As unique individuals, each of us might be the only one who appreciates the difference we strive to make by acting in the world as we do. At the same time, we often underestimate the damage we do by undertaking those same actions. We are change agents by nature. And hugely successful. But not as we might intend.

I own a two-volume report of an international symposium sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, held in Princeton during June, 1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1193 pages in 2 volumes, © 1956 by the University of Chicago.) Edited by William L. Thomas Jr., the report details the impact that humans have had on the habitats we have occupied since antiquity, and changed forever after, almost always for the worse.

The report makes fascinating but extremely hard reading. Not hard because of any density or specialized jargon; hard because of its crystal-clear message, which we disregard at our peril. As our numbers increase, our collective wayfaring is inevitably wounding the planet that supports us, impairing its habitability for not only ourselves but for many of the species that share our space with us. Global Warming, also our doing, particularly through our power generation and motorized travels and transport, is but our latest assault on the hospitable planet that supports our every activity.

In his summary remarks on “Prospect” at the end of the report, Lewis Mumford, one of three main contributors to the structure of the symposium, includes these words of caution derived from the decline of Rome:

In the third century A.D. an objective observer might well have predicted, on the basis of the imperial public works program, an increase in the number of baths, gladiatorial arenas, garrison towns, and aqueducts. But he would have had no anticipation of the real future, which was the product of a deep subjective rejection of the whole classic way of life and so moved not merely away from it but in the opposite direction. Within three centuries the frontier garrisons were withdrawn, the Roman baths were closed, and some of the great Roman buildings were either being used as Christian churches or treated as quarries for building new structures. Can anyone who remembers this historic transformation believe that the rate of scientific and technological change must accelerate indefinitely or that this technological civilization will inevitably remain dominant and will absorb all the energies of life for its own narrow purposes—profit and power? (Volume 2, pages 1142-1143.)

Our individual actions—our wayfaring journeys—it seems, have massive collective consequences. Not only those we purposefully strive for, but also the cumulative impact of our species on the blue planet that hosts us in the vastness of space.

We don’t mean any harm, but deadly harm we surely inflict.

Now that polar ice sheets are melting, the race is on to claim the fish and resources that our carelessness is opening unto us in the Arctic. Never mind the polar bears. We are out to consume the flesh of our planet, not realizing our own folly. How cruel, how thoughtless, how ironic is that? We plead innocent, but stand guilty—each one of us—nonetheless.

No, this is not the point of my story about our active engagement with our surroundings. But it is a pointed digression to suggest that minds which evolved to survive in a Paleolithic world may not be suited to a world we have largely modified for our own comfort. Can we further evolve in time to save ourselves and our world, or are we destined to thwart our own intentions—as I so often do in my dreams?

Perhaps we can stage a recall of our advanced model of humans and have chips inserted in our brains that will program us to recognize when we have done more damage than Earth can bear. I merely wish to point out that, as currently equipped, we have outrun our warrantee and are doomed for the scrapyard, proving our mortality yet again (as if more proof were needed).

As I have written, we act to make a difference in the world and, indeed, we are proving successful beyond our wildest dreams, but not in the ways we intended.

We took a wrong turn getting out of the Neolithic, inventing roads and engines and cities and weapons, which led to assembly lines, cars, atom bombs, and the fix we are now in. We would have done better striding on the legs we were born with instead of lounging in luxury motorcars. But that’s a far less-likely ending to our story.

 

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I see comparison as the common feature of a great many of our mental operations. In fact, it looms in my mind as the essential function of the brain in leading to consciousness.

It is not any particular signal that matters so much as the difference between signals in adjacent or linked cortical columns that sparks and maintains both attention and consciousness, particularly as a comparison between present and former perceptual events. I think of such mental comparisons as producing a delta (Δ, δ) signal in proportion to the Difference, Discrepancy, Disparity, or Displacement between corresponding signals originating in different but closely related regions of the brain

I call these virtual signals because they can only be appreciated from a vantage point that looks upon the relative discrepancy as being meaningful in itself.

Such delta signals are the determining feature of three aspects of consciousness I have already mentioned: binocular vision, binaural hearing, and motion detection in semicircular canals on opposite sides of the head.

I have also provided the image of the helmsman (read helmswoman) at his/her wheel gauging the delta signal representing the discrepancy between the desired and actual heading of the vessel as told by its compass, leading to his/her compensating for that difference by turning the wheel an equal degree in the opposite direction. So do we correct our wayfaring courses every day of our lives.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin himself depicts humans as possessing a moral compass: “A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives—of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.”

In that quote, Darwin holds the key to consciousness in his hand, but never quite inserts it into the lock, so diverting his readers to moral considerations rather than to the human mind as a whole. He continues:

I have endeavored to show that the moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and, thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals.

From my perspective, what he calls “the high activity of his mental faculties” is not merely a factor but is the essence of consciousness itself resulting from comparative judgments of past and present states of awareness. Darwin continues:

Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backward and forward and comparing past impressions. Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future—and this is conscience (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1874], page 698, my italics).

Moral considerations aside, Darwin had stumbled his way to the gateway of consciousness, but was distracted by the moral preoccupation of his Victorian days from actually discovering the true nature of the mind. Just as we helmspersons seek guidance from inner compasses, so do we learn by trial and error, adjusting our behavior to compensate for the many ways we mislead ourselves time and again.

I have frequently said that my true education has been based not on remembering what I have been taught but by going off as led by my own lights, getting lost in the Slough of Despond, then, wiser for my slogging, fighting my way back.

This is the essence of empiricism, learning the lessons, not of ideals or of theory, but of concrete sensory experience.

Which is precisely what our minds provide us via our loops of experiential engagement. Namely, our displacement as the result of a specific course of action by which we discover where our effort has taken us. We don’t look out on the world so much as on what’s right or wrong with the world, to which we direct our attention.

We are all learners by doing. If we don’t make the initial effort, we are stuck exactly where we were before, with no sense of how to correct ourselves. Mind is our means of making successive approximations in approaching the goals we hope to achieve.

If we make a foray, at least we learn whether or not that is the way we want to go. Standing still doing nothing, our learning, as always, is in direct proportion to our effort.

379. Wayfarer In a Black Box

December 10, 2014

Our animal nature as go-getters casts a revelatory light on the function of our minds, our personal prime movers and shakers. In some circles it may be an unforgivable slip to mention the existence of free will, but what is it that is missing in states of sleeping and dreaming if not precisely that, the will that serves as navigator and wayfarer-in-chief when we reawaken?

Self-guided locomotion is the essence of our animal existence. Going to school, going to work, going to the bank, going to jail, going to dinner, going shopping, going home, even going to sleep.

Our distrust of free will is a shadow cast by the ideology of behaviorism on the entire discipline of psychology. If I were a psychologist or neuroscientist, I would look first at the link between perception and behavior for the neural structures that account for the effective coupling of the two. What I find at that location in myself after thirty years of introspection is the deadly duo of judgment and meaning imposing law and order on my wayward thoughts, so bridging the gap between input and output, converting sensory impressions into decisive actions in the world.

Emotions, values, understanding, and memory would feed into that coupling, along with an ability to compare goals against accomplishments as a gauge of the relative success or failure of earlier attempts to coordinate the two.

Mind in its black box as model of the outside world—that is the image I awoke with from my dream on March 10, 2014 (see post 378). Every person’s neural network is different due to formative and experiential factors governing the structure of such networks in finest detail. The job of each mind is to provide a unique model of, and way into, the world as it steers its own course through life.

Our minds guide our steps through successive life engagements in response to relevant sensory experience, remembrance, emotions, values, judgments, imagination, goals, expectancies, and other motivators active for one lifetime.

No mind is merely an autopilot. All serve as finely-tuned, experiential systems creatively bridging the gap between the integrity of a singular organism and its familial, communal, cultural, and natural environments at different levels of resolution and discernment.

The upshot being the powerful influence of mental characteristics and accomplishments on the reproduction and survival of individual bodies and brains, as well as on the cultural and genetic traits they share with their descendants. Shazam! So-called natural selection has stolen credit from individual self-selective engagements run by the situated intelligence at the core of each of our individual minds.

All that from one dream. Backed up by hundreds of earlier examples. And by the flurry of ideas in my mind as I waken unto them yet again. The image of a wayfarer in a black box is as good a metaphor as I have hit upon for what it feels like to be me.

It is no accident that in the 1990s I wrote a book based on sixty hikes in Acadia National Park over a period of five years. I billed the book as an effort to describe “the soul of a national park,” but it was more a portrait of my soul in the mid-1990s when I took those hikes and put that book together. I see it now as an extended metaphor for the park from the perspective inside my black box at the time.

And looking further back to 1982, I see the doctoral dissertation I wrote at Boston University’s School of Education, Metaphor to Mythology, as a portrayal of the mind of the same wayfarer at an earlier stage of his journey.

 

In the terminal moments of a dream I had on the morning of March 10, 2014, I found myself loaded with gear in both hands, struggling up a crowded escalator. I met a series of obstacles at every level, but could not find my way to a particular street, which I could reach by traveling north, while again and again I found myself forced to move off in other directions. I was determined to get to that street, but events in the dream kept turning me aside.

My awakening mind linked that dream to similar dreams of being thwarted in a lifelong series of similarly wayward excursions.

When fully awake, I had the distinct thought that such dreams are models of my mind, much as my mind, in turn, is a model of my world. It struck me that what evolution has wrought in the physical network of the brain is a tool to be used for modeling the world in navigational terms such as goals, journeys, routes, destinations, distances, maps, obstacles, distractions, pathways, landmarks, wayfaring, migrations, and so on.

We are primarily a mobile species that conducts its business by standing on two legs and walking toward specific destinations as goals. Our minds are made to support such a lifestyle. When immobilized and desensitized by sleep, what else would we dream about?

During breakfast I made four pages of notes in a steno pad detailing such a vision. It made sense at the time. It makes sense to me now. Animal life is . . . well, animated, always on the go. It moves about in search of food, water, mates, shelter, vantage points, and so on, as well as to avoid dangerous places, enemies, competitors, rivals, harsh conditions, and fearful situations.

Animals have appendages that enable them variously to crawl, creep, walk, run, gallop, scamper, hop, leap, fly, glide, slide, slither, float, drift, paddle, swim, dig roam, and explore their way about their habitats. They make or adopt paths, trails, routes, flyways, tunnels, home ranges, migrations, forays, escape holes, dens, nests, warrens, and other artifacts to accommodate their travels and activities.

To accomplish such feats, animals have brains that coordinate the movements of their bodies and appendages, enabling them to move about and thrive in the habitats to which they are suited. Minds, to the degree they have achieved them, allow those animals the spontaneous coordination of sensory inputs with motor outputs in the construction of engagements intended to fit individual animals to the environments and situations they encounter in the course of meeting their needs and desires, either instinctively or as informed by memory of such efforts in the past.

In the particular dream I mentioned at the start of this post, I could not coordinate my sensory impressions with any kind of meaningful action because sleep results from the uncoupling of just those two capacities, leaving my goals unsupported by any means of attaining them, which is my plight in a great many of my dreams. Leaving me laboring mightily to accomplish the impossible in being stymied in my search for a route leading where I want to go.

If wayfaring is the essence of consciousness, as I believe it to be, then dreams leave me in a present state without the backup of memory to remind me how I might have found my way in the past. In dreams, I am only half-human. I have access to selected desires and a rapid succession of images, with no way to join the two in a successful effort to do what I want to get done. My brain may be sufficiently awake to maintain my innards in a state of semi-automation, but my mind is left to twiddle its figurative thumbs for lack of any ability to move, depriving me of the essential quality of animate life.

 

Darwin’s interest 140 years ago was in comparing human minds to animal minds from the point of view of evolution. I devoted my last post to a brief treatment of his findings. My interest today is in comparing the dimensions of my personal experience of my own mind with the notion of artificial intelligence.

The basic assumption is that artificial intelligence is in some way based on the genuine article, human intelligence, of which any given mind is but one unique example. What is the connection between the two?

Introspection has a bad name because scientists keep imposing their so-called objective standards on its fundamentally subjective nature, so any qualities of individual intelligence keep getting thrown out with the bath water. Accepting the intimate, subjective nature of personal experience, I offer my findings concerning the facets of intelligence I discover in myself, not because I am egotistical, but because my findings are based on a thirty-years study of the one mind I have immediate access to, which happens to be my own.

What I find is a mind divided into three parts: perception, judgment, and action. The first part answers the question, “What’s happening?” The second, “What does that mean?” or “So what?” The third, “What should I do?” The three parts taken in serial fashion lead to my engagement with the external world, which I divide onto four levels of nature, culture, community, and family.

My proposal is that my intelligence is spread between all four parts of the continuous and ever-changing loop of engagement between my inner and outer worlds. Perception contributes its share, judgment its, my behavior its, and the world I live in contributes its share on the levels of nature, culture, community, and the family I live in.

My mind absolutely depends on there being an outside world to connect with and seek guidance from. The natural and humanized world I am born to contains a good share of my personal understanding and intelligence. It is up to the inner parts of my mind to figure out how to engage the external parts so that I fit in as an integral part of our common planet’s share of universal intelligence.

In this post I can’t fit in much more than a partial listing of some of the dimensions I discover from studying my own experience in perceiving, judging, acting on, and engaging with the inner and outer worlds I have been given for exactly one lifetime.

I start with the dimensions of my personal perception, which include: arousal, excitement, expectancy, curiosity, my personal perspective at the time, my outlook, the sensory qualities I discover, the level of detail I observe, and the concentration and attention with which I reach out as the price I pay to observe anything at all.

The result of that effort leads to a sensory impression made up of contributions from my various senses, the clarity with which I regard that impression, the aesthetic framework within which I receive it as an integral image composed of many complex relationships, together with the awe and wonder that well up within me. Leading to a recognition of what it is I am witnessing, an interpretation of its nature, and a linking of that interpretation to conceptions I have derived from previous rounds of perception.

Then my faculty of judgment takes over from perception and tries to figure out the significance and meaning of that phase of my engagement. Immediately I am confronted by the situation I am in as modified by my current perception. That situation takes shape as its various dimensions become established by my streaming experience and engagement. I understand what’s going on to some degree, derive meaning from that understanding, partly by intuition, partly by direct perception of the latest bulletin from the exterior.

I compare that meaningful understanding to what it was a few moments ago, developing a sense of how things are developing in comparison to what they were when I was last moved to act, that comparison giving rise to a delta signal that spurs my current state of conscious awareness. I am immediately aware of the polarity of what’s happening from my point of view—whether it makes a good or bad fit to my expectations.

That disparity stirs up a new round of thought, which I measure against my biological (survival) values, taking into account the emotions I find welling up as a result of my expanding experience. My intuition and imagination come into play, stirring my judgment to review my priorities in this particular situation and come to a decision of how best to direct my life force into an appropriate course of action.

If I recognize the drift of the situation as being one I am familiar with, I resort to a reflex or habitual action, mimicry of actions I have seen others perform, familiar routines dictated by prejudice (prejudgment) or ideology. I set a goal and begin to plan my physical response through a particular project, sequence of steps involving relationships I can count on with others, or call on familiar skills, gestures, postures, and other behaviors that might help me reach the goals I have set for myself on this particular occasion.

With the result that perception and judgment have led me to act in the world on a level appropriate to the situation I believe myself to be in.

In my next post I will deal with the possible dimensions of what happens on the level of nature, culture, community, and family as a result of the action I have taken in the context of my grasp of the situation I am trying to develop or modify through exercise of my situated intelligence.

Again, what I am trying to do is explore the complexity of the everyday workings of our minds that we collectively gloss by the word “intelligence,” with an eye to our hopes and fantasies for the achievements of machine or “artificial” intelligence which is rapidly trying to substitute for the native version I am here roughing-out in these posts.

 

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.

So, how does it happen, this mental life of ours?

From our point of view, we are born to engage as best we can  the local precinct of whatever universe we find ourselves in. Basically, elaborate neural networks in our brains offer hospitality to a wide variety of signals sparked by whatever part of that universe is within reach of our senses. In different proportions, those signals shape the dimensions of our situated intelligence every instant of our lives, serving as our subjective (and distorted) version of the world. Our job is to interpret as best we can that fleeting mix of signals, and to respond more-or-less appropriately. Voilà, our streaming mental life.

Let us stop willing the mind not to exist because it defies the ideology in which we have been schooled.  And, too, stop assuming that the world we individually entertain is the one and only real world. Let’s get with evolution’s program for our species of primate. The program that plants the presumed order of the universe so firmly in our minds, when all we have to go on is the blur our senses present to us. We are the most willful species imaginable. It is time to admit it so we can transcend our past errors and fulfill the promise we are born to.

Rip off the blinders of our self-serving orthodoxies and join the company of universal beings we might become if we stop claiming to be the one people chosen (by ourselves) above all others. That claim is proof of the distortions that come with our subjective versions of the world.

What I am asking is that we accept the fact that we know only the flickering impressions on the inner walls of the dark caves we inhabit throughout life. That we live in subjective confinement within our minds. That our powers are puny in comparison to the majesty of the stars from which the atoms in our bodies have been created and donated to the universe.

If we can update our thinking and cherished beliefs, then we might at last transcend the narrow thread of history we have come to believe in as if it were true, go beyond our previous attainments, and so become beings worthy of the planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe that have hosted us all along—and of which we are integral parts.

Nothing matters more than the wellbeing of the planet we live on in the vast chill of space. We know that now. It is past time to act on that certainty. Burning fossil fuels is a luxurious habit, like smoking cigarettes, an evil (in the sense of unhealthy) habit. Crowding the planet with our ways of doing things is not our destiny if we are to survive.

If we don’t naturalize ourselves and become first-and-foremost citizens of the Earth, then our glorious achievements cumulatively amount to our own demise.

How ironic is that? All because we claim to take as real the world as we find it, while in the meantime fabricating a world of our own making to suit ourselves from inside the black boxes we truly inhabit.

It is past time to bring our actions into compliance with the living order of nature, not our self-serving fantasies as cast upon the waters of our beliefs.

 

 

 

349. Mind as Comparator

October 29, 2014

I sent the following tweet recently: News is news because it exceeds or falls short of our hopes, fears, expectancies. Ebola. ISIS. Nobel Prizes. The mind is a comparator.

Consciousness is activated by a discrepancy signal, just as depth perception is activated by the difference between what our left and right eyes see. And our sound location is activated by the difference between what our left and right ears hear. And our balance is established by receptors in our inner ears based on slight differences produced by our turning our heads.

How astounding is that? That consciousness exists in the gap between what we do and perceive. What we expect and what actually happens. The outer cortex of our brains is set up to make just such comparisons between adjacent cortical columns. The result is a discrepancy signal that drives our stream of consciousness.

We pay attention to the exceptional, the unusual, novel, disconcerting, and so on. The fly in the jelly jar. The cherry atop the ice cream sundae. And when night falls and everything is cloaked in darkness, we lose interest in the world because everything is grayed-out. What’s to notice? So we fall asleep from lack of arousal. Only to awaken when sunlight hits our eyes.

There are two sorts of consciousness: good and bad, soothing and disturbing, sad and glad, chocolate and vanilla, and so on. Basically, what pleases us and what displeases us at the time. Emotional judgments. That guide our actions to be appropriate to the situations we find ourselves in again and again. Fight or flight, advance or retreat. Stop or go. Try or give up. What a marvelous system that enables us to survive under a huge variety of conditions.

Pity the poor insects that have a very narrow repertory of instincts and automatic responses. Evolution has blessed us by giving each of us our own mind to make up under the circumstances we are in. If only we were wise enough to make use of that gift.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

On May 19th, I saw the northernmost population of horseshoe crabs on Earth at it again. Every spring I go looking for them on their breeding shores, and every spring I catch them in the act. Only, now it’s in May, not June, because the water is warmer than it used to be.

Their ritual has become my ritual. Spring wouldn’t come if I didn’t join in their celebration of water temperatures rising to 13 degrees Celsius. When it reaches that point, they come ashore to dig nests in what sand they can find, fertilize the eggs, and bury them safe from predators such as striped killifish, which lie in wait for the protein in those eggs.

I, too, lie in wait, not for protein but to take my annual photographs of this fertility rite that has been continuing unbroken for some 400-million years. I am not that old, but I celebrate their presence in the bay as a reminder of not only their longevity, but of their finding a niche in the universe that has worked for them all that time. My ongoing loop of engagement with horseshoe crabs is a sign of my respect for their evolutionary success. They still look the same as they did before Pangaea split up, well before the great reptiles became extinct. We have much to learn from the horseshoe crab.

Here are three photos from May 19th. The first shows one pair  of the 34 crabs I saw on that day. They are swimming along in their breeding position, female in front (toward the top), male grasping the trailing edge of her shell, a position from which he will fertilize the eggs she lays in her succession of perhaps six nests.

19112150-96The second photo shows a pair emerging from the plume of mud she stirred up in testing the bottom to see if it was suitable for digging a nest.

19110720-96

The third photo shows how protectively camouflaged two pairs swimming along the bottom appear among the cobbles and small boulders of their chosen habitat. The males appears light because of the coat of mud they picked up burrowing into the soft bottom.

19114446-96This is one of my spring engagements, along with teaching Consciousness: The Seminar; giving a talk on An Anatomy of Consciousness; connecting the dots for 350.org to mark the site of shoreland erosion and sea-level rise in Acadia National Park; promoting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to counter the impact of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision; supporting Occupy Mount Desert Island; and so on.

Horseshoe crabs model the secret of a long and happy life—Stay Engaged!

I hope you are doing the same. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

NASA’s picture of the day illustrates baby stars creating chaos in the Orion nebula. Well, you know what trouble babies can get up to. In this false-color image from NASA, here’s what it looks like:

NASA_Orion-Neb_4-10-2012

The universe whirling around in a tizzy. Kind of beautiful from a distance. I start with this image as an illustration of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, because that’s how I feel about the film—both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. If you visit Orion or the film, you’d better hold onto your hat.

In summary, the husband dutifully cares for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father while the wife wants to take their daughter out of the country to get a good education. As many couples are, both are wrapped up in deeply meaningful yet incompatible campaigns of engagement. From that tense beginning, the plot quickly grows much more complicated when a hired daycare-giver and her husband get involved, and we see the plot unravel through the eyes of two children. The point the filmmaker makes being that the parental commitments and engagements  are the context in which the two girls learn how to be human, so of course it is only natural that they pick up the ways of their parents.

The film plays against the background of modern, urban life in Iran, suggesting that the whole country is torn in its engagements, everyone living a solitary life without hope of relief. Chaos in Iran much as it lies at the heart of NASA’s false-color Orion nebula.

It was the best of films, it was the worst of films because so powerfully engaging. When I woke up the day after, I ran through the plots of Shakespearian plays, of Virgil leading Dante through the windings of hell, of Don Quixote’s endless troubles, of the Iliad and Odyssey, of extant Greek drama. Deep affection decaying to ruin and misery—we love it and always have as a reminder to stick to the straight and narrow. It’s like having a Greek chorus wending in the background, reminding us that they’d warned us from the beginning not to get involved.

But, invariably, we do get involved or engaged. We have no choice but to live our lives in the now, not to hearken to some mythical order of the past as it has become fixed in our minds as the way it’s supposed to be. But foolishly we commit much of our time to rebuilding the past as we imagine it was rather than facing into the novelty each day presents as a sure sign the future will be something other than we have ever known.

In the film, the arbiter is a hectored magistrate who is to decide the fate of the conflicted father, mother, and daughter. Is the girl to go with the mother in hopes of getting a better (non-Iranian) education, or is she to stick with her father in performing the ritual duties imposed by the past in caring for a member of an earlier generation? Is the Orion nebula to be locked into an earlier stage of its evolution, or is it to unfold as a nursery for young stars—with all the chaos that will stir up in its corner of the universe?

Put differently, will Israel strive to live up to a myth codified in the seventh century B.C. during the Babylonian captivity, or will it acknowledge that modern times have moved beyond the point where that might even be possible because the so-called holy land is no longer what it once was? Will the peoples of Palestine graciously step aside and make room for the Jews as a fact of modern life?

The problem being—in Orion and elsewhere—that everything is shifting, changing, moving on at every moment, and we have the choice of mooring our lives to a fixed myth of how they should be lived—or of getting with the universal program of change and evolution built on the ruins of the past, while opening onto an ever-new vision of reality each day of our lives.

Are we educable or stuck clinging to a version of the past that never was? Can we accommodate to a future we have never imagined, or must the truth conform to what we already believe?

To grow into the future, a birch tree must tear its own bark to let its cambium layer expand in meeting the needs of a hungrier tree. Baby stars in the Orion nebula condense from and feed on the universal clouds of dust that preceded them. To live is to die to the selves we were yesterday. If we live in the past, we become dead to the present as husks of who we once were.

Engagement requires a commitment to the events of today, not a recommitment to how it was yesterday. To be alive is to move with our times, not against them. If we opt not to keep up, we fall behind, leaving the universe to go on without us.

Imagine discovering peoples on Mars living according to scriptures set down some 1,400 or 1,900 or 2,600 years ago, commemorating ancient events as if they were current. What would we make of them? In each case, creatures of the lost lagoon, in denial that anything of note has happened since their cultural clocks stopped so long ago.

Meanwhile, the Orion nebula just keeps doing its thing, changing into a new form as dictated by the forces acting upon it today.

If we cannot fit ourselves to the flow of days and events bearing upon us, can we claim to be alive to today? Consuming Earth’s limited resources to live in the past is a luxury our planet and its peoples cannot afford. Yes, we are reluctant to let go of past ways, but at the same time are aware of being drawn forward in spite of our yearnings and attachments. That’s life—for Orion, for birch trees, for characters in films, and for us. But if we elect to hold on when we need to let go—to separate from the selves we once were—we are in deep trouble having consequences for everyone around us.

Loops of engagement fit us to the now, not the then. If we use them to cling to the past, we are moving backwards, not forward. When entire cultures dedicate themselves to keeping the past alive, they embed themselves in amber as fossils in a cardboard box on the shelves of a museum storeroom.

Do you smell something musty in the air?

Well, that’s where I am today. The question is, where are you?  Y’rs truly, –Steve