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.

My contention in this blog is that I, you, we all play the same game. We are smoothers-over to suit ourselves. We can’t help it, our auxiliary loops of perceptual adjustment and refinement do the work for us in the name of clarity, good contrast, and proper emphasis. To a man, to a woman, we are biased toward our own predilections, the teachings of our personal life experience.

Far beyond Dr. Roget’s influence, the evidence is all around us in the polarities with which we apprehend the world. In the military battles, political in-fighting, religious strife, business practices, sporting contests, artistic preferences, social engagements, entertainments, literary tastes—we know what we like, like what we know, and dispense with the rest.

Our minds work in ways that are almost as pat as that. As set according to our gleanings from the survival niches we have sowed and harvested up until now. We are self-made in ways we hardly suspect because we filter our own interests out of our engagements, seeing those of our partners with far greater clarity than we do our own—almost as if our interests played no part in our dealings with the world.

As if our personal meanings were accurate, just, and true, while the unmeanings of those we engage with are no more than scrabble, scribble, scrawl, and daub.

I am certain that Dr. Roget never recognized such a state of affairs in his own mind. How could he have? He was convinced that he was writing about states of affairs in the world, not in his mind. As scientists filter out their very standpoints as trained scholars in dealing with a supposedly objective universe of pure events happening within reach of their instruments of observation. As the Pope is considered to be infallible in his judgments as referee of all proper human engagements. As politicians paint their opponents as caricatures, themselves as noble knights in armor. As Buddhists avoid human suffering by declaring the individual self to be a mere construct, so how can anyone suffer in a mind focused on nothingness?

Without our knowing, the answers we seek are contained in the questions we ask. We don’t want the truth; we want affirmation of our proprietary truth as only our loyal prejudgments can deliver it. The ones we recognize as familiar because they are already within us, safe from harm in our very own black boxes, where they are part and parcel of any effort we might make to engage the world beyond our perimeter.

Talk about self-interest, we can’t live without it, which puts everyone we interact with at a disadvantage in being respectively self-interested in their own welfare. If we weren’t self-ish to the core, without a fairy godmother, we wouldn’t survive for one day. So we tilt the playing field in our favor, and do just fine on the basis of foregone conclusions that aren’t conclusions at all but unquestionable axioms of personal faith.

Who could imagine discovering such an outrageous position backed up by no less an authority than Dr. Peter Mark Roget? I, for one. Lone wayfarer that I am in hot pursuit of any secrets my mind might be holding back. I identify with Roget in having a lifelong interest in the workings and foibles of my own mind.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of the very ideas I am talking about in this blog. I may be only one authority, but I certainly serve in that office for the only mind I have access to. As you yourself serve in that capacity in service of your own mind.

I am trying to provoke you into examining your credentials for holding that office. Are you as fair and impartial as you believe and maintain? Can any of us be that fair? Can we seriously believe we are rational beings in any sense of the word?

Rather than dissolve the constructs that bind us together as conscious beings, I truly believe our best option is to get to know ourselves without the self-support system that comes with the territory of being an earnest and well-meaning person.

I think we can work around that inherent support system by regarding ourselves as if we were total strangers, and had no power to edit the data on which our conclusions are based. Yes, we can see ourselves with new eyes, hear ourselves with new ears, correct our self-image by including the very data we’ve been suppressing for all of these years.

A priori, we are neither good nor bad. We are what we are, wayfarers on a minor planet for a brief instant in the history of the universe. Imagine going to our deaths not knowing who we are. What we have truly accomplished, and at what cost to others and to our home planet.

It is never too early to take stock, and to keep taking stock for the rest of our travels. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to get to know ourselves before we inflict unwitting harm on others, believing all the while we are blameless.

Facing into myself, that is my project in this blog. No one can do it for me. The buck stops with me. As it does with each one of us. If we don’t respectively rise to that challenge, we know that no one else ever will. We are born to that challenge. It comes with being human. If we don’t take it on, can we truly claim to have lived, or claim to have lived truly, being stuck in the darkness within our personal black boxes for the duration of our lives?

Thank you, Peter Mark Roget, for unwittingly reflecting that wisdom back onto your readers, if only we would take effort to follow the line of thinking you set before us in your work as a light shining on how our minds might be organized.

The moral being: that everything we notice from our privileged position sheds light on our minds if we will but look for that hidden message.

Mindfully play and watch baseball; mindfully pore through Roget’s Thesaurus; two down—mindfully ogle the stars yet to come, starting with my next post.

What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

In training, individual players build their respective skills on one level, and practice working together as a team on another. There may be individual heroes in baseball, but it takes heroic effort by all concerned to build a team that can face every possible situation with shared skill and confidence.

Each player must stand ready to play his part without advanced notice. Each is playing an inner game of expectancy before a play even starts to unfold. As is each watcher in the stands, stadium, or living room. In that sense, players and fans are engaged for the duration of the game, however long it takes for one side to win.

Baseball is all about arousal, anticipation, seeing what happens, recognizing what that means from a personal perspective. Then, of all possible responses, seizing instantly on the one judged most effective, and following through on plays that have been practiced in countless situations under a variety of different conditions.

Anything can happen, and what actually does happen comes as a spontaneous show of coordinated (or not) team skill, strength, speed, effort, and accuracy.

Baseball gives fans an endless flow of opportunities to be personally conscious. Each witnesses the game with her own eyes and ears, own sense of anticipation, own flow of perceptual, meaningful, and active engagements.

Being there at the game is like inventing yourself on the spot, again and again as situations come, evolve, and lead on to the next. This is what fans live for. If baseball didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it as a rule-governed alternative to the horrors of war, revolution, strife, violence, genocide, and mass murder.

Civilized nations rely on games to ward off the inevitable slippage into violence and chaos resulting from friction between factions having different perspectives on the world. Harnessing such perspectives in orderly pursuits such as baseball, soccer, basketball, and tennis makes the world safe for civil governance that actually serves to keep people meaningfully occupied and productive.

Baseball is no frill; it is a civil necessity—along with art, music, dance, Earthcare, full employment, and a fair distribution of wealth—to maintain a healthy state of mind among peoples accustomed to different ways of engaging one another in their separate worlds. Or worse, as in boredom, not engaging at all.


As a team sport, baseball is all about relationships between members of two different teams playing against each other. There is a tension between the opposing teams, tension within each of them as plays unfold over time. And tensions in us as we follow along, gripped by the drama unfolding in our minds, and of which we are a big part. Without dedicated fans, baseball wouldn’t exist. It is made to carry us along with it. No wonder we watch.

Such tensions stem from uncertainty concerning what is about to happen. Our minds thrive on uncertainty because they are made to be certain in support of decisive action, so they have to stick with the challenge. From first to last inning, baseball is charged with uncertainty. As well as yearnings for a successful outcome.

What pitch will the pitcher deliver? Will the batter take the bait, and if so, will he swing for a strike, hit a fly ball, or send a bounder just past the second baseman’s glove? Will the catcher throw off his mask, crane his neck, then grab that high foul ball? Will the pitcher lob the bunted ball to first? Will the fielder reach the grounder in time to get the runner out at second? Will the shortstop cover second when the baseman shifts toward first?

The pitcher-batter confrontation can lead to so many possible situations, we are on the edge of our seats and edge of our minds much of the time, eager to find out how each play will unfold as players throw the ball from one to another: pitcher to catcher, outfield to infield, second base to first, third to home.

Each play depends on so much coordinated skill, strength, speed, and accuracy, there is hardly a moment when we dare take our eyes off the ball for fear of missing the crucial play that makes all the difference. Paying close attention to each play takes exertion on our part. We exhaust ourselves just by following along. But the adventure is worth it. There’s no other way to have such an experience than to commit to it in both body and mind.

We not only follow the game from our viewpoint, but we anticipate what will happen. And enjoy the thrill of finding out if we’re right or wrong. We live on the edge of our own excitement, thrusting this way and that, like riding a defiant bronco. Investing our minds in the game, we find ourselves being carried away. Commitment is what it takes, commitment to engage as best we can for as long as we can. Paying attention takes perseverance, dedication, stamina, and strength. Those are all forms of engagement that carry us along.

We find new dimensions of ourselves by losing our old self and giving in to the power and drama of the moment. We come out of it bigger than we were, stronger, more enduring because of the engagement.

Engagement builds strong bodies eight ways, all variations on exercising the mental skills and dimensions we bring to the game. I’ve already mentioned several of them: expectancy, imagery, feeling, values, situations, understanding, meaning, judgment—that’s eight, and I’ve just begun. The whole list adds up to a multi-dimensional engagement that takes concentration, but ends up in a generous serving of personal fulfillment by a game well-played.

Just as there is a quota of good in everyone, there is a quota of excitement in every engagement. And a quota of enlightenment if we truly put ourselves into it. When we get bored, that’s because we are not committing much energy to what we are doing. We’re not putting ourselves into it, whatever it is. So we draw back for lack of concentrating on something—anything—and that invites lethargy to descend upon us. Boredom is a declaration of our lack of curiosity, interest, concentration—in a word, engagement. Which takes a commitment of our attention before anything can happen at all.

Being bored is a comment on our own lack of reaching out to the world to invite the world to reach in to us. The world owes us nothing. It is not out there for our benefit. As individuals, all of us are in charge of that department for ourselves. Baseball offers us a release from the cell we lock ourselves into when we wistfully moan for something to do.

Watch two baseball teams in action, engage yourself, and rejoice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

390. Vivre la difference!

December 27, 2014

Mental judgments, the very stuff of consciousness, are based on either-or comparisons. On summing good points and bad points to see which tally is more convincing. Comparison of possibilities is one of our primary means of survival because, as I see it, it is the method that our nervous system is dedicated to.

In these posts, I have already pointed to the role of comparison in such vital functions as depth perception, directional hearing, and maintaining our balance. Simple acts such as steering a boat by a compass are acts of comparison, in this case between our charted and actual headings, the difference—the dis-parity—between them indicating the degree and direction of the course correction it is our duty to make in order to reach our destination.

The disparity between two signals is what we are aware of, not either one or the other by itself. As the French say regarding the sexes, vivre la difference! because it is precisely such relative differences that elevate us into states of awareness.

Consciousness is all about relationships, not things in themselves. About how the present stands up against expectancies grounded in bygone days. About how engagements turn out in comparison to our original intents. About how jokes defy our expectations. About how perceptions gauge the fit between our intentions and the concrete results we actually achieve.

Our primary approach to judgment is to assess how a given turn of events fits with the situation we find ourselves in. That is, fits our purposes and engagements at the moment. Trial-and-error is the gateway to consciousness. Let’s see if this works or it doesn’t.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That depends on our perspective, which further depends on our situation. If we want more to drink, it’s half gone; if we’ve drunk all we want, it’s half-full. Being situational, consciousness comes in two polarities, encouraging or discouraging, affirming or negating, good or bad, considered or rash, wise or foolish. The sharp differences heighten the clarity and emphasis of the comparisons by which we decide our course between the well- or less-traveled roads ahead.

Comparison can be a measurement to a standard, or a simple judgment of the similarity and difference between any two things or events. We quickly notice the wrongness of the wasp in the jam jar, the rightness of the cherry atop the sundae.

I remember a teacher of aesthetics once remarking that he could discourse endlessly on the comparison between a cigarette and a piece of chalk (he then having one in each hand).

Being a highly visual person, I find symmetry and other comparative relationships in the features of almost everything I see and photograph. It is the tension or balance told by such graphic relationships that I notice more than the things in themselves, which are often incidental. I remember a faculty wife whose face was so perfectly symmetrical that I found it painful to look at her because, without any disparity, I had no comfort zone within which to admire her beauty.

Standards often turn out to be what we are used to, so are rooted in personal experience and opinion. I get tired of cold days in February so think a daytime temperature above freezing is just fine; a skier would find it too warm. Men and women vary widely in their primary, secondary, and behavioral sexual characteristics and preferences, yet convention has it that men are men and women are women, period. Only recently in America do we provide a few boxes to check for those who don’t fit either stereotype.

We are often optimistic or pessimistic about world affairs, reflecting polarized judgments about how things are going from our point of view. Optimists are prone to seeing virtues where pessimists harp on faults. Pollyannas find good in everyone; fault-finders thrive on what’s wrong. Some people shift moods between extreme states of mind: euphoria and depression, bursts of creativity and bouts of despair. At New Year’s we resolve to improve ourselves, and promise to do better next year. If sins didn’t call for either penance or forgiveness, church attendance would crash overnight.

Such polar attitudes toward comparative differences shed a clear light on the nature of consciousness. Of which I will say more in my next post.


With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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