Evolution’s achievement of consciousness is a collaborative effort between animal life and its Earthly environment.

Consciousness does not reside in the brain so much as it is a product of life’s engagement with its home planet. When Henry Adams walked out of Chartres Cathedral a changed man and wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the cathedral remained as it was before he arrived, undiminished, unconsumed.

Half of Adams’ engagement came from his attention, concentration, and action; the other half was the cathedral’s doing as a provocative source of engaging stimulation.

If we give ourselves to life, life gives us back in kind. Consciousness springs from just such rounds of give-and-take. It is not something we possess, or have a right to. It is something we invite to happen by opening ourselves to our environment, and trading with it as we are able.

I didn’t need cognitive neuroscience to tell me that, nor a suite of fMRIs and other a la mode research apparatus. What I needed was half of the mind that has sustained me through life, engaged with the other half of environmental stimulation that, taken together, have spurred my thinking, awareness, and experience all my days, including the writing of this blog.

As phenomenologists say, consciousness is always of one thing or another. It isn’t a thing in itself so much as a reacher-toward things. That is called intentionality. As intentional beings, we are always intent on solving this or that problem.

We all start out in life as a quickened egg—largest cell in the human body. And then in nine months run through the developmental cycle it took life itself three-and-a-half billion years to complete. We are modern-day miracles, inventing our own brand of consciousness during our brief stay in the womb.

Everyone’s consciousness is unique because the specifics of its origins are unique—DNA, grandparents, parents, immune system, etc., plus engagements in the womb from conception on. Engagements initiated by our genes, but of which we get the gist and do our part as birth approaches.

We are like an impromptu melody played in the distance, only that melody is inside us, at the core of our being on Earth. We are here not only because our parents conceived us, but because Earth has provided them with the wherewithal to produce us. We are Earthlings from our earliest beginnings, with our own ration of Earthly (perhaps universal) consciousness.

We become citizens of the cosmos that truly begat us, so are eager to show our stuff to anyone who will engage us during our brief stay in the area.

The view of consciousness I offer in this blog is very different from the version that neuroscientists are so relentlessly searching for in the brain. Consciousness is not made of matter in physical form; it is an interaction between specific lifeforms and the worlds they are born to, as Henry Adams was born to a world containing Chartres Cathedral. Scientists won’t find that magnificent structure in anyone’s brain because (as in Adam’s case) it’s at the other end of an engagement that went on for years under all sorts of weather, light, shifts in attitude, and altering comprehension.

I have tried to keep up with published writings about consciousness, but I have yet to find any that make sense to me on the topic as I personally experience it in living my own life. And introspection is so out of fashion in the twenty-first century that I am not likely to meet up with any before I die.

Am I that eccentric? That far out on the fringe? That much of a deviant? I think not. From my standpoint, others are barking up the wrong tree, looking for a physical state of some kind, when consciousness is an ongoing process of engagement between a living mind and whatever object of its notice gives a jolt sufficient to draw attention.

Loops of engagement are way more than feedback loops. Rather than stabilizers, they are disrupters, attention getters, annoyers, or announcers of success. In short, situation creators. They set the parameters of intelligence in such a configuration that arouses a meaningful response leading to a review of options and judgment of what is to be done.

As I visualize them, loops of engagement are kindlers of consciousness leading to appropriate action. They start with disturbing perceptions that create meaningful situations to which intelligence reacts with discernment in judging what plan of action to put into effect. They are mind organizers whose job is to transform perceptions into behaviors suitable to the occasion.

Essential to our humanity, none of us would get through the day without one. And probably not be likely to get through the next five seconds. I call them loops because they keep going on and on. Coming back to slightly altered situations, tweaking a little here and there, more like a helix than a circle, but running on till the job is done. Then it’s on to the next job, and the one in line after that.

Go to the store for groceries, lay out the kitchen, make dinner, serve it up, eat it, congratulate the cook, clear the table, wash the dishes, put dishes away, lay things out for breakfast. How else would we manage to get through the day? If such engagements didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

But they do exist in what William James called the stream of consciousness, the endless succession of one-thing-after-another that we dub collectively conscious life. They are our tools for building a succession of worlds about ourselves as we go through the day.

Loops of engagement are world-puzzle solvers that connect our minds to our mysterious environment, but that have to keep checking because that environment is bound to change. We can never get it just right. The world is too complex, too dynamic, too flexible, too uncertain—and our view too limited and schematic. Whatever we think it is in the instant is bound to be wrong.

So we play the game of successive approximation. Moving in the direction of certain understanding—but like the bounding hare, the world always gets away from us. The more certain we are that we understand what’s going on, the more apt we are to be wrong. Our firmest beliefs are so much foam on the waves. Life is more like splashing around in shallow water than swimming in a straight lane.

Loops of engagement are the best tool we’ve got for figuring out our situation at the moment. They never stop; they never give up; they never claim success. Like our streams of consciousness, they just keep going, until we fall into bed too tired to keep up the pursuit.

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Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

Consciousness extends far into the world—and back again. It is not imprisoned within a single brain. We are born to engage our mothers and fathers, and they to engage us, their infant children. Mother and child form a fundamental unit of consciousness, hinting at all that lies beyond and is yet to come. Each is an extension of the other. Each needs the other; each serves the other.

Talk about being bound-back, once conceived, we are members of such relationships forever. As members of families, communities, cultures, and nature, we are set for life to engage with them, and they with us.

Our individual minds depend on ongoing activities far beyond the walls of our black boxes, far beyond our particular bodies and brains. We are kinetic beings that thrive by being perpetually active on all levels of engagement. When we can no longer sustain our engagements across our bodily envelopes, we cease to thrive. No more exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, food for waste, talking for listening, giving for receiving, acting for being acted upon.

For the duration of our lives, we are simultaneously subjects and objects. That duality is built into our bodily equipment. Even movers and shakers are themselves moved upon and shaken up. Even in the confines of our respective black boxes, we are informed by sunlight and starlight, rising moons and setting planets.

We are partnered in life by the times we live in. Those times live in us with their full cast of characters, as much as we live in those times. That is the nature of engagement, of being alive.

Neuroscientists have begun to observe the distribution of blood in our brains as altered by our mental activity. That’s a start at understanding our engagements, but it’s a hard way of going about it.

I think my way is better because I have access to at least my side of an engagement, not a mere hint provided by a drop of blood in my brain. In truth, our experience is far larger and more influential than can be told by observing those drops of blood.

Our history is told by our ideas, beliefs, thoughts, judgments, actions, engagements, and perceptions. Only our conscious minds have access to that history as it flows through our awareness.

I have here been trying to offer a glimpse of that flow through countless human minds engaged in making meaning of baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and now the stars. It will take neuroscientists a long time to engage on that level of complexity and undeniable significance.

Which is why I am writing this blog, to encourage mindworkers to cooperate rather than waste time belittling one another’s efforts. All engagements add up to a lifetime of awareness in the mind. And that unit of awareness is available to only one unique stream of consciousness. Making it one of the most precious commodities on Earth.

Aristotle’s image of heavenly bodies singing and dancing together flows from his engagement with, and understanding of, the stars. His conclusion was that their unison is due to, and under the direction of, their master and prime mover.

That close brush with wisdom, that approximate truth, has duly been passed down from one generation to the next for five thousand years, backed by the highest authorities in each generation—which is why I am willing to own up to beliefs, opinions, and ideas, but not knowledge, not truth.

The whole scheme was as wrong in Aristotle’s day as it had been among the Sumerians. The passing down of this wisdom was no casual game of telephone; it was a codified and systematic effort to pass the baton of orthodox belief forward, mind to mind, memory to memory, which confirms much of what I have claimed for my own mind. Pierandello’s phrase “It is true if you think so,” is a more honest way of approaching what somebody wants you to believe. That little “if” is a good thing to remember, placing the burden of proof on the one who swallows the meme, not the one who offers you a dose to cure what ails you.

In general, the evidence provided by seeing with our own eyes is pretty shaky. Check out any police line-up. All Blacks may look alike to Whites because blackness is all we need to know in order to place a fellow human into the category we want her to fit, overlooking the overwhelming evidence of the fullness of her humanity.

It takes concentrated effort to avoid making that error. And for Blacks to avoid the same error looking the other way into our white faces. Simpleminded shortcuts to categorization cut human awareness off at the neck, they are acts of such violence.

In my Army unit, being one of the four tallest members qualified me for being a squad leader. In my squad the soldier next to me was the fifth tallest, the blackest man I had ever seen. He was so black, I couldn’t make out his features at all, only the whiteness of his eyes and teeth. His face was always in the shadows.

After several months of living in close quarters with him, I found that most of his darkness had drained away and he’d become a human being, not a Black man. It’s strange how that works. It wasn’t that his skin was black so much as that my mind was white from lack of social experience (as my skin is white from lack of exposure to sunlight), and I didn’t know it.

In that sense, the Army was a great leveler in mixing Blacks and Whites and Latinos and Asians together, giving a good shake of shared experience, and letting the results speak for themselves. Putting young men and women together in college dorms and the military doesn’t work as well because hormones give us a primal agenda that takes a long time to recast as the will of mature, consenting adults.

The demons that haunt our political campaigns are not there at the focus of the advertisements hurled at us as Election Day nears. We know those claims are false (or are at best overdrawn) because we similarly exaggerate the polarity of our own likes and dislikes to maintain their focus at the heart of our consciousness, but we keep forgetting our own fibs and distortions when it is inconvenient to own-up to them in mixed company.

Though stars in general may not have much meaning for us, we all do have a favorite star in our neighborhood, and that is the sun, a star that truly makes a difference in our lives as Earth’s source of radiant energy, and source of gravitational energy that gives us a place to hang our hats in the “universe.”

The sun isn’t like other stars in being, for practical purposes, minimally worthy of notice. To the contrary, at some seasons the sun beams down on us with so much heat and light that it forces itself on our attention, and we seek shelter from its direct rays.

At opposite seasons, when lower in the sky, the sun is often thrust into our awareness by its shyness, and we wish it would be more forceful than it is. But even given its seasonal variability, the sun is far brighter to the eye than other stars, and hotter, and apparently moving so fast through the sky that we feel compelled to keep track of it with our clocks, watches, sundials, and digital devices. In a very real sense, we want to know where it is at all hours so we can set our lives to its schedule.

That is some star. A star to hitch your life to. A star to rise and shine by every day. Without sunlight, plants wouldn’t exist, animals wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist. There, now, is a star that has meaning. Without it, meaning wouldn’t exist because our minds wouldn’t exist.

The sun is implicit in the meaning of meaning, in every one of the dimensions of human awareness and intelligence. Without it, those dimensions would be unimaginable. With it, they become possible.

When we do notice other stars and heavenly bodies, it is often their variability that draws our attention. We notice the comings and goings of comets across the sky, meteors and periodic meteor showers, supernovas suddenly blazing forth where no star was seen before, then fading away.

Too, we notice full and partial eclipses of sun and moon, alignments of planets with bright stars and other planets, phases of the moon as sunlight strikes its surface at different angles as seen from our point of view. And the seasonal journeys of stellar constellations, those apparent groupings of stars we find sufficiently familiar to identify by name: Orion, Sagittarius, Libra, Cassiopeia, Pleiades, Cygnus, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Southern Cross, among others.

To my mind, it is changes in the aesthetic arrangement of the stars that invites them into our attention and gives them much of their meaning. They are not fixtures after all, but sensory phenomena in our minds that are subject to change.

What we call fixed stars are fixed in the sense of their unchanging relations one to another, not in relation to us. Indeed, they appear to move across the sky every day, but en masse, as a well-disciplined flock, preserving their relative positions in the herd, never wandering, never getting lost or out of line.

We know now that that seemingly harmonious sweep of the stars is not their doing at all but ours in revolving beneath them and orbiting the sun through the seasons. It is Earth’s twofold motion, not the stars above moving in an orderly parade. But for most of human history (and all of prehistory), people have been convinced that the stars themselves moved together on well-ordered paths across the sky.

And it was the presumed source of that orderly pattern of motion that gave meaning to the stars as disciplined lights subject to a fundamental rule of the “universe” (which means one-turning, even though the stars aren’t turning at all; it is we Earthlings who are moving, projecting our ill-considered impressions onto the stars).

“Universe” is a misnomer. A mistake. A fundamental error of misconception. What we mean by “the universe,” then, doesn’t truly exist. It is not at all what we once thought it was. Yet the word persists on our English-speaking tongues, and has meaning for even scientists and theologians, who both know better, but in this instance stick to the same outdated habit.

 

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

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

What, then, are meanings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

Early on in childhood, I developed a strong sense of what was family fare and what was not. If my parents had never mentioned or even alluded to such things, that made me hesitant to make the first move. If my brothers hadn’t spoken up, I was sure to keep mum. There was a strong code of forbidden topics based on conjectures that my parents didn’t want to hear about matters that they couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about. Mimicry was safe; taking the initiative was scary.

In my early years I had a recurring nightmare, which I never shared with anyone, not inside my family, not outside. It was my secret.

In the dream, I was slowly slipping toward a glow in the lower right of my visual field, the rest of the field being a featureless black. The thrust of the dream was a deep, rhythmical beat in the background, relentless force moving my body, and a strong sense of helplessness in resisting movement that was not of my doing. When I woke up, I would be crying.

I could feel that dream coming on with a kind of pressure and sense of dread. I suffered that same dream periodically (weekly, monthly?) for several years, then after some time I realized I wasn’t having it anymore, but could still recall the details and the intimate horror at will. What sticks with me today is the feeling of that dream coming on, my being helpless to stop it. Relentless dread, that’s what I felt. Of being in the power of something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t like anything else in my experience.

Later, when I was several years older, I had another recurring nightmare that conveyed much the same feeling. I could tell from the opening scene how it would play out, and, again, I couldn’t stop it.

In that second dream, I would crawl under a brick wall at the back of a building into a dark room with a pitted, earthen floor. From that room I would go into the streets at night when everyone was asleep, enter the house of a stranger, go upstairs into a bedroom and kill (I’m not sure by what means) a sleeper picked at random. I escaped by retracing my route back into the earthen-floored room and then crawling under the wall into daylight.

Two feelings always accompanied that second dream: the horror of what I was about to do—and then actually did—and the fact that no one would ever know that I had done it. It was my guilty secret.

Once begun, both dreams unfurled true to form, and I could not avoid the fear of what was sure to happen. I mention the two dreams together because they both incited the same feeling of helplessness and horror in facing into their respective inevitabilities. I was trapped and couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, I see both dreams as variations on the same theme. It was their unwinding to a sure end that they had in common, though the details were very different. I see the first dream as meant for a younger audience, the second for an audience familiar with village life and language. In the first the action was done unto me; in the second I was the actor responsible for what I did.

I never told anyone in my family about such dreams. They were for my eyes only, a note passed from me to myself.

Writing this post brings to mind another secret from early adolescence that I kept from my family. When I was a sophomore in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, we’d often drive into the Sierras on a Sunday afternoon to visit Snoqualmie Falls, Lake 22, or some other scenic destination. On one return trip on a sunny spring day, my father let me practice my driving skills on the winding, hilly road through the mountains, steep cliffs rising on the right, an abrupt chasm dropping beyond the roadside barrier on the far left side of the road.

I remember realizing in one instant as I drove that if I made an abrupt turn to the left and crashed through the steel barrier, my entire family, including two dogs in the back, would be wiped-out. It was a moment of realizing the responsibility I had in my hands in learning to drive. I was horrified to find myself thinking such a thought.

Needless to say I didn’t turn the wheel on impulse, but the thought did occur to me. I’ve been a reasonably competent driver ever since. But that sudden connection in the depths of my brain when I was fifteen was both a realization and a warning. Had I been more of a risk taker, I might have veered briefly into the other lane just to give my family a scare they would never forget, reminding them of the truely intimate power I held over their lives.

I see child soldiers and young terrorists armed with automatic weapons as succumbing to such impulses because the brutal climate in which they live paints pulling the trigger in a favorable light that differentiates heroes from losers. Getting past that point in my growing up has made all the difference. We see every day in the news stories about those who swing the other way when opportunity arises.

Perhaps unwittingly, families convey nonverbal attitudes that are the forge in which children are worked into the shapes they will assume as mature adults. As I said in my previous post, families matter. Children learn to talk in a family setting; they also learn when to stay silent.

432. Our Cultural Philosophy

February 13, 2015

Regarding impediments to our personal journeys, in an increasingly globalized culture, of our many concerns, commerce has come to dominate our attention and engagement. Trading in goods. Shopping, buying what we need and selling what we don’t. Money changing hands all the while. The point being to get a good price; good from buyers’ perspective, good from sellers’.

In the U.S., commerce is now what we are primarily conscious of, every day of our lives. Making a profit from the sale of material goods and services. Most other facets of our culture—art, education, governance, justice, technology, sports, healthcare, food and energy production, personal freedom, fairness, environmental protection—are glossed over by the arch value of making a monetary profit.

In the world of films, for example, box office eclipses excellence as a criterion of success. On our national journey, profit leads the way. Wherever we pay attention with alert minds, trade is involved.

We are out to make, if not a killing, a better life for ourselves. Which we see primarily in terms of money and goods, not engagement with the mysterious or the unknown, not self-improvement, not beauty, not world peace, not equality, not civil rights, not freedom and justice for all (including Native Americans, Blacks, Latin-Americans, Asians, women, children, immigrants, and animals).

The whole story of mind is told by what we are interested in, pay attention to, notice, discover, and engage with every day of our lives. That is, by what we have in mind, what we are mindful of, what we think and talk about, what captivates us, what excites us, what is important to us, what is at the core of our existence as cultural beings.

Because of the way our minds operate, these peak engagements are told by their polarity, the way they strike us on an either/or scale of polar opposition. That is, by what pleases us or displeases us. What we like or don’t like, want or don’t want, seek or avoid, love or deplore.

After all, we can’t pay attention to every gradation. Our bandwidth is too small. So we focus sharply on what strikes us as good or bad, pleasant or painful, beautiful or ugly, healthy or unhealthy, wise or stupid, enriching or debasing, fun or serious.

If we have too many choices, we get confused. Too much email to respond to, too many friends on Facebook, too many films to see, books to read, games to play, people to meet, glasses of beer to drink—we have to draw the line sharply just to stay sane. Enough, already! Simplify. Prioritize. Being starkly clear lets us act fast and stay on top of things.

Reflecting the conscious concerns of every one of its members, each culture is hugely complex. Living with others, particularly those we don’t know, can be stressful. We can’t be all things to all people. If we try, that leads to overload. Our minds have limited capacities for dealing with what cries out for our attention. We have to cut back to the essentials we need to deal with and chuck the rest.

So in the U.S., we put first things first in paying attention to money and commercial affairs because, as we see it, everything else depends on that. With money in the bank, we claim to lead the good life. Poverty and deprivation—even sufficiency—are thought degrading. Everything takes money; without it, we can’t do what we want. Or be who we want.

It’s the economy, stupid! In black and white, Bill Clinton has given us a bumper-sticker slogan to serve as America’s cultural philosophy.

424. Why Taunton Bay?

February 5, 2015

Why do members of a small, fringe band of horseshoe crabs live in cold, rocky Taunton Bay when they could be living it easy in Delaware Bay with its much warmer waters and sandy shores? Having monitored horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay for several years, then witnessing the horde of breeding crabs in Delaware Bay in 2005, I couldn’t help asking that question.

 

Horseshoe Crabs in Delaware Bay

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs on the Warm, Sandy Shores of Delaware Bay

Or, put differently, what draws horseshoe crabs to Taunton Bay in the first place? Why are they here?

I’d lived as a guest of Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point for several years after leaving my camp on Burying Island, and laid out a monitoring site divided into 10-meter sectors that wrapped around a point of exposed granite ledge and boulders where horseshoe crabs faithfully came ashore to breed every spring when water temperature reached 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). Patches of sand and gravel were far between around the point, yet that was the soil the crabs needed to lay their eggs. The rest was ledge and fields of glacially-rounded cobbles and boulders.

 

Ledges in Taunton Bay

Ledges and Boulders at the High Tide Line in Taunton Bay

A common saying has it that horseshoe crabs breed in the light of the full moon in May. If that is true, what is it about the full moon that brings them to shore? Could it be the extra light at night? The gravitational pull when moon, sun, and Earth are lined up in syzygy?

In Taunton Bay, breeding horseshoe crabs show up in the daytime at high tide. The shore is so treacherous, I’ve never checked for them at night. But that seems to rule out the light of the moon as the spark that sets off the breeding season. And at full moon, the tide is low at 6:00 a.m. and p.m., high at noon (and midnight), or an hour-and-a-half later in Taunton Bay due to the constriction at Tidal Falls.

 

High-tide line, Butler Point.

Rocky Shores of Butler Point Where Horseshoe Crabs Come to Breed.

It makes more sense to me that water temperature reaching the threshold of 56 degrees is what brings the crabs ashore to lay their eggs. And that the moon’s effect is in drawing an incoming tide over flats and rocks and ledges warmed by the morning sun, sharing the sun’s heat with the water as the tide rises, so warming the water to a maximum at high tide, when the crabs come ashore to breed for a period of a couple of hours.

In my thinking, breeding crabs are attracted to particular sites by the heat given off by sun-warmed ledges and boulders, then imparted to incoming tidal waters, and has nothing to do with the sparsity of suitable breeding habitat, which the crabs find by relentlessly searching and digging wherever they go along their favored breeding sites, no matter how ledgy and stony.

 

High Tide Line, Egypt Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Love the Warm Waters that Cover These Stones & Ledges.

Other horseshoe crab breeding sites in Maine feature sandier shores than does Taunton Bay, where the crabs are hardy enough to eke out a living under stern local conditions in spite of short summers, cold waters, and harsh habitats.

What Taunton Bay does have to offer is two shallow sub-embayments, Egypt Bay and Hog Bay, where incoming waters are warmed by sunlight falling on mudflats and ledges from low tide to high, briefly achieving warm conditions such as are a regular feature of Delaware Bay much farther south where millions of crabs breed on an annual basis.

 

Horseshoe crab breeding habitat, Taunton Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Eke Out the Gravel Between These Boulders & Ledges.

That is my hypothesis, achieved by observing and thinking about why horseshoe crabs have established an outlying population this far to the north of their usual spawning grounds across the world. I offer this as an example of my ongoing engagement with horseshoe crabs. They have established a beachhead in my consciousness, and I carry them everywhere I go, thinking about issues they raise on sleepless nights, dwelling on the predicaments they face, wondering why, against all odds, they cling to two exceptional habitat areas in Taunton Bay.

You might well ask, Who cares? I can only reply, I, for one. Because I engage horseshoe crabs on a daily basis, and have made them part of my life by paying attention to them for much of my time on this Earth. Our regular engagements become parts of our lives because so firmly rooted in our minds through our frequently acting and perceiving in unity.

By engaging, we make lives for ourselves. Those lives are what we are. Each different by nature and by passionate engagement. As we are expectant, observant, attentive, and active, so do we become. No two the same.

Me, I’m taken with horseshoe crabs, eelgrass, rockweed, deep woods, rowing, walking, hiking, and similar natural activities and engagements with my home planet. And now with consciousness as my basic tool for conducting those engagements. As you are taken by the aspects of that same planet as they affect you and draw out your lifetime engagements.

So are we all, products of the lives we actually lead, because those lives are in our minds to live out as we do. We can’t help it. That is our destiny. To be ourselves because it is beyond our abilities to be anyone else.

410. Outer Reaches of Mind

January 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayfarers all, what are we but course correctors, ever vigilant to steer ourselves clear of reefs all around? To find our way through the uncharted seas ahead?

I view emotions as signaling the relative success (positive or negative, good or bad) of our engagements in furthering the journeys we are making for ourselves. Positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and a general well-being confirm our progress, while disorders of engagement as marked by frustration, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and loneliness signal that we are lost to ourselves.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in making our rounds of engagement. We are fearful of or angry at those who thwart or interrupt us, and smile upon those who cooperate and help us on our way.

Darwin pointed to this duality of emotions at the core of our being:

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they lead to this end; as happiness is an essential part of the general good and the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1974], page 699, my italics).

Better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad—so do we wend our way every day of our lives as guided by a compass of emotion that tells us whether we are on course or not toward the great end of happiness. Darwin wrote of the greatest-happiness principle as a moral force in the context of moral instincts and behavior, but I think the principle applies to our every engagement, with our innermost selves—the intelligence situated at the core of our being—as the judge of our relative failure or success.

What I am saying in this series of posts is that we steer our way through our life’s engagements by a compass that gauges the duality of our happiness and success on an emotional scale. And further, that the space between the poles of that duality is precisely what we are conscious of as we go along.

Nowhere is that duality more evident than in our dreams, which highlight our yearnings as regarded from a perspective of helpless inactivity imposed by sleep during which we cannot connect our intentions to our actions by any means. In that sense, dreams narrate the drama of our good intentions—and inevitable failure to go where we wish to go and do what we wish to do.

Here is the verbatim report of a dream I had on December 4, 2013, that reflects the state of my mind when my loops of engagement were stymied time after time, yet I remained at the helm with my raw feelings exposed. A wayfarer without navigation skills, I couldn’t engage in a meaningful way with the situation I found myself in, so things inevitably went from bad to worse.

I am hired to operate a big electronic machine. I have two assistants to work with me, but no one has explained how the machine works, so I feel strong pressure to explain it to my helpers, but I can’t live up to that responsibility. I have the machine moved outside to be where other machines are. I wait for instructions, which don’t come. To get back in the building, we all must climb up the forty-five-degree slope of the loading dock made of slippery metal. The climb is arduous. After climbing the ramp twice and slipping back, I say I won’t do it again, so am shown an alternate route up the back wall of a dark room where my superiors are meeting around a table. I hear my name mentioned as I scale the back wall to reach a narrow (horizontal) cupboard door at ceiling level that I must crawl through. It leads to a kitchen shelf in an adjoining room where two men are preparing food. I apologize for getting in their way, but imagine the meeting’s view of my legs sticking out of the narrow opening as I barely squeeze through it. I have a strong sense of the direction I must take to get back to work along a metal-lined walkway up a steep slope and along slippery rocks. I wear boots and keep slipping back, making no headway. I wake up while slipping back once again.

To me, that is a clear portrait of a mind that is driven to act, but can’t act effectively because it can’t engage in a meaningful exchange with significant features of its surroundings. That mind is my dream mind, pursuing happiness, but being thwarted at every turn because I have no means of enacting my intentions.

It is precisely the feel or texture of such thwarted adventures that fuels the bulk of my dreams. There is no on-the-spot revision or change of course, no learning from experience. Each such dream situation depicts a series of errors without correction. My dreams are one-dimensional, relentlessly rushing on from situation to situation without any course adjustments whatever.

I find myself navigating without judgment—because as helmsman, I can’t turn the wheel, or it is broken. It is always a relief to wake up and return to my senses, to effectively engage my world once again by getting up, washing my face, and performing such a simple task as making breakfast. That, I discover again and again, is a source of true happiness in being both conscious and in control of my destiny.