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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some migratory birds may use the stars to navigate by. And we humans have long relied on the stars to guide our travels at night. We are born to them, after all, to the sky at night as well as the day. Once we escape the glare of city lights, what else is there to see at night than the moon, planets, and stars?

We may not be taken by individual stars so much as the luminous array stretching across a dark sky. Who (in the northern hemisphere) has not oohed and aahed at the sight of Orion in winter months or the Milky Way spread overhead in summer?

Our primal relation to the stars is demonstrably preverbal. We utter appreciative noises that hint at the awe within us as we lift our eyes to them, but words generally fail us, as they fail astronauts gazing down on Earth from their capsules, shuttles, and stations in near space.

It’s not so much that stars have no meaning as that we aren’t accustomed to grandeur on so vast a scale. There’s nothing else like them. The stars may be remote, but the feelings they engender in us are at the core of our being aware. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Navigators, of course, have long steered by the stars. And along with clouds, winds, currents, and waves, have used them to populate remote Pacific islands. Astronomers make a living trying to understand the stars, along with astrophysicists and cosmologists. Tell an astrologer your time and place of birth, and he or she will plot the positions of sun, moon, and planets against the twelve houses of the zodiac, producing a horoscope that is yours alone.

Imagine modern life without images provided by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, or many orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope. I have to admit to being star-struck as a kid, ogling meteor showers, passing comets, and, lower down, displays of green and sometimes red auroras borealis.

I am struck by fireflies, too, and glints off the water, but anything to do with lights in the sky at night commands my attention, including airplane lights and sun-glinting satellites. The cosmic aesthetic may be ethereal, but it is compelling nonetheless.

Too, we are all born to the lore of the constellations that guided early explorers on their far travels across deserts, snowfields, and oceans alike. When we peer at the stars, we subjectively group them into familiar patterns, whose names we then cast onto the heavens. The constellations are in our minds more than in the stars, but we use them nonetheless to map the skies at night as seen from our respective locations on Earth.

From my perspective in midsummer Maine, Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre are high overhead amid the sweep of the Milky Way. Whether seen as bear or dipper, Ursa Major and Minor round the (north) pole star through the course of a year. Sagittarius the archer (or teapot) is more to the south in summer. On maps of stars of the Southern Hemisphere, I find Horologium the clock, Sextans the sextant, Musca the fly, Telescopium the telescope.

Constellations are a cooperative venture between meaningless stars and the pattern-seeking minds of humans on the lookout for meaning by projecting recognizable shapes onto the heavens. Even the patterns are illusions in being made up of stars distributed in three-dimensional space (not spread thinly across the supposed “dome” we make of the celestial regions). In that we do violence to the stars for the sake of making them conveniently familiar and comprehensible.

Seeing a parade of godlike figures along the zodiac is no different. All of astrology is in human heads, along with the naming of planets after ancient gods, envisioning the stars as circling the Earth in twenty-four hours, and the sun as gliding through the twelve constellations of the zodiac in a year’s time.

Such doings illustrate our human yen to engage the stars to discover their meaning. If we don’t find it there, then, well, we make it up to suit our needs at the time. We’ve been doing just that—and then painfully trying to undo it—throughout the course of recorded history. It is one thing to see what we see; something else again to take responsibility for our part in the process of putting mind and night image together as if they were one and the same.

That is a profound lesson the stars have to teach us because we now know there are no actual groupings of stars such as the houses and constellations we chart on our maps of the heavens. As I personally know that the figures I project onto the wavering filaments of the northern lights are a result of my mind doing its best to find familiar shapes where no such disciplined forms actually exist.

It might seem like our home planet is at the precise center of universal goings-on, but that is a story told by our Neolithic perspective, which gives no account of galaxies, arms of galaxies, minor suns in the arms of galaxies, or of minor planets circling such stars—of which we now know there must be billions.

It only strikes us that we occupy the center of the Great All because our minds are trapped in their black boxes in our heads, and that’s what we make of the puzzle of the outside world in a kind of grand guess about what may be out there in clear view above the horizon of what our naïve minds have any chance to understand.

I took C. Kenneth Meese’s Theory of the Photographic Process with me into the Army when I was drafted. I’ll bet no other draftee has ever chosen that particular book to take with him into the service. But the choice made sense to me because I wanted to know how light striking a light-sensitive emulsion could produce a photographic image.

Kodak made emulsions out of cheek pieces of cattle obtained from slaughterhouses. The makeup of those cheek pieces depended on what the cattle had eaten in the fields they had lived in. The sensitivity of the photographic emulsions invented by George Eastman depended on the amount of sulfur from mustard weed the cows had ingested.

Kodak film came to depend on very strict quality control of the diets of cows whose cheek pieces went into the gelatin from which that film was made. Who could have known, or even suspected? I loved it, reading that book by flashlight after taps during basic training. The Army didn’t own me completely; by clinging to such idiosyncratic engagements, I was still my own man.

So here I am today, writing about the exploration of my own mind, trying to finish this project before I die, continuing a tradition begun so long ago under the influence of the family I was born to as middle male child out of three. I loved my parents, but felt distant from them. My older brother had my father’s attention; my younger brother was my mother’s chief concern. I turned my engagements into the world of nature and discovery. Given the family I was born to, I didn’t know what else to do.

Here I am, still at it, but with a twist. Looking inward because so few others have taken that path, and among all choices, that is the one that intrigues me the most. The real action is not in the world or its universe. It is in the miracle of our own minds that dare entertain such mysteries.

Einstein’s famous thought experiments were all in his mind, as current theories of how the universe works are in the minds of modern cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists. I can’t understand taking on the universe with an incomplete grasp of the primary tool I use to observe its features. Talk about carts before horses, that strikes me as insane, employing a mind you don’t understand to probe the biggest mystery of all. The blind leading the blind. Trapped in worlds of conjecture and opinion.

All going back to the families we were raised in, to our primal engagements, and the lifelong habits we build around them. To the situations we found ourselves in early on and tried to understand. And to explain, often mainly to ourselves. The very selves we have to understand in getting beyond our limitations to a true appreciation of our place in the cosmos.

The development of our minds begins in our families where we catch on to the trick of linking perception to judgment to acting on purpose, then extending our reach into nature, culture community, and back to us in our families. Taking full responsibility for such loops of engagement, we can begin to understand features of the universe beyond our true grasp.

This post concludes my series not only on family engagements, but engagements with nature, culture, and community as well. I now switch to considering three examples of engagements that distinguish us as a people: our engagements with baseball as our national pastime, Roget’s Thesaurus as a reference on every writer’s bookshelf, and with the stars which serve as a luminous slate for projecting our deepest needs into the mystery of the night sky.

To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking it out.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

416. Natural Wonders

January 27, 2015

So what does nature do? It has an arsenal of nasty tricks: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, mudslides, windstorms, snowstorms, ice storms, sandstorms, firestorms, floods, droughts, avalanches, sinkholes, pandemics, and the rest of the worst that we think of as natural catastrophes. Nature’s destructive side often makes headlines.

At the opposite extreme is nature as shown on monthly calendars: scenic, subtle, serene, colorful, majestic, calming, dramatic, inviting, exhilarating, glorious, beautiful, cute, adorable, and so on. Nature is inherently neither one nor the other. It is what we make of it, depending on what we want it to be in a given situation.

Dead squid on Ellsworth schist.

A dead squid does its best to match the pattern of the rock beneath it.

Largely, nature is a high-level abstraction built up from our cumulative experience in natural settings over a lifetime. Yes, it is subject to seasonal and daily variations. It has a lot to do with flowing water, both fresh and salt, hot and cold. And sunlight, which depends on clouds and where the sun is in the sky.

The topic of nature brings wild animals to mind—birds, snakes, salamanders, fish, marsupials, mammals, dinosaurs, whales, insects, spiders. Too, nature is a hard and gritty place, full of rocks, cliffs, mountains, boulders, pebbles, sand. Then there are the stars, which are so remote as to form a special class by themselves, in the company of asteroids, meteors, comets, planets, galaxies, nebulas, and much closer to home, auroras.

Lentil-shaped Clouds

A few of the shapes and colors of nature.

For me, nature brings to mind experiences I’ve had outdoors in the fresh air. The first such foray I can recall is looking for mayflowers with my mother and two brothers by peering under leaves released by melting snow. My mother was from Maine, so she knew about such things. That was near Hamilton, New York, almost eighty years ago. Where we also went outdoors in winter to cut a balsam fir that we took indoors and hung with decorations.

About the same time, when I was four, I remember jumping off the bow of a lobster boat in Maine, landing on rockweed, slipping, hitting my knee. On that trip we tented in Acadia National Park so we could explore my mother’s nearby homeland around Sullivan. I remember running through woods, finding a deer antler, which I had no idea you could just come across as if it belonged right where it was. That experience hugely expanded my view of “outdoors.”

Edge of the sea.

The protective coloration of a least sandpiper matches its native habitat.

I also remember eastern cottontails sitting still behind every stump and standing tree on a small island that had recently been cut-over for timber. That and raspberry bushes scratching my legs.

A few years later, I hiked with my family to the fire tower on top of Schoodic Mountain, near where my mother grew up. We climbed through stiff summit winds on a rickety ladder to talk with the fire ranger in his tower standing over his plane-table map of surrounding terrain, a man who wouldn’t look us in the eye because he was so watchful of the forestlands stretching around us in every direction, on the lookout for faint wisps of smoke.

For almost 500 million years, these trilobite descendants are still going strong.

Wave-tossed horseshoe crabs mate in Taunton Bay, Maine.

As a boy in Hamilton, I spent many Saturdays in March and April roaming surrounding hills, drawn by meltwater forming little rivers rushing into the valley. I dammed those rivers by poking palisades of twigs into damp soil, got sopping wet head-to-toe, and had the time of my life.

In summer, I explored creeks flowing from those same hills, looking for fossils in the black layers of slate that formed the walls those creeks had dug into bedrock. Crinoids. Fluted mollusks. Trilobites of all sizes. I learned to take hammer and chisel with me to break into natural cracks, freeing the wonders within.

Ancient birch with one last limb.

An ancient birch extends one last limb into the canopy to catch a few rays.

That’s who I still am today, Steve from planet Earth, poker of twigs, launcher of leaf boats, pryer-loose of fossils, staunch defender of watersheds and the life they support.

Later, just after the war when I was fourteen, I stood looking from the shore of Lido Key in Sarasota out over the Gulf of Mexico, and saw without warning a great manta ray lift from the gulf, hover above the surface of the water, and glide back into the depths, something I had never imagined before and have never seen since, that single experience alerting me to the possibilities offered by a lifetime of curiosity, exploration, and discovery.

Which I am living to this day in exploring and writing about my own mind. I take the sight of that manta as the very emblem of who I was then and still am, an Earthling to the core, alert to the natural wonders of my home planet.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will follow up that query in my next blog.

No getting around it, we learn by sensing and doing. This requires liberal doses of time, frustration, variation, imagination, refinement, experimentation, curiosity, and practice, practice, practice. If leeway for such a program is not built into our schools, then we fall back on rote learning to be fed back on the test.

Better, we let students pose their own answers, and wrestle with working them through, making a great many errors along the way. Those errors will be their own errors, which they will learn to correct in short order.

Education based on trial and error is far better than learning to mimic a paradigm from the outset. How would you go about solving this problem? How do you see this situation? What options can you think of for ways to move ahead? Which option is the fastest? Cheapest? Most enjoyable? Easiest? Hardest? In the long/short run, best?

The role of education is to unleash the promise with which each child is born to this and future worlds, not to shape that promise to the desires of a select group of strangers driven by self-serving interests.

 

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of situations I get myself into. As I use the term, it points to relationships in nature I notice but don’t understand. My kind of wildness prompts feelings of awe and wonder, leading to questions about why things turn out as I discover them. Here are a few sample questions based on my pursuit of wildness during this past summer.

  • Why do trees grow layers of smooth bark—only to rend them in growing bigger, producing characteristic patterns and textures of rough bark?
  • Why do lichens express themselves in so many different forms?
  • Who drops crab parts on the forest floor far from water?
  • Why do Indian pipes sprout up in thick clumps, and who pollinates them so they can do it again next year?
  • Why do mushrooms come in so many colors?
  • Is it mushroom spores or flesh (or both) that attracts slugs?
  • Which comes first, flowers or their pollinators? Do they evolve together?
  • Life exposed at low tide seems so vulnerable to shoreline scavengers (raccoons, foxes, gulls, crows, eagles); it’s as if sharing the wealth were part of nature’s wild structure. Or is that my wild imagination?
  • Foresters talk about “overage” trees which should have been cut, but snags and decaying stems and branches are essential to healthy forest ecosystems in the future. What am I missing?
  • I have never found two trees alike; each grows into its unique location on Earth as an expression of the unique conditions on that site. Yet we talk in general terms of “wood” and “trees” and “forests” as if particular trees did not exist as living beings. Once we reduce life to platitudes and generalities (“dinosaurs,” “Indians,” “natural resources”), we are not telling the full story. Why do we base education on books as a substitute for personal discoveries and insights in the field?
  • How long does it take a spider to spin a ground web? How does it do that, fitting each strand to the local terrain?
  • Why is old man’s beard found on one branch of a tree and not another nearby? Does it get water from airborne vapor, or does that vapor need to condense on individual filaments?

Wildness to me is one big question. It is something that draws my attention but I can’t explain. I live with wildness every day as a mystery I seem to be immersed in, even though I know that sense is in me and not the world. If wildness existed in the world, everybody would be exploring it and asking questions, not making a killing on Wall Street or a battlefield in some distant land. Wildness is right here where I live because it is something I take with me everywhere I go. Wildness is part and parcel of my consciousness, a feature of my inquisitive mind.

It is no accident I have a small digital camera in a case on my belt. I love to photograph the wild mysteries I come across in my wanderings, and have since I was four years old. This summer I’ve been engaged with wildness every day, producing hundreds of JPG files each week. That’s what I do when I confront wildness—take its picture, if I can. Other people listen to music, watch TED talks, go to movies. I press the shutter. Then Photoshop each picture, adjusting size, contrast, brightness, sharpness. I compare photos I’ve made of wildness, select the few that present it best to my eye, resize them to post to my blog, upload them to show the world the kinds of situations I get into while making myself happen as I do.

It’s all here in this blog—the sensory impressions I face on a daily basis, the situations I build around those impressions because they’re so wild, and actions I take in response to that situated wildness by going through the necessary steps of engagement it takes to post my words and photos to the Web.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of being conscious in the way I have learned to think about consciousness over the past thirty years in terms of loops of engagement connecting my mind to the world—and hopefully to other minds in other corners of the world.

I’ll add a few more photos of wildness as I see it in my next post.

As ever (while I last), y’r friend, —Steve from Planet Earth

P.S. While stretching my legs after writing this post, I heard a whooshing sound nearby along the trail, and looked down on the rotting carcass of a snowshoe hare, covered with flies, alighting after my approach sent them whooshing up. Wildness in the flesh (i.e., in my mind). I came across the same scene on a different trail last year; it was gone in two days, old life turned to new.