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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following perception, the next stage of our mental engagement is to put the resulting understanding in the context of our current situation so that a judgment of its meaning or place in our scheme of things prepares us to frame an appropriate response.

The agent performing that judgment in the presence of affect or emotion is what I call the self or situated intelligence at the core of the mind where it serves as mediator between perception and action. The self is the intelligent agent having access to memory, perception, understanding, emotion, and biological values, together with the life force as the metabolic fuel driving us to act on our own behalf in a particular situation.

How the self resolves the various motivations feeding into it by comparing, weighing, and judging their influence is what we call free will.  It is “free” in the sense that each person judges the relative importance of the various motivating forces in the light of her personal experience, the residuum of her having lived this far in her life and earned the right (if not the obligation) to be the person she is.

Free will is nothing else than the gift of learning through experience that evolution equips us with as we face into the situations we encounter, and decide how to respond in light of the teachings of our personal life story.

There is no blanket formula for survival we can all call upon such as insects’ reliance on a small set of pre-programmed instincts; we are under our own recognizance, and have the privilege to decide for ourselves what to do, including calling on the judgment of others when we need their help.

What we call belief is a conceptual summation of the internal forces of motivation which drive us to construe a given situation one way or another. The irony of the situated self is that living within the confines of its particular intelligence in its figurative black box as uniquely suspended between input and output (perception and action), as each of us does, our primary motivators together make up the situation that we occupy at any particular time, so that our operative reality, experienced uniquely by each of us, is a matter of subjective belief.

That is, we construct the situations we find ourselves in from the inherent mental forces that motivate us at the time, and those forces—memory, understanding, imagination, thought, values, emotions, energy level, among many others—are weighed against one another in forming a judgment upon how best to resolve the tension between perception and action in a manner appropriate to that subjective situation.

The world we claim to live in is a high-level abstraction, a concoction of our unique intelligence in its internally-structured situation.

Our subjective reality results from the categorization (interpretation) of impressions as projected upon the energy field that surrounds us, and as such, is subject to a construct or construal for which each of us is wholly responsible.

The world lives in us as much as we live in the world. And that world is largely a matter of subjective, affect-driven belief, not demonstrable fact.

 

Feelings of expectancy signal a readiness to welcome incoming sensory stimulation into particular pathways through our brains. Without such preexisting pathways, our minds would be eternally naïve regarding whatever current stimulation they might receive, and our welcome, devoid of expectancy, would be equally shallow on every occasion.

But in fact our histories of earlier stimulation in particular situations have significantly altered our readiness to receive further examples, so from the start we favor some patterns over others, while not recognizing those we have not met with before.

On the other hand, distinct sensory contrast or motion direct attention to a notable feature within the overall pattern of ambient energy that our sensory receptors receive (wasp in the jam, cherry atop the sundae, smudge on a clean sheet). In short order, we recognize that feature as matching a familiar pattern of perceptual activation and inhibition.

If that pattern of ambient energy is novel in our not having noticed it before (or not having remembered it), we may dismiss it as irrelevant because it is not what we are looking for.

But if the situation warrants (because of frequent repetition or strong emotion such as shock or surprise), that same pattern may ignite long-term remembrance. In that case, we can search our semantic memories for a suitable label to associate with that particular pattern: It looks like some kind of duck, a merganser perhaps; it doesn’t match a common or red-breasted merganser, maybe it’s a hooded merganser. Yes, it has that white patch at the rear of its crest. That’s what I’ll call it.

Such a sequence of perceptual events can take place across a wide range of discriminations or levels of detail regarding the patterns we are dealing with. We can perceive grossly or finely, remotely or closely, depending on our need at the moment in accord with what we feel is warranted by our current situation.

We shift the scale of our discernment to meet our interest at the time, allowing us to peer at, say, the hand weaving of a Navajo rug through a magnifying glass, or to step back to gain an overall sense of the pattern as if we were to imagine hanging it on the wall of our living room.

In general, experts and professionals make the extra effort required to appreciate the more detailed view, while laypersons settle for a quick scan from a greater distance in keeping with their everyday needs.

The discriminating observer takes pains to encompass a wide range of details in her understanding of a given sensory pattern of particular interest. A once-over-lightly approach is suitable to the curiosity level of the casual passer-by.

That whole series of events—fitting a particular sensory pattern to a preexisting route determined by a corridor of neurons reserved for members of a given concept bearing a familiar name—represents the categorization or recognition function of mind as the upshot of a given instance of perception. This function is the mind’s response to the question, What’s happening now? What’s going on? What am I seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and so on?

 

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin   [with 1 diagram]

I’ve been working on my new book on introspective consciousness, so to give you a taste of what’s coming up, I offer this revised version of Toward a theory of consciousness to serve as a kind of summary of the eight chapters. I include Figure 5 to illustrate what I am talking about in pictorial form. Y’r friend, –Steve

TOWARD A THEORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Situated-Self-Diag_5_96px

1. Subjectivity. By definition, consciousness is subjective; it cannot be fit into a framework that insists on objectivity. The locus of the unconscious may be the brain, but the locus of consciousness is the mind, enabled by the brain, but not identical to it in part or in whole, as an electrical circuit is not identical to the copper wire it is made of. Such circuits acquire characteristics by being turned on, as consciousness must be turned on or aroused. Such effects as resistance, inductance and capacitance arise from the existential flow of electrons within circuits, specifically, from interactions within that flow itself that affect how electrical energy is received, stored, and distributed. They arise from emergent and kinetic (not static) properties of electrons moving through closed circuits under particular conditions. Consciousness is somewhat similar in not being predetermined by the brain. Instead, as I see it, it rises above neural circuitry to interact through consonance and dissonance between its several parts.

Quantum physics incorporates minds into the observations they are likely to make. That is a huge step in the right direction. Insisting that subjective observers remain essentially pure and aloof from their personal observations is an exercise in ideology. Each observer is a multidimensional set of mental variables engaging the world in a variety of ways simultaneously. Results depend on what he or she had for lunch, whether he or she is well-rested, when he or she last had sex, and so on. When two or more scientists gather together, it only gets worse, that is, more complicated and less objective, because of the chemistry within and between them. I think a new branch of science allowing self-reflection as a productive and honorable profession based on first-person experience is due to emerge. This will compensate for deficiencies in the practice of neuroscience, allowing a more complete accounting for what consciousness is—and how it arises from the brain—to appear at last.

2. Three questions. In everyday practice, consciousness addresses three tacit questions: 1) What’s happening?; 2) What does that mean to me in my present situation?; and, 3) What should I do in response? Perception fields the first question, the situated self takes the second, and action resolves the third. At the risk of oversimplifying, I visualize the mind as being divided into interconnected departments or modules corresponding to this tripartite model. The perceptual department of mind extends between sensory receptors and the hippocampus, which facilitates the formation and recall of memories. What I call the situated self is at the heart of consciousness, with access to sensory impressions, understanding, memory, comparison, dreams, values, feelings, and imagination. And both of these departments connect to motor areas of mind and brain. The situated self connects via the planning areas of the brain, the province of judgment, decision, goals, projects, and relationships. The sensory department, too, can fire directly (and unconsciously) to the motor area, where impulse and habit can direct personal effort and force toward the world beyond.

But the story doesn’t end there, for by being caught up in a program of action, perception is set to gauge what happens next in order to follow-through on its commitment to effective and appropriate action, revising or even countering its initial assessment. Few actions are ends in themselves; most are stages in an ongoing progression of continuous activity. As in tennis, the game isn’t over once you serve the ball; you immediately position yourself to hit it again as it whizzes back over the net, and then again, and again. If you want to eat, you provision your pantry, decide what to have, prepare it, cook it, serve it, eat it, and wash up afterwards—and repeat the performance a few hours later.

I visualize personal consciousness as a process of ongoing activity which modifies our felt situation as we go, morphing time and again into a wholly new situation, which we fail to address at our peril. Survival is somewhat like tennis: we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball at all times. A rhinoceros could rumble out of the bushes any moment or, more likely, a child could chase a ball into the road ahead. The prize goes to the ever vigilant, not merely the fast, strong, smart, or beautiful.

3. Loops of engagement. The succession of perception-situation-action never ceases. I picture consciousness in terms of never-ending looping engagements by which any given action immediately initiates a subsequent round of perception-situation-action until the situation itself is no longer relevant, stopping the clock, inviting other situations to take over and start a new round, spiral, or helix of engagement. This spiraling (because never coinciding with its exact beginning) series is far more than a succession of working memories or hand-eye coordinations; this is how we make ourselves happen in the process of continually reinventing ourselves and our worlds.

4. Organ systems. Humans did not create consciousness all by themselves; they inherited it from their distinguished ancestors who, even on the cellular level, discovered that the membrane setting an organism off from its immediate environment had to be permeable in both directions, in and out. Exchange (interaction, give-and-take) was the rule, not the brilliant exception. At every scale, metabolisms need to be fed from the outside, and the buildup of waste products simultaneously eliminated. Voilà: the loop of engagement. The same basic principle applies to our pulmonary, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, immune, integumentary, and nervous systems. Looping engagements do not exist apart from the organic world; they are the heart of that world. So it should be no surprise that they are at the heart of consciousness as well.

5. Polarity. Consciousness is bipolar in nature, having both an interior and exterior pole. The situated self is the inner pole, the virtual or conjectural world being the outer. When we are born, we have no idea what we are getting into. We consist of an inner pole that has only its discomforts and satisfactions to go on as driven by the life force, but other than by crying or sucking, we have yet to learn how to engage in order to get more of what we want, and less of what we don’t want. Mother holds us in her arms, sharing her bodily warmth, her milk, her love, whispering softly, “Don’t cry little baby, stick with me and all will be revealed.” We do, and it is. Since conception, she has become the primal “other,” the outer pole of our existence, the first world we engage with. Our lives are the histories of the engagements that follow.

6. Trial and error. Every new life is an experiment to see what is effective and what not within the particular niche we occupy by means of our perceptions and actions. No one else shares those exact perspectival coordinates; we are in this life to discover how far we can travel via this singular point of being. On our deathbeds we realize our journey is done; the next leg is up to those who survive us via their own points of being. The experiment never comes to an end; it is what we share with all others of our kind to see if we can’t figure out what will work to keep us going, and what won’t. We have only our passionate beliefs to go by, there are no universal directions, guidebooks, gurus, recipes, magic potions to help us. We are condemned to a life of learning by doing and believing, hoping our subjective awareness will prove sufficient to the task. Through our parents, the universe hands us our bodily makeup and says, “See what you can do with this.” The rest is up to us.

7. Memory. Memory is the backbone of consciousness. Strong emotion and frequent repetition build stable connections within neural networks shaped by personal experience. Connections that aren’t used don’t persist. Memory gives us hope, dread, expectancy, recognition, sameness, familiarity, and a sense of the future, among other aspects of awareness. Memory allows us to look for more of the same, as well as for what is new, novel, different, and mind-expanding.

Consulting my own experience, I recognize three primary types of memory: 1) Spontaneous (or working) memory is fleeting, typically lasting only a few seconds; 2) autobiographical memory can preserve personal episodes for a lifetime as a result of long-term potentiation; 3) conceptual (or semantic) memory is abstracted from the flow of experience to represent persisting types or categories of sensory patterns as based on repeated presentations within a limited range of similarity, facilitating the convenient labeling of specific impressions as concepts approximating one familiar pattern or another.

8. Inputs to consciousness. Three very different inputs support consciousness: 1) materials delivered by bloodflow to fuel the metabolism of body and brain; 2) energy imparted to sensory organs that kindle impressions to be interpreted in light of prior experience as one’s proprietary awareness; and 3) the life force we inherit with our particular genome, the urge to eat, drink, breathe, laugh or cry, heal, rest, have sex, and keep going against all odds. Ambient energy and adequate nutrition are basic substrates of consciousness; reducing availability of either one results in mental impairment and degradation. Consciousness itself flows from the life force, the need to engage, to know what’s happening, to make meaning, to plan and then act, and then to discover what happens next. We call this yearning to engage “soul” or “spirit,” but it doesn’t belong to us as individuals. Rather, it is the endowment we receive by being born as organic beings to an energy-rich planet that gives us a toehold in the universe.

9. Levels of consciousness. Within the brain, two basic routes are available for passage from sensory impressions to appropriate actions: the first is a direct and unconscious route of reflex-mimicry-habit-routine-custom-belief that prompts immediate action on appearance of particular sensory cues; the second is a longer and slower route of conscious consideration that entails reflection, judgment, and decision in arriving at a plan of action situated in subjective life experience. Both impulsivity and consideration are available to us in every situation. We choose between them on the basis of our self-awareness as actors in a world largely of our own making. If we size-up our situation incorrectly, that is our call and our error. If we want to be sure of doing the right thing, we must examine the situation carefully to increase the probability that what we do is appropriate to the specific set of circumstances we are in. I refer to these two options as being on different mental levels, the unconscious and the conscious, what I have elsewhere referred to as the high road and low road.

10. Animal consciousness. Other kinds of consciousness become apparent from observation of animal behavior. In many species, individuals are apt to be differentially affected by sensory stimulation (depending on genetic, dietary, experiential, physical, developmental, and social variables, among others), and to exhibit idiosyncratic behaviors as a result. Speaking more generally, different species live in different sensory worlds, and appear to be conscious in a variety of ways. Humans lack the lateral-line receptors of fish that detect the relative motion of water against the two sides of their bodies, allowing them to orient themselves in a current, and to detect unmoving objects at a distance. We don’t have the hearing sensitivity of bats, scenting ability of dogs, sensitivity to heat of pit vipers, directional hearing of deer, scanning ability of electric fishes, magnetic sensibility of eels, sharks, and birds. We may be fellow creatures, but our respective sensibilities situate us in very different niches in parallel worlds of consciousness on the planet we share.

11. Comparison. Change, difference, motion, and comparison are other basic principles underlying consciousness. Memory not only allows us to categorize sensory patterns, but also to notice what has changed or is different in respect to their former makeup or to a set standard pattern. Comparison of neural signals in, say, adjacent or reciprocating cortical columns creates a sense of relationship (depth perception, symmetry, consonance, dissonance, extension, expansion, proportion, opposition, elaboration, and so on) in consciousness. I view comparison between current and prior impressions as firing up consciousness itself in proportion to the disparity detected. If nothing has changed, there’s no need to pay attention and we can get by on habit and routine. But if changes are noted, are they for better or worse? We spend much of our mental energy evaluating implications of situations that change and develop.

This suggests to me that consciousness is a form of memory, or, more accurately, a way of remembering in a current situation so that past and present impressions are compared, and any disparity directs attention to discover what if anything can be told by the difference. And, further, how such a difference might bear on our behavior. In other words, discrepancy is viewed within a framework of subjective meaning, enabling evaluation of what difference it makes.

12. Meaning. Each individual stream of consciousness is unique and available to only one specific animal or person. In that sense, each conscious being has a proprietary interest in its ongoing experience within its experiential niche, and is personally responsible for actions based on that experience. Meaning is another fundamental principle of consciousness, evaluating the new in reference to the expected or commonplace. Each of us survives on the strength of how well we interpret the flow of energy through our sensory portals in light of our prior experience. The meaning of a sensory pattern is not conveyed by the pattern itself but by how we subjectively construe it. It is invented on the spot, not given by others. Meaning is a product of assimilating sensory impressions to the existing order of subjective understanding, or if that doesn’t work, of expanding that order in such a way to accommodate novel impressions.

13. Time and space. Comparisons resulting from our ways of believing and remembering lead to detection of discrepancies, which are changes since we last looked (listened, touched, tasted, sniffed). Perceptual changes noted by a passive observer (as when sitting still listening to music) are changes in time; by a moving observer (riding along in a car or bus) are changes in space; by an active and moving observer (dancing, climbing a tree, bushwhacking through woods), changes in space-time. Time and space aren’t out there coursing through the universe, they are in us as a sense of calibrated change. Our culture provides the calibration; we provide the awareness of detecting and enacting change. When the cultural calibrators die off, only change will remain, and when individual memory dies, awareness of change itself will wink out.

14. Phenomena. The aim and purpose of consciousness is to achieve behaviors appropriate to one’s actual situation in a world that cannot be known in itself—a logically impossible task, but one we attempt at every waking moment. Mind is an emergent property of the brain, but the workings of the brain in terms of the electro-chemical traffic flow through idiosyncratic neural networks are very different from the workings of the world outside our bodies, so sensory impressions are not simply representations of the world but point-for-point creative renditions in what amounts to a singular universe within consciousness. In practice if not in convincement, we all are dedicated phenomenologist because phenomena (appearances, impressions) as rendered by our sensory apparatus are what we have to go on, not things in themselves. Since each being is unique, its stream of consciousness is unique, and the world it construes for itself is unique—its actual situation being a matter of conjecture and imagination based on the evidence of its senses in light of its situated understanding.

15. Dreams. Dreams and reveries are variations of consciousness in which we are shut off from the world of conventional action and stimulation, but can nonetheless simulate sensory impressions courtesy of random eye movements and fixations that activate neural pathways to stir up fleeting images from memory as if we were fully awake. Our dreamselves cannot engage, for they can neither perceive nor act, so we must make do with memory, letting our dreams themselves illuminate the journey of the self we are, without being situated other than in our personal histories. As potential perceiver and potential actor, the dreamself is at the core of the waking self. We do well to pay close attention to our dreams as informants about the history of our core selves all the way back to infancy when, indeed, our deeds and impressions lie ahead of us. This latent, so-called theory of consciousness is the narrative told to me in my dream-like reflections, and I am sharing with you as a gesture of neighborliness.

16. Introspection. Science, I think, traditionally underplays the value of introspection as a message from the interior of one person. The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria. The arts, on the other hand, along with the humanities, diverse human cultures, sports, business, and military engagements, and other factual or fictional endeavors celebrate individual differences, and play them up as valuable in themselves for distinguishing us one from another in admirable ways. If we were all the same, we would be zombies, and life would progress from dull to duller to dullest. Any unique being cannot be a zombie because one-of-a-kind zombies are oxymorons, contradictions unto themselves. Zombies have surrendered whatever it is that makes them individually distinct. In a world composed of unique individuals, insisting on consensual agreement on the nature of individuality and uniform behavior is a forlorn hope dependent on excessive abstraction and generalization.

17. A tale of two selves. The upshot of this narrative is that we are heavily invested in our subjective consciousness as the lived edition of our personal survival—that tale of two centers—subjective and virtual—facing off against each other at opposite poles of our engagements, separated by the membrane that serves as our skin. This is a tale of two selves, for the virtual world we imagine is largely fleshed out by our own experience as we remember it, so is an extension of our situated perspective as a kind of alter ego accompanying and complementing us in our experiment to see if we can’t get some things, at least, right. Which we all manage to do as demonstrated by our ever spiraling engagement in the streaming adventure of mental life, giving others the impression we are present and accounted-for. To those others, we serve as the virtual poles complementing their subjective selves as situated in the shadows of their own impressions, dreams, life force, and actions.

That’s it for now. Hang in there, and focus on your issues, not the world’s (which are too much for any of us). –Steve

 

Reflection 316: Self-Awareness

September 7, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I see it, phenomenology applies the powers of mind to understanding the self. Fundamentally, it is self-reflection taken to an extreme degree in discovering not the everyday, self-accustomed I in its everyday world, but how the biological self pieces together that I from the several dimensions of consciousness. These dimensions include sensory impressions; meaningful interpretations of those impressions; as well as feelings, biological values, autobiographical memory, accustomed habits, personal points of view, and felt situations within which subsequent courses of action become meaningful.

Phenomenology, that is, accounts for derivation of a course of appropriate action from analysis of sensory input within a situation informed by both current motivation and prior experience. It is an ongoing process for suiting actions of the self to the conditions shaping the situation within which that self exists as a coherent whole composed of diverse dimensions of consciousness.

From my own self-analysis, I identify these dimensions as including, on the perceptual side:

  • the cultural setting of experience
  • expectancy derived from past experience
  • arousal or wakefulness
  • attention
  • sensory impressions or phenomena
  • concepts as recognizable classes of sensory impressions
  • understanding within fields of interrelated concepts
  • feelings
  • biological values
  • culminating in a perspectival sense of the situation one is facing at the time.

Dimensions of consciousness on the behavioral side include:

  • judgments prompted by felt situations
  • decisions about what might be done
  • setting of goals
  • planning of projects and relationships
  • execution of projects and relationships
  • culminating in a program of action monitored by attention.

The entire assembly of coordinated dimensions of consciousness constitutes a loop of engagement joining an individual to a world within the situation as consciously construed in his or her mind.

By this scheme, our lives don’t just happen as they do; we make them happen in light of our biological motivations and prior experiences applied to our current situations as we construct them in our minds. Yes, we respond to patterns of energy interpreted as events in the world, but we also make ourselves happen as our engagements with those ongoing events develop moment-by-moment.

Phenomenology is the conscious and deliberate study of those momentary events in our personal experience as based on the dimensions of consciousness that apply at the time. Even if we don’t study them, those moments happen unconsciously anyway—as if we had no agency in their doing. Phenomenology applies the powers of the mind to personal experience, highlighting our role in making ourselves happen as we do.

No more and no less, phenomenology is the process of making ourselves—not world-aware—but self-aware. That is, it lets us shoulder responsibility for being ourselves without blaming the world for making us who we are. No learning can be more crucial than that in coming to self-understanding and self-realization. Which is why I am subjecting you to this exercise.

As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Phenomenology is the art of celebrating sensory impressions (phenomena) without imposing categories of meaning upon them. Of considering those impressions for their own sensory qualities—before wrapping them in concepts, language, or ideas. Phenomenology focuses on immediate sensory experience, not on fitting experience to culturally acceptable interpretations and conventions. The issue is not what Picasso’s Guernica or a Beethoven string quartet “means” but what it is in it’s own right.

I celebrate my little world by taking pictures of what I see. That is one of my primary engagements—seeing what kind of a world I belong to. All else—knowledge, culture, economics, science—does violence to seeing the world in that way. Before I am a member of a particular culture, I am an Earthling through and through.

Here are a few images taken between June 25 and June 29, 2012, from my homeland, the world of Steve from Planet Earth.

P1000763_BI-10_96 P1000833-b-290-1_96

P1000835-b-290-2_96P1000836-b-290-3_96 P1000837-b-290-4_96 P1000843-b-290-5_96P1000856-b-290-6_96 P1000858-b-290-7_96 P1000859-b-290-8_96 P1000900-b-290-9_96 Living in such a mind as I do, is it any wonder that I am a phenomenologist?

Hope all’s well in your mental world. Y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 239: Findings

March 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK  summarizes 30 years of my first-person effort to describe and understand my own mind. The book itself is the record of my thinking about my own thinking. Starting with this blog in 2008, it has taken me four years to put my findings all together in written form. What did I learn from that effort?

In no particular order, here are some of my main learnings:

  • My brain knows nothing; my mind knows all.
  • Without memory I would know nothing.
  • Consciousness compares past patterns of experience with present patterns of arousal, using the former to get leverage on the latter.
  • The act of comparison releases feelings of novelty or familiarity, kindling laughter or tears, polar feelings of this is good or this is bad.
  • That polarity arouses consciousness so it can recommend an appropriate behavioral response to the situation that brought on the feeling.
  • Neutral feelings are blah and do not arouse high levels of consciousness. Routine gestures will do the job, driven perhaps by assumptions, habits, or prejudices.
  • Expectancy is the leading edge of memory in a recognizable or familiar situation.
  • Surprise, novelty, or lack of understanding can alert consciousness to pay attention to the telling details of an arousing situation.
  • Perception, categorization (interpretation), and understanding go together when I try to wrap my mind around a salient situation. My past reaches out through the medium of expectation to grapple with what is currently happening. I try to fit novel events into conceptual bins (categories) in order to assimilate the new to the old and familiar.
  • If I can’t fit a sensory pattern into a conceptual bin I already have, I have to accommodate by stretching an existing bin to allow a metaphorical extension, or even create a new concept for what is happening (this is called learning).
  • Attention, memory, and action are stages in my looping engagement with my sensory world.
  • I can only receive signals based on energy and matter through my senses, not knowledge or information. My sense of smell and taste acknowledge actual molecules from the outside have found their way inside my nose and mouth. What I make of such signals is strictly my doing, not the world’s, not some sign of universal truth.
  • Consciousness receives patterns of energy. It’s assignment is to interpret what that pattern means, determine its significance, and to channel the results forward in my mind as the basis for appropriate action through an immediate physical response or a project accomplished over a period of time.
  • That is the basic functioning of my end of my loop of engagement with my unknown surroundings. The far end courses through the world around me, which in turn sends signals back to my senses, which I need to diagnose and interpret in order to adjust my initial understanding of my current situation, leading to a refined course of gestures aimed at making an increasingly appropriate response.
  • Round and round I go, alternately hitting the ball, seeing where it goes, and fielding it the best I can when it comes back—or not—whichever proves to be the case. My life is a game of action and response governed by reflexes, habits, prejudice, or conscious reflection.
  • My culture does its best to calibrate my sensibility so I interpret set routines the way my mentors and teachers do. That way, I become a member in good standing with those around me. What I know is what they know because they are the ones who have taught me how to respond to a repertory of set cues.
  • Which often does violence to what I have come to understand on my own through personal experience. Creating a tension between my original self and my community, causing me to seek some kind of rationale for explaining and justifying the difference.
  • Self-determination is the most authentic and powerful of all values and motivations. If I don’t act out of the full weight of my personal experience, then I am acting as others would have me act, and I end up doing the bidding of those others for the sake of social conformity—often at great cost to my personal identity.
  • Each person on Earth is a unique individual. His or her childhood rearing is unique, schooling is unique, work history is unique, emotional history, genetic makeup, neural network, autobiography, feelings, values—all unique. If we don’t act for ourselves, who, then, are we acting for? Working for? Living for?
  • Consciousness matters. Personal consciousness as driven by the unique history of our individual lives in the regions of the Earth we have experienced most directly—that sets who we are. Who we are drives how we behave. How we behave determines what we do. What we do provides a base for others to respond to us. How others and the world respond completes our personal loops of engagement. By which we judge how well we fit to our time and place on Earth.
  • We each employ a different set of tools or accessories in conducting our engagements. We wear hats and sweaters, which are our hats and sweaters. They are our personal property because our looping engagements depend on them—on our cars, dwellings, computers, cooking utensils, pets, spouses and partners, children, parents, friends—and all the rest. It is no accident who we choose to live with, what pets we have, where we live, what hat we make or buy. They all tell us something about how our consciousness engages our surroundings.

That’s some of what my book deals with from a first-person, singular point of view. Not only a single point of view, but a unique point of view. As you are unique in the point of view from which you lead your life. The upshot being that our diversity is our strength because it determines what we have to offer one another.

That’s part of the story. More later. Y’r friend, –Steve