496. Storylines

April 29, 2015

In this last post to my blog on consciousness, I want to clinch my argument that loops of engagement are evolution’s gift to us all by providing evidence of the many ways we engage our surroundings every day of our lives.

First of all, let me remind you that humans are a species of storytellers. For most of our history, we have survived by telling stories around places of fire that offered us comfort and warmth. Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. From the opening “Once upon a time,” to the concluding “lived happily ever after,” one thing leads to another by a particular order of events. This happens, then this, then this, making up the succession of engagements in the time and place of particular characters of which a story is told.

We all want to hear what happened to the little girl when she walked into the woods to visit her grandmother. Or to the brother and sister when invited into her home in the forest by an old woman. We are driven to sit still and listen, even if we’ve heard the tale many times. We become captivated by the unfolding of events according to the plots we are all familiar with. Once the story is told, we can’t wait to hear it again. To live it again. To experience the drama again. To feel the tension in our own bodies as if it were our own story being told.

Stories are narrations of specific engagements we can identify with. It makes little difference if they are fact or fiction or documented history. What they offer is to put us imaginatively in someone else’s shoes so we can share what life feels like to be them on particular occasions. That is powerful magic.

We gauge that magical effect by how closely it follows our expectations. We don’t like it if the happy ending turns sad. Or the tragic ending turns sickeningly sweet. Details of character and form and plot are what we remember because they govern how we feel at different times during the narration.

That is, we listen to stories to see how they measure up against our own life engagements. Do they expand or diminish our horizons? Do they hook us or turn us off? Shaggy dog stories lead us on and on and on, leaving us stranded right where we were at the beginning, making a mockery of our expectations, as in a bad joke.

Sheer violence draws some crowds and offends others. The news is made up of episodes of rape followed by shark attacks by beheadings by school collapses by tornadoes by typhoons by earthquakes by forest fires by nuclear disasters by collisions by busloads of schoolchildren tumbling end-over-end into ravines. We are surrounded by the shock and awe of chaos every day of our lives. Which makes us glad for the humdrum lives we actually lead—until disaster strikes in our midst.

Whether real or fanciful, our engagements are writ large in films, operas, ballets, plays, sporting events, songs, and every other aspect of our culture. What is a musical score but the latent storyline of audience engagement? What are songs, lyrics, poems, paintings, travelogues, biographies, adventures, novels, recipes, jokes, anecdotes, videos, picture puzzles—what are any of these media of intense concentration but opportunities for meaningful engagement?

What are everyday conversations around the watercooler at work or table at Starbucks but occasions for human engagement? What is syntax but the turning of a felt situation into a sequence of words that others can experience in a meaningful way?

Think of the milestones of life: learning to walk, talk, dress yourself, count, spell, write. These are the essential engagements of civilized human life. Think of getting engaged, getting married, building a house, having a baby, getting a job, getting a better job, having another baby, putting on a new roof, getting a divorce, traveling to Maine or Alaska or Italy or Cambodia or Kenya or Tierra del Fuego—all major episodes of engagement that connect our minds to our surroundings in specific ways according to certain narratives, schedules, and itineraries.

Plots and stories: that’s what life is made of. Birth to death, beginning to end, experiences strung together on the storylines by which our lives are told. That’s what we are to one another, tellers of stories, enactors of stories, recallers of stories, garblers of stories, forgetters of stories.

We are companions in storytelling, believing, doing, leading our lives. Our commonalities of engagement bind us together; our differences split us apart. Either way, our stories-narratives-engagements make us human. To be a blank slate is to be sub-human, a kind of zombie. Even animals engage. We know that by watching their eyes, smiles, tails, the hairs on the back of their necks. Some in greater detail than others, more consciously than others.

Even trees engage sunlight, rain, snow, wind, and predators, so engage their habitats and survive differentially. Are they conscious? I would say in their own way. In the way of life on Earth in its local precinct of the larger whole that supplies the matter and energy by which Earthlings can be said to live by bridging the gap between inside and outside.

My blog is devoted to the inside picture of our human engagements with one another and the outside worlds we share in common. Perception, memory, comparison, judgment, goals, actions—all play their parts in telling the story of consciousness that makes us possible.

Our stories tell who we are in doing, going, being, seeing, playing, writing, singing, dancing, shopping, driving, knitting—engaging—as we do by living the lives that we do.

To me, consciousness is the story that begins and underlies all other stories. It is the story of all stories. If we ignore it, can we claim to be alive on that most fundamental of all levels?

I have no doubt that the pains I have taken in these posts to tell my version of the story of consciousness have been—if uninvited—necessary for me to live as myself. By telling it, I am paying my dues to the planet that has given me birth, and shared its energies and resources so that I could be conscious in this particular day and age.

As I see it, I owe the Earth nothing less than this account of my mental endeavors. For me, finishing that work is, indeed, a happy ending. The best I could have hoped for because, with the recent deaths of my two brothers reminding me of the imminence of my own, I haven’t been sure I could do it until now.

As I wrote in my post 394 on New Year’s Day, 2015, “Happiness is being the person you most want to be, doing the things you most want to do.” I followed that with “Happy New Year, everybody!”

Now, 102 posts later, I say: May your own story reach the ending you have strived for all these years.

Because that (your own) ending may be in doubt, I feel an unplanned afterword coming on. I refer you to my next post.

Thanks for engaging my words and ideas to the extent you have been consciously interested.

492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

My claim in this series of posts is that consciousness is not fully contained within the brain, but is a distributive property achieved by an organism’s collaborative engagement with its planetary environment.

Take the brain out of its normal range of ambient stimulation, as in solitary confinement or other forms of sensory deprivation, and consciousness suffers a morbid decline. In a depleted environment, consciousness develops to a lesser degree.

Those who survive in depleted sensory environments learn to engage with ants and spiders crawling in the corners, or to fall back on the store of memories they bring with them, building upon them by planning what they will do when they get out.

An Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, suffered fifteen years of reduced engagement under house arrest; Nelson Mandela survived twenty-seven years of confinement in three different prisons, actively pounding rock into gravel during the day, later playing football, gardening, reading, studying for his law degree.

No matter what conditions we live under, we find ways to engage—or we die. The other night I was falling asleep and became aware I could not lift my head or move my body. Yet my mind was dimly active. I distinctly remember my last, fading thought, “Friends, I feel I am slipping away,” that is, dying. That’s what death is: a state of non-engagement, forever. Not just unconsciousness, but utter oblivion.

Engagement brings us to life. It is precisely what it means to be alive. To be both perceptive and active, with judgment thrown in between them, if we’re lucky.

We engage to build models of our situations in the outside world by analyzing the patterns of ambient stimulation delivered by our sensory receptors. That is, by finding meaning in those patterns, gauging our options, then judging which option is best as a guide to making an appropriate response.

The problem being that the inner realms our minds create on the inside are never accurate models of the world we inhabit on the outside. Our attention is highly selective, so we can only take in ambient patterns in fragmentary form. Our inner models are made of bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, not replicas of the world.

So we do a lot of guessing, estimating, and interpolating in trying to piece together the world puzzle, the big picture of what’s going on that is likely to affect us. Our sensory abilities may be amazing, but the world is always more complex than we can imagine. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of continuous engagement or we’ll never keep up.

As babies, we are in way over our heads, so require nurturing care from others on a twenty-four-seven basis. That is called parenthood. But if our significant others stick with us, our situation gradually improves, and eventually we learn to stand on our own by backing our engagements with commitment, concentration, and dedicated campaigns of perception-judgment-action for ourselves. We stumble around a lot at first, but slowly straighten up and set our sights on far horizons.

Life is a matter of matching our inner possibilities to the possibilities offered by the world. Consciousness, together with loops of engagement, are our most basic tools for accomplishing that feat. All of which is made possible jointly by our minds, brains, and worlds working together.

That is my crucial point in this blog. We can’t do it by ourselves—survive, that is. Our success is a collaborative effort between mind, brain, and planet. It takes a planet to evolve a brain, and a brain to evolve a mind. In the brief window of life available to us, we are beneficiaries of all three. If, that is, they truly engage in mutual interaction from one moment to the next, one situation to the next. Encouraging us to evolve throughout our lives, infant to senior, getting better day-by-day at whatever it is we are doing with our fleeting gift of life.

As I pointed out in the dissertation quotes I bulleted in post 488, “I Am Not Making This Up,” the nuts and bolts of engagement are made possible by the workings of the limbic system as a finely-tuned comparison between perception and memory, between the present state of the hippocampus as compared to a coded remnant of earlier experience. That comparison is at the heart of our loops of engagement.

If that comparison between present and past results in a disparity, then consciousness springs into action to get a more detailed picture of the situation through further exploration. That’s what trial and error is all about, figuring out a way to get a better fix on what’s going on in order to make a better, more appropriate response. All solutions are pending, not certain.

That’s what learning and education and experience are all about. Our growth and survival depend on doing better under highly variable conditions. There’s no way ahead but to take the plunge, make a mistake, and try again. And again. And again.

I’ve got one more post to go before ending this discussion. Then it’s on to my final conclusions, and wrapping up this blog as a whole.

Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

I have covered a lot of ground in getting this far with my blog telling the inside story of consciousness. I here offer an opportunity to see that journey not as a sequence of hesitant steps, but as an adventure entire in itself. Here are a few bulleted reminders of the stages I have passed through.

  • Consciousness is a collaborative effort between mind, body, and world. It intercedes between perception and action, and can be bypassed by reflex thinking, rote learning, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and ideology.
  • Solving the world puzzle from the perspective provided by our minds is a matter of conjecture based on personal experience, not knowledge, not truth.
  • Perception provides not a glimpse of the world so much as a heightened impression of the world from a particular wayfarer’s point of view.
  • Like Plato, we all share in the common failing of mistaking our personal solution to the world puzzle for the way the world really is. Our beliefs are custom-made for true believers (that is, ourselves, who couldn’t be more earnest).
  • The more ardently we hold our beliefs, the more likely we are to be wrong.
  • Expectancy and recognition reveal the participation of memory in perception.

No matter how finely we resolve the tissues of the brain, consciousness will elude us because it is an ongoing process of engagement between our minds, actions, and the world.

  • Attention is the gateway to consciousness. It is aroused by a delta signal stemming from a sense of discrepancy between what we expect or hope for and what actually happens.
  • From the outset, all awareness is polarized as being either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, satisfying or dissatisfying, right or wrong, true or false.
  • It takes persistence and concentration to explore the forbidden middle ground between the two poles of awareness.
  • The engagements that link us to our worlds couple perception to meaningful judgment to fitting action on one or more levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which in turn affects our attention and stimulates sensory perception.
  • Our engagements are told by the situations they create in our minds as made up of various dimensions of intelligence such as memory, sensory impressions, understanding, feelings, motivations, biological values, humor, imagination, temperament, interest, thought, and available energy (what I refer to as the life force).
  • Language in the form of speech, writing, thought, and comprehension flows from the situations we find ourselves in when we experience the urge to speak or to listen.

As a writer, I have long wondered where words come from. I now feel that our situated intelligence shapes our current situation from the dimensions of personal awareness (or intelligence) aroused in a given moment of experience. In being conscious, it is just those situations that we become conscious of, and subsequently respond to.

  • All life engages its surroundings in an ongoing exchange of matter and energy. It is the job of our minds to monitor how that exchange is going, and to feed-forward to judgment a selection of options for how we might respond. For good or ill—and engagements can strike us either way—we must engage in order to find our place in the world.
  • We are linked and anchored to our worlds by a spectrum of ongoing (often simultaneous) engagements. It is essential for us to keep up with what is happening around us. Hence we live in a world of media all striving to influence and inform us from their respective points of view.
  • Time is a calibrated sense of change that is not of our doing; space is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our own actions. Spacetime is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our simultaneously doing and perceiving at once.
  • Ownership and possessiveness are attitudes toward persons and objects with which we meaningfully engage in being fully ourselves. Money is a tool we use to engage on cultural terms. The law is our culture’s effort to regulate the conduct of our engagements so that each of us enjoys equal freedom and opportunity in pursuit of our personal goals.
  • Freedom is an opportunity to engage the world with full respect for the integrity of each of its inhabitants, whether plant, animal, or human.
  • Baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars provide examples of aspects of the world puzzle we are apt to engage with in our search for personal happiness. There is no limit to the importance we project onto such personal engagements as primary shapers of our lives.

I view my personal consciousness as culminating in the image of a wayfarer finding his way among others who are making their own ways for themselves. Our respective journeys are so varied and personal, I identify with each wayfarer in taking on the challenge of finding a way forward from wherever she or he is at any given stage of life.

The task each one of us faces is solving the world puzzle in a meaningful way for ourselves, while respecting other solutions for other wayfarers on journeys of their own.

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.

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 stars that we are born to in the twenty-first century are not that different from the stars our ancestors have been born to for hundreds of generations. But the cultural setting within which we view those stars today is entirely new in the history of the Earth.

Both our perception of the stars and the ways we think of them within our various fields of understanding—astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, theology, mysticism, art, and so on—vary from place to place, time to time, so that stars have a very human history culminating in the mind of each person living today.

Consciousness is as much a matter of cumulative life experience as it is of perception and memory. Our personal experience is influenced by our natural experience, as well as our cultural, communal, and familial experience.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night conveys some small part of his personal experience of the stars. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope details other aspects of the stars that most of us have never personally experienced or imagined. Perspectives available to us today simply did not exist only a few decades ago.

Yet we are the progeny of stars themselves, and cannot be anatomically, physiologically, or psychologically separated from their influence on our innermost mental and physical being. We are born of the stars as well as to them. In a very real sense, the stars ‘R us. We are star stuff up and walking around, ogling our extended family spread through the universe.

That is no poetic dream. The atoms we are made of were forged in supernova explosions that cast those atoms into space, where gravity took over and condensed those same atoms into a mass so dense that they ignited to form a new stellar system, together with a retinue of planets that included what we now call Earth, our home in space for all the days of our lives.

It is fitting that throughout history every tribe and people has paid homage to the stars. The Sumerians did it according to their lights in Mesopotamia, Plato did it his way in Greece, the Neoplatonists in Alexandria, and now NASA, a governmental agency, spends billions of dollars in paying homage to the stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and meteors of today.

The meaning that every generation projects onto the stars is a salute to our origins as couched in the meaningful terms of the day. The stars have always had place on the leading edge of human understanding. The stars have not changed all that much, but our understanding is now undergoing an exponential growth spurt that leaves our past understanding lagging far behind.

We used to put haloes around the heads of our saints to signal their divinity (connection to the stars). We built Gothic cathedrals to seat our bishops that had stained-glass windows dedicated to the zodiac, and mechanical clocks with rotating symbols of the twelve zodiacal houses, again to show honor to the stars as we interpreted them in Mediaeval times. Those cathedrals served as models of the supposed celestial hierarchy worked in stone, with their vaults shining down on the seat of the bishop below, and those assembled around him, as if that seat were the throne of reason, order, harmony, truth, and beauty on Earth.

As Chartres Cathedral was abuilding in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote (in Latin) of the stars: “Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God.” The prime mover that drove the universe was as alive in our formative era as it had been in the days of Pseudo-Dionysius, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato and, before him, the Sumerians.

What all that effort achieved, rather than making a place for humanity in the stars’ cosmic scheme, was assign them their place in our psychic scheme, so having us ride our own coattails round and round, as if tied to a peg driven into the ground, setting us back for well over five thousand years in solving the world puzzle from inside our respective black boxes.

But that peg in the ground has been yanked up by a succession of new thinkers: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Einstein, and many others who have built the new cosmology of today that recognizes the stars for what they are in themselves and not merely the due we thrust upon them out of our own needs.

The idea of binding our lives back to the orderly motion of the stars is one of the most profound realizations that the human mind has ever entertained. We have evolved to appreciate the patterns, brightness, and motions of the stars at night; that should suffice. We need not look for a message coming from them any more than we look to a mockingbird or giraffe for truth. If we truly honored the stars, we would celebrate their gift of light and energy, so receiving them as they give themselves to us without overlaying our psychic needs on their radiance.

We don’t look for messages from baseball or Roget’s Thesaurus, yet we freely engage with them as valuable aspects of our experience. Why impose such a burden on the stars in order to fit them into our scheme of things? Instead, we should do everything we can to live in harmony with the natural world, of which stars are one of the highest and most eminent expressions.

At this point I can hear my Quaker friend Ken Doyle stepping in to tell his joke about the three baseball umpires being interviewed by a reporter after the big game. How do they go about making such difficult and often controversial calls as their duties require them to?

The first umpire says, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” The second says, “I calls ‘em as they are.” The third umpire says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”

Each umpire does the job his own way in light of his personal belief, as each player plays, and each fan roots, everyone in the stadium giving as he or she is able to give, and receiving a like gift from everyone else.

Like the three umpires, artists, scientists, and theologians see with different eyes. As do the young, the mature, and the elderly. The Sumerians saw the stars their way, Plato saw them his way, Pseudo-Dionysius his way. It is unrealistic to sort through them in trying to decide which is right. They are all right and all wrong in some respects.

But under the circumstances, they each were true to their perceptions, judgments, actions, and life engagements—to their minds and personal experience. Our predecessors have borne witness to the stars as only they could at that time in that place. What more could we ask? It is now our turn to see them through our own eyes. That, now, is something to celebrate. As well as an obligation to right the wrongs of the past.

Tomorrow: photos of the heavens from our modern point of view, so ending this review of human engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and most recently, the stars.

Plato’s cosmology did not die with him but was developed and given new life by his followers such as Aristotle, who broadcast a sharpened image of the prime mover at the center of a universe of stars moving about him in a procession of celestial grandeur.

A Latin translation of the Timaeus found fertile ground among Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria in the third century of our current era, philosophers who subsequently joined Plato’s idealism to Jewish, Christian, and Roman thought, producing a grand image of the heavenly host spread before the mind’s eye for human guidance and edification.

Dionysius (Denys, Dennis) the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius, second century CE, six centuries after Plato), a Neoplatonist with a theological bent, has left us an ornate depiction of the cosmos combined with a religious structure mirroring the heavens in the hierarchy of the Christian church here on Earth.

Dionysius depicted God’s retinue in heaven as divided into a celestial hierarchy of three tiers of heavenly minds placed there for our instruction and imitation here below (a scheme similar to that proposed by the Sumerians–see Post 474).

The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union . . . with God having Him Leader of all religious science and operations, by looking unflinchingly to His most Divine comeliness, and copying. . . its own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted radiance, and . . . spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance with the supremely Divine regulations. . . .

All of which culminates in a grand summary that emphasizes the power that drives the stars in their harmonious orbits:

He, then, who mentions Hierarchy, denotes a certain altogether Holy Order, an image of the supremely Divine freshness, ministering the mysteries of its own illumination in hierarchical ranks, and sciences, and assimilated to its own proper Head as far as lawful. (From The Celestial Hierarchy, Caput III, Section II, 1899, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_13_heavenly_hierarchy.htm, Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.)

For Dionysius, Plato’s cosmos had become a divine holy order immediately accessible to those who would not only contemplate, but obey the directives of its radiance. A strongly prescriptive and mystical tone had crept into the story, comprehensible only to those instructed in decoding such language. But behind the language, the stars can still be seen to shine as clearly and brilliantly as they do overhead on a moonless night through dry air.

The Neoplatonists gave stellar radiance a finely divided and philosophical series of orderly distinctions which they bound into a philosophy centered on a single, luminous, but hidden central God surrounded by ever-larger ranks of heavenly powers, commonly regarded as angels or angelic messengers, the whole troupe of heavenly luminaries being divided into a concentric hierarchy of ever-finer gradations that were meaningful to the informed (indoctrinated) mind.

Dionysius carried his argument to finer levels than most of us care to consider, as if he got points for the number of distinctions he was able to make, creating a lot of confusion and overlap in the process under the guise of devotional scholarship.

His overall scheme, however, divided the celestial hierarchy into three levels, each level composed of three further sub-levels. Beginning tightly around the “Divine Hiddenness” (or prime mover) at the center, the celestial powers or angels are divided into,

  1. a highest, brightest, and hottest circle of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. a second circle farther out divided into somewhat lower, dimmer, cooler groupings of “Heavenly Minds,” Lordships, Powers, and Authorities, or alternatively, Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. with a lesser group of angels in the outer reaches of heaven, those concerned with human welfare and obedience, encompassing Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

And complementing the celestial hierarchy in heaven, Pseudo-Dionysius depicted three Earthly triads intended to enforce the dictates of heaven upon the faithful below:

  1. symbolic sacraments—Baptism, Communion, and Consecration of the Holy Chrism;
  2. holy orders—Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons;
  3. together with Monks in a state of perfection, Initiated Laity in a state of illumination, and Catechumens in a state of purification.

These Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies were a late melding of Neoplatonic ideas with orthodox Christian theology to produce a mystical union of ideas and ritual acts as a blend of philosophical and theological strands to produce a wholly spiritual system of human belief rooted firmly in a personal faith, often embracing incompatible aspects, very much like the state Plato found himself in while penning the Timaeus as his last word on creation of the universe and its cosmology.

Shining through the mists of such doctrines, however, is the awe with which people in every age have gazed upon the stars. Our reward is not so much hearing what the stars would say to us if they could speak, but ideas which we unabashedly put in their mouths so that we take from them what we need to hear.

That is the essential point to be made regarding our perennial engagement with the stars: we make of them what we will, and call it the truth. And that is exactly how our minds work, finding little else but variations upon what we are looking for, be it confidence, comfort, succor, authority, charity, gentility, or whatever quality we need to balance the turmoil (chaos) of daily life. The stars are up there for our free and personal use. Living the difficult lives we do here below, we rely on their guidance as needed.

In my next two posts I will wrap up this section on our popular engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars by seeing our take on the stars through Mediaeval times into the space age of today. Then in future posts I will shift to discussing where I hope to have taken readers on our wayfaring together over the past 150 or so posts, leading to the conclusions I will leave you with regarding my views of consciousness, mind, and engagement as draw from the personal journey I have made across the past eighty-two years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projected onto the stars, the meaning that some of our distant ancestors found in their orderly procession was that they were compelled as one body by a prime mover, alleged source of, and driving force behind, the rational, harmonious order of the universe.

The notion of a prime mover was wholly a fiction in human minds, a product of deluded imaginations in not being able to detect their own planet’s motions because as a people they moved with the Earth and had no reference other than the stars to gauge that impression by.

So if the stars seemed to move, that was enough to convince them that that must be the true state of affairs. Many believed it, and said so. Opening the door to a myriad of profound consequences, which still persist among us today.

Wars have been fought, millions killed, heretics burned at the stake as a result of such beliefs, or, rather, the denial of such beliefs. Those deadly consequences, as residing in human minds as matters of orthodox faith and belief, are what I am concerned with in these several posts dealing with our human engagements with the stars as I develop the big picture based on my reading and experience.

Along with the concept of one turning in reference to the nightly round of the stars, several other concepts accompany that of the prime mover; the idea of harmony as the essentially rational and defining characteristic of the stars moving in unison to constitute a cosmos in contrast with a disordered chaos; and the idea that deviation from harmony was a message played like notes against a musical scale intended to call people on Earth back into harmony with the circling stars.

The five visible, star-like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), as well as sun and moon, did not share in the disciplined rotation of the stars, but travelled their own ways among them along a broad pathway of their own in the middle reaches of the stars overhead. That pathway was not random but stuck to a middle way along a particular band of stars that ancient peoples visualized as forming twelve houses or constellations, the band coming to be known as the ecliptic, the celestial path among the stars along which the messenger planets (Greek angelos, messenger) traveled and, when those paths coincided, conjunctions and eclipses might occur.

The twelve, thirty-degree zodiacal houses (constellations) along the ecliptic were deified as domains ruled in monthly succession by twelve godlike figures, together forming the ring of zodiacal signs marking the progress of the seven angelic messengers.

No one realized that that background of stellar houses was far behind the moving planets, so had nothing at all to do with them because it seemed to observers on earth that the stars and planets were equidistant, so that the luminous messengers traveled among and briefly resided in stellar houses that existed solely in human imagination.

Once the stars became animated by ancient humans projecting their quest for order onto the cycling radiance overhead, the stage was set for conception and projection of prime movers, creators, supreme beings, and rulers of the (supposedly) one-turning universe.

The stars and the messengers weaving among them bore whatever meanings arose in those who projected their minds in beseeching the cosmos for guidance in conducting their Earthly lives and affairs. Temples and sanctuaries such as those structures at Göbekli Tepe, Stonehenge, and in Sumer at the head of the Persian Gulf were in many instances built as stellar observatories to mediate the traffic of signs between heaven and Earth, local authorities assuming the office of translator of heavenly messages so their followers would receive the proper message and behave accordingly.

So did religion become a fact of life on Earth in binding human labors to the will of the gods above, or most particularly to the will of the prime mover who set the cosmos in orderly motion for the purpose of inviting humans, if they knew what side their bread was buttered on, to partake in the rational order exemplified by the stars overhead.

Sumerian minds, looking up from their marshy homeland in the delta of the combined waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, became famous for conceiving of such deities (shining or radiant ones, later depicted with haloes) some five- or six-thousand years ago.

Among other gifts to their descendants, the Sumerians are now famous for leaving behind them a great trove of statuettes of worshippers with folded hands and dilated, dark-adapted eyes, only much later to be discovered by archaeologists within the past 150 years.

The figures depict worshippers in the grips of a variety of fraught human situations beneath the stars at night, looking to be told by the messenger stars what to do because that was their duty, to heed the will of Sumerian gods.

What the Sumerians invented—along with cuneiform writing on clay tablets; an extensive literature of poetry, myths, lamentations, hymns, and wise sayings; and religion built around a priestly profession as we know it today—was an intricate system of awe so lustrous as to have a compelling effect in organizing the behavior of a people who sought answers to their most pressing problems from the seemingly informative movements of the planets weaving among the orderly motions of stars along the ecliptic.

The Sumerians placed not one but three gods in the heavens, one for each of the three regions: celestial polar region, residence of the creator and prime mover, Anu: zodiac against which the seven messengers moved, ruled by Enlil, king of the gods; and outer fringe thought to be closest to Earth on the outskirts of the cosmic dome, home of Enki, source of divine wisdom.

It was a great scheme by which the Sumerians mapped out the heavens some 5,400 years ago, a scheme still with us today in the doctrine and structures of the church. The essential teaching of that scheme was “On Earth as in Heaven,” a notion backed up by the seasonal return of the sun to the same house along the ecliptic, signing the start of a new year and another round of the liturgical calendar. Genius; pure genius. Because it was true: human affairs on Earth do run according to a calendar dictated by the seasons, and the seasons by the stars.

The hitch is that it wasn’t that the stars were moving according to the prime mover’s plan, so seeming to dictate to people what they should be doing with their limited bodily energies; those stellar motions were really due to Earth’s daily rotation about its axis and simultaneous orbit around the sun. There was no prime mover at the celestial pole. There was no godly king of kings managing the motions of planets along the ecliptic. There was no divine wisdom filtering down from the stars for human guidance.

We already had the seasons to alert us to our proper annual labors; the stars were incidental to what we already knew. They were an offshoot, not the source of our wisdom. The stars told us nothing we didn’t already know.

It was the Sumerian priesthood that maintained that the heavens were the center of Sumerian life on Earth, and that the people needed their lofty interpretation of signs and directives—otherwise they’d be out of a job. Priesthoods offer the best job security on Earth if they can convince flocks to behave as they already know they should.

There is a font of circular reasoning at the heart of every religion. And we have such a plethora of religions precisely because each one has to develop a convincing rationale for the people to support the local priesthood in its annual rounds of reasoning.

These comments are what I was talking about in developing the big picture of our human engagements with the stars. For much of my life I have read Joseph Campbell, Samuel Noah Kramer, E.O. James, and James Frazer, and others of similar bent in bringing ancient ideas to life. For me this has been recreational reading to accompany my fascination with fossils and the expanding literature of evolutionary biology. Looking both to the past and the future, I was doing my best to keep pace with the world I lived in, which was expanding at an ever increasing rate.

My bookshelves today are lined with such books, testament to the interests that have sustained me throughout adult life. Now that my life is winding down, the residuum of my reading takes on a greater importance because I see so much harking back to a more comfortable (because familiar) world rather than a willingness to enter the next stage of human development and understanding. If I do not contribute to that understanding, why have I lived through the past exciting years?

So here I sit at my computer keyboard in Bar Harbor, Maine, blogging about what matters to me at my time of life, adding my thoughts and observations to the great flow of human engagement with our Earthly surroundings.

Should I live so long, you can expect that I’ll have more to say about our stellar engagements tomorrow.