facing off with a person or a machine.

Think of all the real persons put out of work as sacrificial victims to the technology of the day. The people who benefit from AI now get the checks that formerly went out to people who performed skilled work for a living. Men and women who sewed clothing, made cars, wrote letters, spoke with human-powered voices on the telephone. People who with just pride took responsibility for their engagement with the public.

No longer. Last January, I learned that my younger brother had died from an unsigned form letter sent out by New York Life Insurance Company trying to establish contact with the beneficiary of a policy he had taken out. For eight months my brother’s Social Security number was listed on the SS Death Index (SSDI) by  unaccountable mistake, from May 8, 2013, to January 23, 2014. After eight months of inaction, on January 23, New York Life issued the anonymous inquiry printed by a machine. On or about January 12, my brother actually did die alone in his home, so when I requested a wellness check by the local police on January 27, they found him dead on the floor from a heart attack he’d suffered after unwittingly being listed as dead for those many months. Thank you, AI, for your kind attention. While bloodless corporations are now legally counted as persons, flesh-and-blood persons have been demoted to the status of mere data.

In self-defense, I hereby issue the following reminder of the many dimensions of human intelligence activated during the course of our daily engagements, as based on my 30 years of keeping track of my own mind in its engagements with family, community, culture, and nature.

In my several families over the years, intimate contact is maintained with grandparents, parents, brothers, relatives, friends, and a variety of pets, forming the durable core of my mental life. I won’t detail any of those engagements here, but ask you to substitute your own such engagements at the core of your own mental life. Clearly, none of us would be who we are without our family engagements. I learned about marriage, birth, death, divorce, and all the other significant milestones of leading a life in my family. I experienced the essential nature of shelter in a wide variety of houses, apartments, barracks, dormitories and campgrounds lived in over the years. I learned about indoor plumbing in relation to tubs, toilets, sinks, and leaking hoses and faucets. My engagements with beds taught me almost all I know about the making and moving of them, washing sheets, moving furniture, sleep, sickness, and sex. Family closets held all sorts of delicious secrets, which I gradually discovered over the years. My families have taught me about hobbies, possessions, collections, jokes, games, birthdays, holidays, vacations, cooking, cleaning, and watching TV. The obvious truth is that none of us would be here today if it weren’t for our families. And I will point out that artificial intelligence is never tempered by having anything in its background resembling a family.

On the community level of mental engagement, where perception, emotion, and action are simultaneously active at the same focus, that’s where we learn about jobs and working for a living, about shopping, getting things repaired, going to school, the medical center, catching the train or the bus. Think how different obtaining food at a supermarket today is from hunting and gathering it in the wild, or even using crude tools to dig up the soil to plant seeds. All the communities I have lived in have police and fire stations, town offices, neighborhoods, and shingles declaring the presence of doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychiatrists, and other stalwarts of the professional class. Recycling is a community effort, as is garbage disposal. My first community introduced me to a variety of religions identified by the various architectures of their meeting places, and to the burial grounds where their former members were thought to reside.

My engagements with my culture have given me speech, reading, writing, books, poetry, numbers, roadmaps, and animated films. Banks are cultural edifices where money (enabler of many of our engagements) is housed in great vaults (think of your impression of  just the steel door, latches, and locks in your first bank). Without culture, I would be deprived of music, art, literature, and professional sports. Real estate is a product of my culture, as is the idea of ownership, travel, time and space. My experience with tools is a gift from my culture, which sponsors hardware stores, camera stores, computer stores, fabric stores, and in Hulls Cove, Maine, The Tool Barn where I recycle old tools for my own use. I am at home in my culture, and an outlander in most others.

Which leaves engagements with nature on the most fundamental level of them all. My experience of terrain, salt and fresh water, streams, lakes, watersheds, habitats, soil, wildlife, birds, primates, mammals, stars and planets, day and night, the seasons, rocks, plants, lichen, mosses, conservation, and survival itself—all these are products of my engagements with nature. We are born to the planet that brought us forth from its own flesh as Earthlings. We are indeed children of the third planet out from the sun. Its ways are our ways. Its thoughts are our thoughts. Its fate is our fate.

That is a brief summary of the engagements with the outside world that stoke our native intelligence and make us who we are as conscious beings. We are not intelligent in and by ourselves. We depend absolutely on such interactions to stimulate, shape, and hone our human intelligence, each in keeping with the influence of nature, culture, community, and family.

By comparison, artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. It is simply another tool—actually a weapon—corporations have devised in preparation for coming wars, hoping to gain an edge over other warring nations by taking the initiative of starting the last battle. With the result that the autonomy we have won over the past ten-thousand years is being taken from us by stealth in the name of technological progress. AI, I think, makes no improvement in our life situations. Rather, it is rapidly diminishing our remaining days on this Earth. Human consciousness itself is being demeaned as second rate, as human values are being demeaned, along with human skills, human emotions, human strivings, human priorities.

This post is a reminder that this is happening in our brief span on our home planet. I offer it now that we realize what we are about to lose. We’ve come all this way, for this. This travesty of human ignorance in triumphal guise as artificial intelligence while it is just the opposite, the dehumanization of the planet that has borne us this far. When it comes to intelligence, ours is made possible by such goings-on as I have tried to suggest in these last two posts. AI isn’t even in the running. An aberration, it is the end of the road.

 

Darwin’s interest 140 years ago was in comparing human minds to animal minds from the point of view of evolution. I devoted my last post to a brief treatment of his findings. My interest today is in comparing the dimensions of my personal experience of my own mind with the notion of artificial intelligence.

The basic assumption is that artificial intelligence is in some way based on the genuine article, human intelligence, of which any given mind is but one unique example. What is the connection between the two?

Introspection has a bad name because scientists keep imposing their so-called objective standards on its fundamentally subjective nature, so any qualities of individual intelligence keep getting thrown out with the bath water. Accepting the intimate, subjective nature of personal experience, I offer my findings concerning the facets of intelligence I discover in myself, not because I am egotistical, but because my findings are based on a thirty-years study of the one mind I have immediate access to, which happens to be my own.

What I find is a mind divided into three parts: perception, judgment, and action. The first part answers the question, “What’s happening?” The second, “What does that mean?” or “So what?” The third, “What should I do?” The three parts taken in serial fashion lead to my engagement with the external world, which I divide onto four levels of nature, culture, community, and family.

My proposal is that my intelligence is spread between all four parts of the continuous and ever-changing loop of engagement between my inner and outer worlds. Perception contributes its share, judgment its, my behavior its, and the world I live in contributes its share on the levels of nature, culture, community, and the family I live in.

My mind absolutely depends on there being an outside world to connect with and seek guidance from. The natural and humanized world I am born to contains a good share of my personal understanding and intelligence. It is up to the inner parts of my mind to figure out how to engage the external parts so that I fit in as an integral part of our common planet’s share of universal intelligence.

In this post I can’t fit in much more than a partial listing of some of the dimensions I discover from studying my own experience in perceiving, judging, acting on, and engaging with the inner and outer worlds I have been given for exactly one lifetime.

I start with the dimensions of my personal perception, which include: arousal, excitement, expectancy, curiosity, my personal perspective at the time, my outlook, the sensory qualities I discover, the level of detail I observe, and the concentration and attention with which I reach out as the price I pay to observe anything at all.

The result of that effort leads to a sensory impression made up of contributions from my various senses, the clarity with which I regard that impression, the aesthetic framework within which I receive it as an integral image composed of many complex relationships, together with the awe and wonder that well up within me. Leading to a recognition of what it is I am witnessing, an interpretation of its nature, and a linking of that interpretation to conceptions I have derived from previous rounds of perception.

Then my faculty of judgment takes over from perception and tries to figure out the significance and meaning of that phase of my engagement. Immediately I am confronted by the situation I am in as modified by my current perception. That situation takes shape as its various dimensions become established by my streaming experience and engagement. I understand what’s going on to some degree, derive meaning from that understanding, partly by intuition, partly by direct perception of the latest bulletin from the exterior.

I compare that meaningful understanding to what it was a few moments ago, developing a sense of how things are developing in comparison to what they were when I was last moved to act, that comparison giving rise to a delta signal that spurs my current state of conscious awareness. I am immediately aware of the polarity of what’s happening from my point of view—whether it makes a good or bad fit to my expectations.

That disparity stirs up a new round of thought, which I measure against my biological (survival) values, taking into account the emotions I find welling up as a result of my expanding experience. My intuition and imagination come into play, stirring my judgment to review my priorities in this particular situation and come to a decision of how best to direct my life force into an appropriate course of action.

If I recognize the drift of the situation as being one I am familiar with, I resort to a reflex or habitual action, mimicry of actions I have seen others perform, familiar routines dictated by prejudice (prejudgment) or ideology. I set a goal and begin to plan my physical response through a particular project, sequence of steps involving relationships I can count on with others, or call on familiar skills, gestures, postures, and other behaviors that might help me reach the goals I have set for myself on this particular occasion.

With the result that perception and judgment have led me to act in the world on a level appropriate to the situation I believe myself to be in.

In my next post I will deal with the possible dimensions of what happens on the level of nature, culture, community, and family as a result of the action I have taken in the context of my grasp of the situation I am trying to develop or modify through exercise of my situated intelligence.

Again, what I am trying to do is explore the complexity of the everyday workings of our minds that we collectively gloss by the word “intelligence,” with an eye to our hopes and fantasies for the achievements of machine or “artificial” intelligence which is rapidly trying to substitute for the native version I am here roughing-out in these posts.

 

These heady days of artificial intelligence imply that we have a full understanding of intelligence in its native form. Apparently it has something to do with the ability to solve problems. Or at least to get good grades in school. Or to appear bright, quick, and agile in dealing with mental issues.

We rate individuals on a scale of intelligence where a score of 100 is judged to be normal. I once saw a vanity plate in Harvard square, IQ 205, so I assumed the driver of that car had a higher intelligence quotient than 204. If we can measure it that finely, and can make machines having artificial intelligence, surely we must recognize the real McCoy when we meet it face to face, mind to mind.

But since every person on Earth is unique in having a different immune system, nervous system, upbringing, education, work history, emotional life, reservoir of life experience, etc., I wonder how we can claim to measure intelligence as if it were the same mental quality across all those fundamental variables.

For myself, I find that my performance on a specific task depends on the situation I am in at the time, and also on whether or not I have been in that situation before. My mind is a mix of facets, elements, or dimensions of conscious and habitual experience. These facets come into play in varying degrees and proportions, so that on each occasion my mind is composed to meet the needs of the moment. That is, I find my so-called intelligence is present on a sliding scale. Or, put differently, is composed of different facets as called up in me by different situations.

As I was starting to think of writing this blog, I happened to be reading the 1874 edition of Charles Darwin’s book on human evolution, The Descent of Man. In the third chapter, Darwin compares the “mental powers of man and the lower animals.” I took those mental powers to be an early treatment of what today we might collectively refer to as intelligence. I perked up and paid close attention to what Darwin had written to see how his list of mental powers compared with the one I have been compiling under the guise of dimensions of consciousness or, as I now say, situated intelligence.

In my system I break consciousness into three main divisions: perception, judgment, and action. Perception deals with sensory input to the mind, judgment deals with determining the meaning of such input as a preparation for action, and action itself deals with how we go about forming an apt response to that input. These three divisions of mind connect our continuous loop of engagement with the world so, like the old serpent Ouroborus depicted as biting its own tail, our actions come full circle and we are in a position to compare the bite of perception in the context of our intended action, allowing us to revise our stance in making another round of action unto subsequent perception. That act of comparison is what we are conscious of at the moment so, as I see it, is the fundamental basis of what we call intelligence.

How do my 2014 dimensions of consciousness stack up against Darwin’s 1874 treatment of mental powers shared by people and animals? His point, of course, is that human minds have evolved from animal (primate) minds, so our mental powers are variations on the earlier powers possessed by our ancestors. Those variations can be either elaborations or diminutions, depending on the developmental pressure applied by our need to fit into the particular environmental situations we face from year to decade to century to millennium. Our sense of smell and pedal dexterity, for example, have decreased from what they were in the wild, while our vocalizations and manual dexterity have increased.

Grouping Darwin’s mental powers according to my distinctions between Perception, Judgment, and Action, I discover under the heading of Perception the following mental powers in common: same senses in man as primates, curiosity, anticipation, foresight, dread, danger, attention, distraction, senses of pleasure and pain, memory required for recognition, wonder, and sense of beauty.

Under the heading of Judgment: choice, instincts, intuition, abstraction, conception, association of ideas, episodic memory, cunning, deceit, deliberation, imagination, dreams, emotions (affection, alarm, ennui, fidelity, gratitude, jealousy, happiness/misery, love, magnanimity, passions, revenge, ridicule, suspicion, sympathy), reason, language (cries of pain, fear, surprise, anger, murmurs mother to child, song), self-consciousness, sense of humor.

Darwin glosses entire repertoires of behavior under Action, along with self-improvement. In the following chapter, he deals with the common powers of sociability, social instincts, social virtues, judgment on conduct, and transmission of moral tendencies.

His conclusion in 1874 is that the “intellectual powers” “of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement.” Wayfarers that we are today, up on two legs and following our inclinations, our modern intelligence is living proof of Darwin’s belief.

The question now is, can we transfer that advancement to our machines so that they serve as the next stage in the trend we have begun? Taking us with them, or leaving us behind?

I will follow up that query in my next blog.

Mind cannot be inconsistent with the forces that drive the material universe because that’s the meaning of is, to be or exist as a feature of the All, which includes the affective and figurative as well as the material. Mind is the realest thing there is. Just try living without one!

The beauty of mind is that it gives us both a personal self and a world, invites us to participate, to engage, to selectively peer through the walls of our personal black boxes, to hear, to touch, to taste, to smell. And always to remember what we’ve done.

Without mind there’d be no atoms or molecules to speculate about, to chase down, to combine in new ways; no cell parts, no cells, no tissues, no organs, no organisms, no habitats, no living systems, no culture, no art, music, theology. No sorrow. No joy.

Without mind at the heart of our respective black boxes there’d be nothing at all because, quite simply, we would have no way of knowing anything about whatever was around us. It takes a mind to know anything at all, including how the brain “works.”

The physical brain knows nothing at all, as a car engine or nuclear reactor knows nothing. As artificial “intelligence” knows nothing.

It takes a mind to convert rival signals in adjacent cortical columns into a sense of spatial depth before two eyes peering from different perspectives a few inches apart. A mind to learn through trial and error, discrepancies, disparities, and simple mistakes. A brain can compare signals, but mind is a virtual quality residing in relationship between signals, a quality arising from such a comparison, but not reducible to it, as humans are not reducible to the mud or stellar refuse they are made of.

In our minute portion of the universe, it is our privilege to engage courtesy of the power of reaching out with our minds. No minds, no awareness, no universe to be part of. Instead of grousing that the mind is a fiction, a myth, an illusion, an impossible speculation, I think it would be more productive to find sufficient grace to appreciate the gift of feelings and awareness so we can get on living harmoniously with the colorful and moving impressions they provide us.