In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.

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.

The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

What Sumerian priests discovered 5,400 years ago was synchrony between goings-on in the night sky and human labors on Earth below—on both daily and yearly scales of events.

What they didn’t discover was the cause of that dual synchrony in the daily rotation of Earth on its axis, together with its annual and seasonal journey around the sun, with the planes of those two motions tilted at an angle of twenty-three-and-a-half degrees one to the other.

Instead, the stars and planets themselves were credited with their own self-propulsive powers as inherent in the cosmic order fulfilled nightly overhead.

How marvelous that daily and yearly procession must have seemed. It was truly a revelation. A grasping of the stunning difference between chaos and cosmos, disorder and order. What a powerful idea! That a system with so many moving parts was ruled by the gratifying harmony of motion that joined Earth, planets, sun, moon, and stars in unison together as one idea or system of ideas. Not for a day, a season, a year, but—as evidence and wonder accrued from generation to generation—seemingly forever.

If we put ourselves in that era of grand discovery, the temple priests who formulated that formative cosmology were clearly on the leading edge of their personal experience, and the collective experience of their people.

Their grand vision of cosmic harmony (as of 3,200 BCE), combined with belief that the power of self-motion was shared by stars, planets, and humans as indubitable proof of the motive power of the living soul (because only living beings could move of their own will)—that coupling of ideas was the intellectual achievement of their time in expressing their early grasp of cosmology in the intuitive concept that bound human understanding and labor to the very force that drove the universe.

It was apparently the Sumerians who saw that each point of light in the sky reflected the overall scheme of a world (or cosmic) soul as the driving force behind the evidence they beheld with their own eyes.

Do stars have meaning for humans? Indeed, as profound as meaning can be. Practical meaning. Cultural meaning. Historic meaning. Religious meaning. Aesthetic meaning. Ideal meaning. Survival meaning. All taken together surely amounting to the truth. Or at least an approximation of the truth. A truth that would stand until a more durable one came along. A truth in the fallible human mind. Which, no matter how many people believe it, is where all concepts-ideas-thoughts-truths reside.

The fragility of this particular truth was compounded in coming generations by the combined musings of Plato, Aristotle, and both their Neoplatonist and Christian heirs early in the new millennium—unto Thomas Aquinas and the builders of Mediaeval cathedrals who expressed this singular truth in stone and stained glass—in idealizing and personifying the idea that drives the universe as the principle of absolute reason, goodness, and harmony at the core of a universe such as they chose to believe in.

 

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.

 

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.

 

We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?

403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.

 

 

 

 

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?