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.

In general, the evidence provided by seeing with our own eyes is pretty shaky. Check out any police line-up. All Blacks may look alike to Whites because blackness is all we need to know in order to place a fellow human into the category we want her to fit, overlooking the overwhelming evidence of the fullness of her humanity.

It takes concentrated effort to avoid making that error. And for Blacks to avoid the same error looking the other way into our white faces. Simpleminded shortcuts to categorization cut human awareness off at the neck, they are acts of such violence.

In my Army unit, being one of the four tallest members qualified me for being a squad leader. In my squad the soldier next to me was the fifth tallest, the blackest man I had ever seen. He was so black, I couldn’t make out his features at all, only the whiteness of his eyes and teeth. His face was always in the shadows.

After several months of living in close quarters with him, I found that most of his darkness had drained away and he’d become a human being, not a Black man. It’s strange how that works. It wasn’t that his skin was black so much as that my mind was white from lack of social experience (as my skin is white from lack of exposure to sunlight), and I didn’t know it.

In that sense, the Army was a great leveler in mixing Blacks and Whites and Latinos and Asians together, giving a good shake of shared experience, and letting the results speak for themselves. Putting young men and women together in college dorms and the military doesn’t work as well because hormones give us a primal agenda that takes a long time to recast as the will of mature, consenting adults.

The demons that haunt our political campaigns are not there at the focus of the advertisements hurled at us as Election Day nears. We know those claims are false (or are at best overdrawn) because we similarly exaggerate the polarity of our own likes and dislikes to maintain their focus at the heart of our consciousness, but we keep forgetting our own fibs and distortions when it is inconvenient to own-up to them in mixed company.

Though stars in general may not have much meaning for us, we all do have a favorite star in our neighborhood, and that is the sun, a star that truly makes a difference in our lives as Earth’s source of radiant energy, and source of gravitational energy that gives us a place to hang our hats in the “universe.”

The sun isn’t like other stars in being, for practical purposes, minimally worthy of notice. To the contrary, at some seasons the sun beams down on us with so much heat and light that it forces itself on our attention, and we seek shelter from its direct rays.

At opposite seasons, when lower in the sky, the sun is often thrust into our awareness by its shyness, and we wish it would be more forceful than it is. But even given its seasonal variability, the sun is far brighter to the eye than other stars, and hotter, and apparently moving so fast through the sky that we feel compelled to keep track of it with our clocks, watches, sundials, and digital devices. In a very real sense, we want to know where it is at all hours so we can set our lives to its schedule.

That is some star. A star to hitch your life to. A star to rise and shine by every day. Without sunlight, plants wouldn’t exist, animals wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist. There, now, is a star that has meaning. Without it, meaning wouldn’t exist because our minds wouldn’t exist.

The sun is implicit in the meaning of meaning, in every one of the dimensions of human awareness and intelligence. Without it, those dimensions would be unimaginable. With it, they become possible.

When we do notice other stars and heavenly bodies, it is often their variability that draws our attention. We notice the comings and goings of comets across the sky, meteors and periodic meteor showers, supernovas suddenly blazing forth where no star was seen before, then fading away.

Too, we notice full and partial eclipses of sun and moon, alignments of planets with bright stars and other planets, phases of the moon as sunlight strikes its surface at different angles as seen from our point of view. And the seasonal journeys of stellar constellations, those apparent groupings of stars we find sufficiently familiar to identify by name: Orion, Sagittarius, Libra, Cassiopeia, Pleiades, Cygnus, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Southern Cross, among others.

To my mind, it is changes in the aesthetic arrangement of the stars that invites them into our attention and gives them much of their meaning. They are not fixtures after all, but sensory phenomena in our minds that are subject to change.

What we call fixed stars are fixed in the sense of their unchanging relations one to another, not in relation to us. Indeed, they appear to move across the sky every day, but en masse, as a well-disciplined flock, preserving their relative positions in the herd, never wandering, never getting lost or out of line.

We know now that that seemingly harmonious sweep of the stars is not their doing at all but ours in revolving beneath them and orbiting the sun through the seasons. It is Earth’s twofold motion, not the stars above moving in an orderly parade. But for most of human history (and all of prehistory), people have been convinced that the stars themselves moved together on well-ordered paths across the sky.

And it was the presumed source of that orderly pattern of motion that gave meaning to the stars as disciplined lights subject to a fundamental rule of the “universe” (which means one-turning, even though the stars aren’t turning at all; it is we Earthlings who are moving, projecting our ill-considered impressions onto the stars).

“Universe” is a misnomer. A mistake. A fundamental error of misconception. What we mean by “the universe,” then, doesn’t truly exist. It is not at all what we once thought it was. Yet the word persists on our English-speaking tongues, and has meaning for even scientists and theologians, who both know better, but in this instance stick to the same outdated habit.

 

386. Our Inner Helmsman

December 23, 2014

Our situated intelligence is the helmsman who steers future behavior in keeping with judgments we make upon the state of affairs signaled by current perception, emotion, and understanding. We all live at the core of our engagements, adjusting our course according to where we want to go in relation to where we have been and where we find ourselves now.

The essence of mind is in the sense of mental integrity and intelligence that our navigational skills represent. My inner helmsman is as close as I can come to the sense of spiritual guidance I feel when trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling flowing through my mind as integrated into a particular judgment and commitment to action.

Such guidance is ever-present in my mind as I write this essay on self-reflection and understanding. The crux of that guidance is its integrity as a sign that all dimensions of mind are in active relationship one with another, creating an intelligent whole from its contributing parts.

That sense of mental integrity is very much like what we mean by physical health as a sign that all our bodily systems are in good order and functioning together, the result being nothing less than life itself. Mental integrity (health, wholeness) is my sense of, and guide to, my inner life. It is the presence in myself that I recognize as my personal stream of consciousness.

In familiar situations, we often relax our scrutiny by relying on less demanding procedures than full judgment of how we are handling ourselves. Easing off, we can link perception to action via unconscious reflexes, mimicry, rote learning, habitual performance, prejudice, the comforting practice of ideology, and other such shortcuts that bypass our full intelligence.

In moving on from perception to action, we can fall back on our reflexes and act wholly without thinking. We can mimic how others respond in similar situations. We can rely on rote behaviors we have internalized from how others have taught us to act in such circumstances.

Too, we can replay habits and routines we have fallen into over the years through frequent repetition. We can surrender to the prejudices that come to the surface from deep inside our histories of experience that we have never truly dealt with or given much thought to. We can fall back on the ideology we have been steeped in for much of our lives, the ways of our tribe, or our kind of people.

And always, we have the option of acting imaginatively and creatively to solve particular problems or otherwise meet our needs at the moment by taking the risk of doing something we have never done before as called for by our sense of self in a novel predicament. That is, by trusting our inner helmsman to see us through.

Imagination depends on reshuffling our standard schemes of meaning at different levels of discernment so that we mix and match our schemes and orders of understanding to come up with a new version of what might be fitting and possible, and give that new order a try to see what will happen.

 

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.

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness (Lulu.com, May 2013) by Steve Perrin

My latest book is about the structure and workings of consciousness as revealed through many years of personal self-reflection. Consciousness, I find, is aroused by a disparity between two nerve signals, much as depth perception results from a disparity between images at corresponding points on the retinas of our two eyes.

Such a disparity in signals might arise between sensory patterns as remembered in contrast to those currently perceived. That is, between expectancy and actual experience, or between the aim of a deliberate action and the effect it actually produces.

I think of that disparity as a relative “valence” such as that between right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, like and dislike, or attractive and repellant. If the valence indicates, for example, “that our impressions exceed or fall short of our expectations, then we become aroused, pay attention, and make a conscious effort to account for the difference so we can take appropriate action.” I think of a helmsman steering through fog by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course to illustrate the idea of such a valenced signal

In this regard, I see the brain not as a computer but “as a vigilant comparator looking for the then in the now, and when not finding it, taking pains to update memory through conscious scrutiny.” That comparator is on duty whenever things, for better or worse, do not go as expected. Resulting in our streaming consciousness striving to keep up with events as they actually unfold in round after round of engagement. Our personal experience reflects those eternal rounds of engagement, much as the holding power of a screw derives from the helical course of its ramped threads through the wood into which it is turned.

Our minds have many alternative routes from perception to action that largely sidestep consciousness. Reflexes, mimicry, rote memorization, and habitual routines, for instance, proceed unconsciously according to our expectations. But when things do not go as expected, our minds are roused to take unanticipated factors into account. Personal consciousness is situated between perception and action, where it plays the vital role of supervising our rounds of engagement for as long as we concentrate on a particular task or activity.

The take-away message of my new book is that a course of introspection is advised if we are to take responsibility for the outcomes of our personal views and actions. Since every human mind is unique, only one person on Earth has both the motive and opportunity to acquaint any given mind. Our schooling generally deals with abstractions, concepts, and generalities, leaving the particular workings of our minds for us to deal with on our own. This book provides examples of how we might do just that. “The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria.” I use haiku as an example of “grappling with becoming aware of being aware” during moments that draw “us out of our everyday selves, heightening our engagement with life.”

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness is available at lulu.com. Search “Books” for “Steve Perrin” and you will come to it. The cost is $17.95 plus shipping.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I am a participant in the Quaker Institute for the Future (QIF) 2012 summer research seminar meeting this week at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. In the early minutes, while we were centering ourselves in silence, I became aware of the loud ticking of a clock. It was an electric wall clock driven by a motor, not by weights and a pendulum, so it had no need for a noisy escapement, but there it was, ticking away simply because clockmakers cater to the public delusion that clocks ought to tick. I thought of functionless metopes (beam ends) in stone temples dotted around ancient Greece, structures fashioned after ancient wooden temples, but having no true beam ends because they had no wooden beams. After all, how could a temple serve as a temple if it didn’t look like a temple ought to look?

Little white cars these days look like they rode off the screen of Star Wars because Star Wars set standards for what helmets and vehicles ought to look like in the future. Now that we live in the then future, what else can we expect cars to look like? I still think houses in New England ought to look like my grandfather’s house in Plainfield, Vermont—complete with woodstove in the kitchen and woodworking shop in the barn—because that house defined for me how a house is meant to look. Movies keep getting made to look as they did in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. We just can’t seem to let go of the old days when our tastes were formed once and forever. Over and over again it’s the same story—back to the future.

But it did strike me as strange to be sitting in a college seminar room equipped with a clock that affected a fake ticking sound as an echo of yesteryear while I was trying to coax my mind into engaging the future. That relentless beat nicely illustrates the problem we are up against in carrying past expectations around inside our heads as we grow more entrenched in what seems to be the future but is really an extension of times we’ve already lived through. Stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck—that was the message of the room we were assembled in to plot our way ahead. How ironic is that?

Fact is, the past is hard to shed because it’s built into the very habits, memories, and expectations we carry around with us as we go. And in our styles of reaching out to the world based on those tired expectations. Even though we realize it no longer works, we still lug it around, lug it around without realizing it because if we shed it, we’d no longer know who we were. Which is who we were once upon a fantasy time when our styles of grappling with the world were formed.

Creatures of limited imagination that we are, we know what we like, and like what we know. So much for change, so much for progress.

Later in the day, one QIF participant gave a presentation about bringing our economy up to date in workable form. He pointed out that the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to collect taxes and pay the debts for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, and, too, to borrow money on credit. It was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who led George Washington to float the nation on monies borrowed from banks in New York, a habit that has endured for over 200 years. Hamilton, a man who would not leave politics alone, came to a bad end in his duel with Aaron Burr, as the nation is facing a dire fiscal situation today.

So now we pay interest to the financial services industry for the privilege of borrowing its money, when there is no reason whatever for doing so. That particular habit is driving us into the poorhouse, making paupers of a great many hardworking people. Yet we think it is the only way to fund the nation because it’s a habit we picked up so long ago that it’s now simply business as usual as the founding fathers had it in their day. We haven’t the imagination to change to a less suicidal way of paying our bills with interest for the privilege of doing so. Hostages to the moneyed elite, we send jobs overseas and listen to the ticking of the clock as it tracks the national debt, while that same elite avoids taxes and prospers immensely on bonuses paid with public monies. Strange business. Where is it written we must play by that scenario?

Progress is largely a matter of ridding ourselves of a beloved set of bad habits, yet we remain slaves to that tradition, as some advise us it is our moral duty to do. If we are to be free, we must come round to freeing ourselves. There is no need for a sovereign government to borrow from a moneyed elite. It’s time to free ourselves from the grand old tradition of national indebtedness. To go bankrupt for the sake of a political idea is a risky venture gone wrong. If we are to head for a brave new future, we’re not going to get there by listening to the ghostly ticking of the same old clock in our heads.

With thanks to Keith Helmuth for truly facing QIF toward the future, I remain as ever, y’r friend, –Steve