497. Afterword

April 30, 2015

Cultural ideas (memes), once they become widely accepted or have even gone “viral,” develop a strong resistance to change. The idea of “artificial intelligence,” from a fanciful oxymoron (contradiction in terms because no one knows what authentic intelligence might be), has become the watchword of a burgeoning industry and is here to stay until it is replaced by the Next Big Thing that becomes culturally contagious.

I have used the word “inertia” to describe a cultural idea’s resistance to change. Once popularly accepted, it leads a life of its own. That is, once its collective memory achieves a critical mass within the human population, it becomes a contributor to our everyday system of belief.

Even after gravitational force, evolution, genetics, DNA, and both galactic and stellar evolution became fixtures of our cultural view of the universe (thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Newton, Darwin, Franklin-Watson-Crick, and tens-of-thousands of others), the anthropocentric notion that humankind is the central focus of a god-driven universe persists, as if the sun and stars were still believed to revolve about us—we who give meaning to godly creation simply because we are born to that tenacious meme from our mistaken point of view.

Cultural inertia is a disease more deadening than ebola or dengue fever. It kills off tender minds of both children and adults well before their time. That is because the basis of perception is recognition enabled by memory, not any sensory impressions formed in the instant. We see largely what we have seen before and are familiar with. We grow uncomfortable when beyond the range of our past experience. Novelty in our eyes may capture our attention, but that doesn’t mean we accept, like, or understand it.

Ideas that become part of our general culture are usually put forward by groups that stand to profit from their acceptance. Economic theory flows from those who stand to make money, not from the host of disadvantaged others. Military theory flows from those who fight wars at a distance. Theology flows from those dependent on entire flocks of believers. Penal theory is proposed by those outside prison walls. Art theory blows on the winds of change, novelty, and aesthetic outrage.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we are all heavily invested in our personal experience, existing as we do at the leading edge of our beliefs. And that edge is always pro or con, positive or negative, for or against—in a word, polarized. There it is, a double-edged sword at the heart of our beliefs. And that makes the world we live in polarized as a result of our thrusting our particular edge outward in our actions, frowns, smiles, and gestures of rejection or acceptance.

There are two sides to every truth, meme, and conviction. We’re either for-or-against it because that is how our minds work, balancing pros and cons, activations and inhibitions, two sides of every question. Yes or no. Yea or nay. Go or stop. Stay or leave. Fast or slow. Cold or hot. Sweet or sour. Brave or chicken. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. Guilty or innocent. All or nothing.

We frame our options for doing anything at all in two columns, pro and con. Then we list the reasons for taking a particular action against the reasons for not taking it. We add up the two columns. The one with the most checkmarks wins. Yes, we are that simple minded.

Our muscles either flex or relax. What signal should we send? Uncertainty or hesitation leads to disaster. Timing is of the essence; the enemy is fast approaching. Now is our chance to decide. What should we do? How do we vote? Count us in or out? Subtlety is for wimps. Real men and women know right from wrong in any situation, and always do the right thing. Or, that is the popular myth.

Choices, nothing but choices. That is precisely why we have minds that engage with events and make decisions what to do. No matter how we decide, once we go one way or the other, we face another decision, which invariably leads to a train of others after that.

What if you had turned left and not right that day you met the girl who became your girlfriend who became your wife who bore your children who now have children of their own? What if, what if, what if. But you didn’t turn left, you turned right, and that has made all the difference throughout your life.

Speaking of what ifs, picture your genealogical tree for the past five generations, from your parents to their parents to their parents to their parents to their parents. Your parents to your great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a century’s worth of your family and recent genetic heritage, 126 people, all making countless decisions every day of their lives, all those decisions contributing to you and your specific genome. Not just contributing to, but focusing on you. If any one of them had lived differently, had gotten sick at the wrong time, had gone off to war, had fallen off a horse, had run a red light, had served chicken (with hidden bones) and not roast beef for dinner—where and who would you be today?

Think about it. Without consciousness that can weigh options and make decisions, and act on those decisions by tensing one set of muscles while relaxing others—none of us would be who we are today.

Yes, consciousness makes all the difference between living as a person and living as a mushroom, or even another person in our own family-community-culture-precinct of nature. What if we’d been born on another planet circling another sun in another galaxy? Wherever we are, consciousness is our guide every millisecond of every day of our lives.

How ironic is it, then, that we barely understand our own conscious processes, our own intelligence, our own opinions, fashions, fads, annoyances, habits, routines, prejudices, and orthodox beliefs? Our schools are all aimed outward into the world of memes, ideas, and traditions, not at the minds we bring with our lunchboxes and faithfully present to our homeroom teacher when we answer “Here” when she calls out our name.

Instead of fighting wars or trying to make a killing on Wall Street, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to understand our own minds to avoid doing more harm than good in the world?

Why, in particular, do we cling to ways and beliefs we don’t understand, yet commit ourselves to out of personal and cultural inertia? As if we were automatons or robots or zombies or idiots?

I’ve said it before and will say it here one last time: Know Thyself! Why else are we here?

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The essential benefit of families is to give children a chance to build a store of memories that will serve to get them started in life, and perhaps see them through to the end. Love, liking, sex, companionship, respect, and cooperation help parents bond with each other as essentially different people. That bond is a gift they give their children who, born wholly naïve to the ways of the world, need early engagements with others to build memories, habits, and skills that will help them to stand on their own legs as capable adults when the time comes.

Whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or other, adult pairs that complement each other can provide the stimulation and stability necessary to maintain a functioning family that benefits children directly or indirectly during the restless journey to adulthood.

Couples don’t need to justify their existence by having children. They provide the same services by engaging each other so that, having a shared home to return to that restores them, they can go forth and do the work of the world in turning solar energy into deeds.

This benefit also spreads throughout the neighboring community. It takes true, skilled, generous, and reliable engagements to run the world, not the union of one man with one woman, which is only one example of a wide variety of productive human relationships.

There are as many kinds of marriages as there are couples. The essence of family is stability through mutual engagement, not any one particular kind of relationship. If we over-specify the nature of families based on a particular personal preference, morality founders on the sharp rocks of that heedless specificity.

Children don’t need orthodox beliefs to grow into competent adults, nor do any partners who already function on that level of competency. Expressions of mutual love help, along with enough healthful food to fuel the currents flowing through minds both young and adult, endowing them with coherent thoughts and meanings.

The essential thing in a family is to build a core of common experiences that stimulates the growth of all members on their respective levels of attainment. This requires a certain flexibility of expectation, not the rigidity of preordained results.

When I was two or three, the bed of an old canal that passed at the rear of our back yard in Hamilton, New York, was selected as the route of a new sewer. Big sections of concrete pipe were lined up along the banks of the canal, ready to be rolled into place. Walking unattended as a very young child along that line of pipe, I came to its end, which I immediately crawled into.

I remember the feel of the rough concrete surface on my hands and knees. My way into that tube of darkness grew ever dimmer, without any sign of light ahead. The pipe was too tight around my crawling frame to let me turn, so I tried backing up, which didn’t work. I had no choice but to keep crawling into the depths. Crawling. Crawling, scrape after scrape. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out.

The separate sections of pipe were pieced together so tightly that only faint hints of an outside world glowed dimly here and there. I was firm in my conviction that the only way out had to lie ahead. At a slight bend, I suddenly saw a faint shimmer from a wider gap in the distance. I kept crawling, and came to two sections of pipe that had not been closely fitted together, leaving a six-inch gap flooded with daylight. This was my chance! I scraped my way through that gap, drawing blood and white scratches along my arms and legs. I wormed my way upward toward the light, and stood free in the open air, taking the coolest, freshest breaths of my life.

Only then did I admit my stupidity in crawling into that line of pipe as if the dark opening had invited me in. I recognized taking that initial move as the bad idea it had been. I remember scolding myself never to do that again.

A certain lack of parental supervision in my case as middle child led to many subsequent episodes of my learning about the world on my own. I became an independent thinker. Whenever I could, I roamed the hills around town, getting scratched, wet, tired, and cold, but never cutting back on my roving explorations. I was on the path to adventure, realizing that if I was under anyone’s supervision, it was my own.

I see those qualities now as the gift of independence that my father took from his birth mother’s not showing up when he needed her. Turning bad situations into positive outcomes is an unsought but necessary result of living through tough times. Finding that positive way is up to those who suffer neglect, abuse, bullying, cruelty, or deprivation. If others torment us, we always have the ultimate option of going it alone under our own recognizance.

Here I am today, facing into the tunnel of introspection so surely shunned by respectable science. Well, so be it. Some may regard it as a sewer pipe; I see it as my way to revelation. My path of life lies precisely into this particular darkness. I’ve already seen many faint shimmers of light, and have no intention of turning back. This Web log is the record of my adventures so far. If I don’t take this particular path, who will? The way is not obvious, but I judge it to be essentially positive. It happens to be the route I’ve followed since earliest childhood.

Thanks for checking it out.

Embracing all the ways of the human world, “culture” labels a concept so large and abstract that it has room for almost any idea, construct, behavior, object, or institution we can imagine being projected outward from the collective human mind onto the natural world. Pizza is an aspect of culture, as is a school bus, AK-47, hula hoop, an abacus, the Eifel Tower, and religious strife in the Middle East.

Reduced to a metaphor, culture has many faces. It can be seen as:

  • A people’s collective human agenda writ large on the Earth.
  • The façade we erect to make nature acceptable to us.
  • The mask we force nature to wear in our presence to reshape its looks to our liking.
  • The great mirror we put up to reflect our personal likes and dislikes as if they were features of the world.
  • The wall we build around ourselves to keep the wild world at bay.
  • The stage set we prefer to our natural setting.
  • The human context we are born to, including its language, vocabulary, reference libraries, statistics, artifacts, histories, wars, arts, sciences, ideas, monuments, communication media, ways of getting about, trade routes, and all the rest.

Think Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam, Suez Canal, Stonehenge, The Koran, Bible, Sayings of Confucius. Songs of Woody Guthrie. Beethoven string quartets. Our courts and penal system. Cosmology through the ages. Be sure to include Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and the legislative stalemate in Washington.

Culture is nothing less than the public forum where we engage throughout our lives, the stage where we each give our personal performance. We ought to know, we built it ourselves. Not the original, but the one we keep running in good order with daily contributions of our collected dreams, needs, and desires. In that sense, culture is a reification (thingification) of our thoughts, imaginings, hopes, fears, and all the rest of the contents of our personal black boxes.

When we were infants, the then culture of our birth family calibrated our inner workings in the terms we would grow into and live by for the rest of our lives. It gave us a repertory of numbers, letters, words, gestures, symbols, songs, poems, stories, behaviors, lies, and beliefs useful in describing our inner thoughts and situations.

Now that we are older and know the ropes, we give back in kind to keep the show going for the next generation, modified to slight degree by the gleanings of our cumulative personal experience. As adults, the whole thing is now our intellectual property because we’ve given it nothing less than our perceptions, meanings, judgments, actions, and engagements, all adding up to nothing less than our inner lives turned inside-out.

I remember being told that I was born in Faxton Memorial Hospital in Utica, New York, in the dark days of The Depression in 1932. That puts the culture I was born to in Upstate New York during days of high unemployment. One of the primary goals people had in that place and time was, if not getting “ahead,” at least holding their own. I was given tests in school to see how I would measure-up at getting a good job. Which was seen as something called my “intelligence.”

Nobody could tell me what that word meant, but it seemed to imply how smart I was in terms of doing well on the test, and perhaps beyond that, doing well in life. Cultures do a lot of that—gauging how well young people can expect to fit into the beliefs of their particular segment of humanity. Which often turns out to be a kind of superstition that such tests actually measure a meaningful mental quality that individuals are said to possess in varying amounts.

So here I am today, a grown-up child of that upstate culture, writing about “situated intelligence” as if I knew what it meant. It is only fair that I share that understanding with anyone who happens to read these words.

I use situated intelligence in referring to the key link between perception and action in individual human minds. In my last post (Reflection 427), I wrote, “Consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.” I see situated intelligence as the agent responsible in each of us for making such judgments and decisions regarding how to respond to any particular situation as based on the configuration of a great many dimensions contributing to the nature of just that situation.

As I now see it, personal intelligence responds to three Questions. Perception, I have said, gives our best answer to the question, “What’s going on?” from our point of view at that moment. Judgment answers the question, “What does that mean in my case?” With action following on to give the answer to, “What should I do?”

As I see it, our intelligence plays the central role in coming up with answers to those questions in order, so linking perception of ongoing events to actions meant as an appropriate response to those same events. What I call situated intelligence serves as the mediating agent that routes incoming signals toward outgoing actions in a meaningful way.

That link, in other words, is the central focus of what I call our loops of engagement with selected aspects of our external environments, enabling us to fit our behaviors to the situations we find ourselves in as best we can figure out what they are.

The several dimensions of consciousness constituting the situation that we feel we are in include sensory impressions, remembrance of similar situations in the past, emotions, values, imagination, understanding, humor, life force (available energy), ideas, thoughts, attitudes, excitement, interest, curiosity, among other constituents of inner awareness. That particular situation is our judgment of what all those dimensions mean or add up to, allowing us to choose the behavioral option that best serves our amalgamated interests at the moment.

That is what I mean by situated intelligence in developing these posts to my blog.

My thought is that my ongoing engagement with my surroundings is run by my intelligence as the agent designated to provide just that service. That agent is who I am. It is not a little man in my head, it is no one else but myself, agent-in-charge of matching my perceptions to actions intended to promote my personal well-being.

That is my conclusion after considering my many engagements on the cultural level of my lifelong experience. My experience is embedded in the particular culture that has calibrated my mind from the first minutes after my birth eighty-two years ago.

I am not making this up out of my head. I am actively engaged with the culture that has enveloped me every moment of my life. This is a long-lasting, team project for which I happen to be the primary spokesperson from an introspective point of view. Other than serving in that capacity, I have nothing else to offer. I have no choice. I am committed to being myself, my very own situated intelligence, until my last minute of conscious life as shaped by the culture I was born to.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Along with the core psychic dimensions of memory, sensory impressions, understanding, comparison, values, and emotions, another dimension of our personal intelligence situated between perception and action is awareness of extension and duration provided by the sense of spacetime as the medium of experience.

Perception from a stable point of view—such as from a seat in a theater or stadium with the gaze fixed on one spot, or while listening to music with eyes closed—such fixed attention results in awareness of changes over time that are not the result of personal action. These changes in the world exist in the medium we call time.

Action resulting in bodily motions—as walking through woods while brushing branches aside, or slaloming down a steep slope while swinging one’s center of gravity side-to-side—such changes resulting from bodily movements alter the perspective from which we view the world, so those changes are generated by an agent moving through the medium we refer to as space.

Most awareness of change exists in the combined medium of active engagement in which both self and world are changing simultaneously in the combined medium of spacetime when we are both subject and object, actor and perceiver at the same instant in the same place.

Our actions take our minds into the world; our senses invite the world into our minds. When we act and perceive simultaneously, we engage some small part of the world so that we make a difference to it just as it makes a difference to us. In that sense, we participate in the ongoing life of the world while the world affects our innermost selves, creating what I call a loop of engagement in which we are most truly alive.

When our engagements are successful from our point of view, we are flooded with happiness. Think of Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. When they fail, we feel like we just lost the World Series or presidential election. Gloom and doom descend until we manage to right ourselves and get back on our feet.

Sitting fixed in our seats before a monitor, TV, or film screen, we observe car chases, explosions, and world-changing events without benefit of lifting even a finger, so we walk away without a scratch as if nothing had happened, and we are none the wiser for the time we have spent sitting comfortably in our seats because we have invested so little energy in staying put.

On a treadmill or stationary bike, we can go for miles putting in the effort without a change of scene, ending where we started, putting in our time by the clock, exhausting ourselves, but gleaning not one iota of experience. Treadmills were invented to do work (raise water from ditch to field, grind grain, power bicycles), but exercise machines are made to accomplish nothing at considerable expenditure of energy. We live in a world of phony engagements that take place in no real place and no real time, other than the illusions we create for ourselves while striding manfully ahead or being “entertained.”

Are we any happier for making the effort? If we generate endorphins that lessen our pain or even create a state of euphoria, perhaps we are. But is the world any happier at being left out of our one-sided exercise? Is Ginger any happier when Fred dances alone or with someone else?

There is an art to our engagements and that is in sharing our good times and great places with others so that we are happy together and grow closer as a result. We don’t just exist in time and space, but use them to good advantage in creating a more joyful world around us. We extend ourselves and endure to the benefit of not only ourselves but those with whom we share our one Earth, which benefits the Earth as a whole.

Such efforts seat us firmly at the heart of nature, culture, community, and family, so, yes, they are positive and generate happiness as a result. Looking around today’s world, however, we see people in all corners wreaking havoc and destruction by imposing their views on others by force. Such actions do not promote personal engagements but render them impossible, creating enemies of people unknown to one another.

Wise use of the time and place we are born to is the very essence of our lives. According to that scenario, many find happiness, yet billions of people just barely scrape by. Are we here to create the greatest amount of misery we can with what resources we’ve got for the brief span we are allowed under the conditions that prevail? Many act as if that were their creed.

The point of our lives is to prove that can’t be so. We do this through the daily engagements we create in the limited time and space we have available to us. We start by getting out of bed in the morning and being fully ourselves.

Impairments to the intelligent use of time and space include hearing-, vision, and memory-loss; addictions of all sorts; inattention, distraction, set habits, isolation, sensory deprivation, over-stimulation, preoccupation; affective disorders; the full autism spectrum; schizophrenia; disaffection; post-traumatic stress disorder; bipolar disorder; violence; and warfare.

 

How to respond to events is always our call as a reflection of our integrity, maturity, and intelligence in meeting challenges head-on by suiting our behavior to what we feel is called for in the moment, drawing on strengths, skills, and inclinations we have built-up in living the lives we have led as preparation for making this particular judgment.

The “I” is the seat of life’s engagements because, having access to them all, it is the seat of perception, memory, meaning, emotion, judgment, and drive of the life force in a particular body. It is the seat of the self because it is at the core of our identity, who we are to ourselves as seen from inside our situated intelligence.

The self’s job is to find meaning in sensory impressions, and to channel that meaning forward into a course of purposive action.

A good portion of the self is an emergent property of the brain with its neurons, ions, and chemicals, but it is not limited to that physical organ because its reach extends fore and aft, from sensing incoming energy from the world to looking ahead to outgoing action in the world beyond body and brain.

The self is situated in the flow of energy through its portals, the flow of traffic through pathways in the brain, and outward into the world, which it extrapolates from awareness by paying attention to particular sensory features as inciters of meaning and significance.

No, this is not the prevailing view in neuroscientific circles, but it fits the facts when mind, will, and judgment are allowed to be real, and the brain is accepted as the vehicle or vessel of mind, a vehicle such as an automobile that knows nothing of its driver’s plans, but serves the will of that driver nonetheless. The car has no idea where it is going; that understanding has been reserved for the mind of the driver (or now her GPS unit as prompted by her mind).

Experience is the cumulative ability we accrue through the years to judge situations in light of our own wits, our personal grasp of how the world works and how we ourselves work as complementary members of that world. Even inside our black boxes, we live within whatever awareness we can eke of what’s happening around and within us so that we can make an appropriate response.

I could not have written these thoughts when I was thirty or sixty years old. I had to wait until I was in my eighties to discover the audacity within myself to feel that I knew what I was talking about and that I wanted to give the world an opportunity to consider my message.

In the meantime, I have read works by thinkers such as Gerald M. Edelman, Joseph LeDoux, Michael Gazzaniga, Douglas Hofstadter, and shorter pieces by a great many soldiers in the trenches of neuroscience.

But my primary source for over thirty years has been my personal witness to the workings of my own mind, not to be confused with my brain, of which, concretely speaking, I am wholly oblivious.

To me, as the helmsman of my own vessel, it makes sense to learn from my personal experience of being conscious while others tend to the detailed complexity of the vessel itself. As I see it, without a helmsman, that vessel is worse than useless, it becomes a hazard to others. I want to be the best helmsman I can be, which is why I pay so much attention to, and learn so much from, the foibles of my own mind.

 

 

 

386. Our Inner Helmsman

December 23, 2014

Our situated intelligence is the helmsman who steers future behavior in keeping with judgments we make upon the state of affairs signaled by current perception, emotion, and understanding. We all live at the core of our engagements, adjusting our course according to where we want to go in relation to where we have been and where we find ourselves now.

The essence of mind is in the sense of mental integrity and intelligence that our navigational skills represent. My inner helmsman is as close as I can come to the sense of spiritual guidance I feel when trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling flowing through my mind as integrated into a particular judgment and commitment to action.

Such guidance is ever-present in my mind as I write this essay on self-reflection and understanding. The crux of that guidance is its integrity as a sign that all dimensions of mind are in active relationship one with another, creating an intelligent whole from its contributing parts.

That sense of mental integrity is very much like what we mean by physical health as a sign that all our bodily systems are in good order and functioning together, the result being nothing less than life itself. Mental integrity (health, wholeness) is my sense of, and guide to, my inner life. It is the presence in myself that I recognize as my personal stream of consciousness.

In familiar situations, we often relax our scrutiny by relying on less demanding procedures than full judgment of how we are handling ourselves. Easing off, we can link perception to action via unconscious reflexes, mimicry, rote learning, habitual performance, prejudice, the comforting practice of ideology, and other such shortcuts that bypass our full intelligence.

In moving on from perception to action, we can fall back on our reflexes and act wholly without thinking. We can mimic how others respond in similar situations. We can rely on rote behaviors we have internalized from how others have taught us to act in such circumstances.

Too, we can replay habits and routines we have fallen into over the years through frequent repetition. We can surrender to the prejudices that come to the surface from deep inside our histories of experience that we have never truly dealt with or given much thought to. We can fall back on the ideology we have been steeped in for much of our lives, the ways of our tribe, or our kind of people.

And always, we have the option of acting imaginatively and creatively to solve particular problems or otherwise meet our needs at the moment by taking the risk of doing something we have never done before as called for by our sense of self in a novel predicament. That is, by trusting our inner helmsman to see us through.

Imagination depends on reshuffling our standard schemes of meaning at different levels of discernment so that we mix and match our schemes and orders of understanding to come up with a new version of what might be fitting and possible, and give that new order a try to see what will happen.