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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2010)

Do we have it in us? Can we back off from our project of building a future for ourselves, leaving room for those around us who are doing the same? Are we so dedicated to our agenda that we can’t appreciate that others are pursuing needs of their own? Who is to declare us right and them wrong? I mean, who aside from ourselves?

The trouble with sticking to corporate agendas with excessive zeal is that it sucks the air out of the room, leaving no oxygen for others to breathe. Is that our goal in life, to assert ourselves to the point that others suffocate in our presence? Are we capable of giving them leeway, some space to breathe? Just enough so they are comfortable in our presence, and vice versa. Are Israelis capable of backing off the Palestinians’ case, allowing them to live on their own without Israeli supervision to make sure they don’t step out of bounds?

The only way Israelis will ever live in peace is to permit Palestinians to do likewise without interference. Not just permit, insist that is their right. Instead of governing by domination, it would be better to step back, adopt a sensible two-state solution, and recognize that sovereignty for one group is workable only if all groups have equal claims to freedom and justice. As it is, Israelis regard Palestinians conceptually, as if they existed in a vacuum—but the vacuum is an emptiness in Israeli imagination.

Why is “the other” so difficult to picture in the mind? We know why the Palestinians are angry, the Israelis took their homeland out from under them by violent means. The Israelis are angry because Palestinians are blocking their agenda, coming between a people and their dream. In some ways, the Israeli dream is similar to the Palestinian dream—to live in peace. Israelis go further and insist on occupying the particular ground that they lost two millennia ago. If the Israelis were to back off, they might discover that both sides want the same thing in modern times. Which would seem to elevate the two-state solution to the level of a win-win compromise. True, neither would take possession of the entire state, but both could have access to it on peaceful terms. Is not living at peace with one’s neighbors preferable to dying an extremist’s death for an unjust cause that is wholly self-serving, and wrongly so?

Passion does not render miscategorizations accurate or fair. Insistence does not transform a claim into a right. Often the wise are those waiting patiently for their opponents to come to terms on their own without being forced. Such a strategy allows those on the opposite side to catch themselves overreaching so that, as in jujitsu, it is they who are shown to be off-balance. Extremists overreach themselves in denying the integrity of those they miscategorize or misjudge. Like hornets, they stir up commotions and alarms to snuff out the slightest hint their cause is any less righteous than they claim.

As for righteousness, no one has defended it better than the Congregation of the Holy Office has protected the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. After the fact, that body was advised to categorize Copernicus’s heliocentric theory as heresy, which led to Galileo being forced in 1633 to recant evidence provided by his telescopic investigations in support of the sun’s being the center of the universe as then understood, not the Earth as scripture would have it. Categorized as a heretic, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest as a threat to the faith. Which is pretty much how Israel treats Palestinians today, categorizing them as threats to the state, so shutting them behind walls of concrete to teach them their place in the Israeli scheme of things.

Undue vehemence in support of particular categorizations of how things stand—or should stand—in the world is rampant around the globe. It comes as a shock to realize that bigotry on behalf of extreme beliefs is not a thing of the past. Bigotry divides people into two classes: those who are with us and those opposed; those who are right and those who are wrong. With the subtext that the right have truth and justice on their side, so are fully justified in censoring the free speech of the wrong by categorizing it as vicious and unfounded lies. That is, one effective way to guard against defamation is to defame your opponent before he is able to frame the debate. Which illustrates the power of our deliberate and conscious minds to use categorization in identifying and destroying at one blow those who oppose us.

Such tactics have become the American way. Consider these examples. 1) Political parties don’t lose elections anymore, they have them stolen by unscrupulous opponents. 2) Once corporations were categorized as persons, they were deemed to have freedom of speech under the First Amendment, which was stretched by activist judges to include the spending of money as a form of free speech—by lining those ducks in a row, the judicial branch singlehandedly undid our representative form of government as described in the U.S. Constitution. 3) Raise the issue of gun control within hearing of the National Rifle Association and you will trigger a tirade by CEO Wayne LaPierre in which absolute heresy is too weak a term for what you are are trying to say (“bullshit” would be his term); instantly you find yourself characterized as an evil terrorist out to prevent decent women and children from defending themselves with firearms, as (he will claim) specifically provided for in the Second Amendment.

Then there is AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., which claims to level the playing field for all discussions concerning Israel—but comes at such discussions from so aggressive an angle as to tilt the field smartly in its favor. For AIPAC, history is destiny, and modern Israel is seen as “fulfilling a political and historical imperative,” an imperative that makes no mention of Palestine or Palestinians, a place and a people wholly eliminated from the Jewish dream of founding a homeland in modern times. Which raises the issue, when dreams are turned to reality, what happens to those excluded from the dream? Does it matter? In this case, evidently, but not to the dreamers.

My point in this post is that in building a future for ourselves, we all attempt to reify or actualize dreams based on our prior experience, or sacred texts (as in the First and Second Amendments, or the Torah). First we visualize and categorize the kind of future we want for ourselves, then we develop the project of fulfilling our dreams as apt categorizations of reality. That, basically, is how consciousness works in the interest of our individual survival as far as we can push it.

But in realizing our dreams, it is better to include the world in its living diversity, not solely the narrow territory of our personal yearnings as we would project them onto a barren globe. If we don’t work with the lay of the land and the tribes that occupy it, we are apt to impose ourselves roughly in their midst, as Hitler did in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, North Africa, and the Balkans during World War II. And as the Jews did in 1948—and are still doing today—in what for a time was known as Palestine, and long before that was shown on maps of the time as Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Israel, Philistia, Judah, Persia, Palestina, Jerusalem, Galilee, among other fleeting categorizations.

Given the complexity of human movements and settlements around the Earth, staking a dream claim to any particular area requires a clarity of vision far beyond what the human mind can consciously attain. Columbus claimed the so-called New World as a province of the Old, in one gesture sweeping away the sovereign relationship Native Americans had with the land they lived on. The result is that such campaigns to claim and categorize a place invariably do violence to the historical record, and are conveniently based on the limited views of a small group of assertive people in one place at one time. Such as the Bush administration in deciding to bomb Afghanistan and invade Iraq. Knowing that, as we all must by now, we are well advised to be cautious in mapping ourselves onto Earth’s living surface. At the very least we must allow for those who are already there, since forcing ourselves upon them is bound to lead to resentment and cycles of revenge for the foreseeable future.

It makes more sense to back off from our dreams and develop a live and let-live philosophy that takes other perspectives with other histories into account. Those of us alive today are latecomers to our planet. We may think of ourselves as Adam and Eve in some nouveau Garden of Eden, but the fact is wherever we go, Earth is one giant midden heap consisting of the decomposing ruins of all that has come before us in this place. Excavating for a subway tunnel, we will come across a forgotten palace or perhaps the bones of a saber-toothed tiger. Future excavators will likely dig up the refrigerator we leave at curbside today.

If our minds are so preoccupied they can’t see that each of us is but one point of light in a coruscating multitude, then we are not fully conscious, and our categorizations are apt to be wildly inaccurate because our outreach and intelligence are seriously flawed. Acting as if our judgment were infallible, we head straight for the nearest cliff. Actions we accept on faith to be true and just will surely turn out to be false, unfair, and cruel. To others as well as ourselves and our heirs. Leaving us stunned with massive internal injuries. What we need is largeness of mind from the start, not as a sorry afterthought. The way to achieve that is to resist mapping our personal meanings onto others without consulting them first; just because we can paint them as we see them doesn’t mean a casual sketch is as good as a studied rendition. Our well-intentioned categorizations represent things only as we view them at the time, not as they are. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume we haven’t a clue about most things most of the time, and that we know not whereof we rave and rant.

It is better if we do not insist on pushing our agenda to its foregone conclusion. That is, instead of committing to a plan of action, if we back off after our first move and wait to see what will happen. Embarking on a looping engagement with those around us, we remain open to an easy give-and-take with the situation as it develops. We are wise to see what happens before acting again. Consciousness can come to a decision in a fraction of a second, but reacting at that rate, we base the future largely on assumptions we can’t rightly make at that speed. Even after a day or a month, we can’t know very much about conducting ourselves in the world. It takes decades to develop a sense of who we are and what we’re doing—I’d say fifty years at a minimum. Until then, we have only a weak sense of what we don’t know we don’t know. If you are impulsive and can’t wait, then plunge ahead; I promise you’ll learn something new—or will if you keep an open mind.

As it is, Republicans in Congress don’t seem very keen on new learning at this stage of their development. They’re right up there with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which hasn’t learned much in 2,000 years of rigid, top-down, authoritarian, paternalistic organization. Nor have AIPAC and the NRA much to show for all the stands they’ve taken because, like Alois Ratzinger (a.k.a. Benedict XVI), they claim infallibility in being so headstrong they can’t learn anything they don’t already know. These are not people you can trust to usher in the future of the world because they are so busily defending their corporate points of view.

“Catholic” means including or concerning all humankind (AHD). Which would seem to require broad sensitivity to grassroots affairs, not a heavy-handed, authoritarian approach radiating top-down from an infallible apex of one man. But once an idea germinates in human consciousness and becomes institutionalized, then it ceases to develop and ossifies as if, like commandments, it is written in stone. The same fate hardens interpretations of constitutional amendments, homelands depicted in ancient scripture, platforms of political parties, colonial attitudes toward native peoples. Like ants in amber, ideas get embedded into agendas and serve as mission statements chartered by law.

I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog that consciousness is a property of individual persons, not corporate bodies. When regarded as if groupthink were the equivalent of personal consciousness, then the weight of collective thought becomes extremely dangerous, as in the case of each of the examples I have provided in this post. When multitudes behave as if of one mind, then mob rule is inevitable. With disastrous results.

Better, we place our trust in individuals who plant flower gardens, go dancing, thrive in the presence of art, music, and poetry. And look to hikers, farmers, sailors, birdwatchers, and athletes of all sorts who move their bodies in joy, not just to win. These people are into the wonder of sensory relationships, not concepts, not what they already know. They are all on the forefront of their lives, doing their best to appreciate and respond to the sensory patterns that dance in their minds. They are likely to have a more accurate take on reality than those who force meanings upon it, who live in worlds where knowing is more important than simply being who they are. If orthodox knowledge is power, stand clear of it. Follow new patterns wherever they lead; patterns are sure signs of life. Concepts are yesterday; percepts are right now.

If you must categorize, take your time. When you don’t, you might find yourself playing the role of a particle collider that creates a vacuum to ensure unstoppable forces coming from opposite directions meet head-to-head.

Heliocentrism

Reflection 150: The Big IF

October 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Our outlooks on the world are governed by networks of electrochemical connections in our brains, in turn governed by the unique biochemical circumstances in which those networks were formed during earliest infancy and childhood, as well as by changes in neural connectivity resulting from subsequent life experience.

Our outlooks on the world determine our expectations. Our expectations determine how we extend ourselves into the world through personal behavior, which in turn determines how we receive world gestures into ourselves as episodes of meaningful experience.

How we take the world into ourselves influences our next round of behavior, which sets us up for the next cycle of feedback to be interpreted in light of our outlook.

Round and round we go on the continuous ride of expectancy and fulfillment in a looping engagement with a world we cannot know in itself but interpret nonetheless from our unique point of view within whatever situation we construe as our current reality.

Our ongoing loop of engagement with the world is none other than our personal life. Which is unlike any other life because our innermost electrochemical connectivity and our experience are unique to ourselves. So, too, are the values by which we guide our adaptation to what we take to be the outside world as an expression of our will to survive. Our minds are our unique, personal minds, our acts are our acts, our interpretations are our interpretations, our adaptation is our adaptation, our survival is our survival, our life is our life.

But that’s only the beginning. Imagine all the relationships each unique person has with those around her—including family, friends, society, pets, wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, habitats, institutions, governments, cultures—all those loops reaching out from each person into his surrounding milieu, generating occasions for feedback, interpretation, and subsequent responses through actions, gestures, utterances, and so on.

Considering the complexity of our ongoing interactions, engagements, interrelationships—all different, all changing—we can appreciate the challenge of even the simplest human life we can imagine—that, say, of the infant, or the hermit in his mountain retreat. Add the necessity of keeping track of it all though learning and memory (and blessed forgetfulness of trivial details) so that our experience is more-or-less cumulative and orderly, it is a wonder each of us isn’t overwhelmed by the relentless flux of events in our personal worlds of  consciousness.

If in fact we are created equal, it is as equal experiments in the universe. Where many will adapt to the occasions of their lives and muddle through, others will succumb. Day after day, the issue is personal survival. If our respective sets of unique characteristics are a match for the conditions in which we strive, and our minds and bodies are up to the challenge, we will live another day. That is the big IF in whose shadow we awaken each day, and surrender to mock oblivion later on.

It is not that I am pitting my values and uniqueness against yours for the privilege of making it through till tomorrow. Living in the shadow of the big IF is the lot we share in common with humanity and all life. But it is not surprising that within that one lot, differences are inevitable. Those differences are part of the plan in setting us up for the ultimate test of survival. Those who are most adapted to their life circumstances will go on, while others stumble, and eventually collapse. That’s what it means to exist as one of Earth’s children.

But when one group or class takes advantage of another, using it to boost its own comfort and chances of survival—then campfires and bombardments will light the night sky in answer to such skullduggery. 

Human history is written in blood spilled by one group rising against another in response to unjust oppression for the sake of stealing a survival advantage. Every chapter tells of farmers standing against ranked troops, archers or rock throwers against those with guns who have invaded their land, suicide bombers killing as many innocents as possible, slaves against masters, workers against bosses, subjects against armies of kings and emperors, those out of power against those in power, and on and on. Power, ultimately, bestows a survival advantage upon those who possess it, depriving the powerless to an equal degree.

Consciousness matters because it is the gauge of our equality under the circumstances that prevail in our current social situation. We can tell our relative station in life by how others treat us. If we feel put upon, neglected, abused, under-represented, or generally at a disadvantage compared to others in our social realm, we will act according to our degree of disaffection. Nowhere is it written that one class should stride upon the bodies of its underlings. Nor is it decreed that the socially underprivileged must bow to their self-styled betters as exemplars of a more noble form of humanity.

Uniqueness is uniqueness; humanity is humanity. Each of us has an inherent right to equal treatment and respect. It is not up to us to impress others into serving our personal values and goals. If all do not stand for one, and one does not stand for all, we risk  elevating ourselves as higher beings more fit than the rest. Yet we are born to die—as everyone is—mortals first-to-last. If our uniqueness is to receive its due, it is as a proclamation that our respective gifts have equal worth as agents of survival in the universal experiment that is humanity. We do not know where the next great advance will arise—in what climate, habitat, nation, genome, or stream of consciousness.

We cannot see beyond the shadow of the big IF that falls equally upon us. Therefore it is not for us to weigh the value of others’ gifts. We can only manage our consciousness to make our unique selves happen as best we can under the circumstances that befall us—and insist on everyone’s right to do the same.

In this light, personal consciousness is not primarily a means for advancing ourselves beyond others, but rather a means of striving for sufficiency while recognizing we are in this life together and deserve equal chance to make ourselves happen—not as higher and lower beings, but as uniquely gifted members of our common humanity. Each of us is but one biochemical wonder among many with diverse outlooks and expectations, all with equal hopes of fulfillment in adapting to the world shadow that falls across us for the duration of our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

If feelings are involved, consciousness creates a record of itself in memory. And those same memories inform consciousness for the rest of your life. You don’t need to take notes, it’s all there in the shadows of your mind, a ready reference when required. An amazing system! Yet we seldom think what it means—that every stream of consciousness is autobiographical. The world you live in is the world you make for yourself by living your particular life. No one else lives the same life, so yours is historically unique. What makes sense to you won’t make the same sense to anyone else because your frames of reference are different in the most intimately personal way. When we die, our frames of reference—our histories—die with us. Each of us is irreplaceable. We get our one run at life in this universe, and that’s it.

I keep thinking of all the questions I could have asked my mother about her life in Maine—but never did. I am stuck having to view her as my mother when that role was only a bit part in her history. I know almost nothing about her personal memories, the intimate historical details she lived out every day, giving her an identity, making her who she was to herself. Who was that woman? Besides being my mother, she was that female stranger I lived with until, at seventeen, I went to college 3,000 miles away from her home near Seattle. It was her home, not mine. I only lived there; she ran the place.

Does anybody remember Jean Shepherd’s riff on mothers as sink creatures? Shepherd was a radio personality—basically, a storyteller or narrator of personal history—from the late 1940s to 1977. His nighttime program, as far as I could tell, was wholly unscripted. He’d start talking about some minor event from childhood in a steel town in northern Indiana, developing his theme as he went. Usually in there somewhere was a rhapsody on his mother standing at the kitchen sink. Peeling potatoes, washing dishes, filling the coffee pot—that was her role in his life. Like a woman in a Vermeer painting staring out the window—as far as we know that’s all she ever did—so she stands through the ages, seen through Vermeer’s or Shepherd’s eyes, creatures of the respective kinds of consciousness as cast on them by others who see something in them.

We know so much about ourselves and so little about anyone else—even our closest companions or blood relatives. What do spouses really know about their partners’ inner lives? So physically close and mentally remote, it’s hard to tell. My bet in most cases is not very much. When he claims to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, how do you know he isn’t hanging out with his Argentine sweetie? Besides being bed, dinner, and parenting creatures, what else would we want to know about those we care for? My answer: the full history of another’s conscious inner world.

The outlines of consciousness are sketched by our genes, each of us making proteins and metabolizing our food a little differently, so we all deviate somewhat from the basic human norms for body, consciousness, and behavior. From there, exposure to social and cultural influences takes over and we begin compiling our respective personal histories. What nature roughs out, our individual cultural engagement finishes in fine detail. Unique experiences persist in episodic memory; repeated experiences with overlapping features persist as concepts in semantic memory. Our stories develop both ways at once, specifically and generically, concretely and abstractly, the two in combination culminating in meaningful lives simultaneously rich in sensory detail and overall meaning.

If members of our family and social group get around by walking, then we become walkers as well; if they ride mules, horses, carriages, motorcycles, or public transportation, then we do likewise. Our mirror neurons make it seem natural for us to follow the example of what people do in our part of town. If we grow up without experiencing airplanes, iPhones or stone tools, then they are not part of our personal consciousness or the history it lays down. My grandfather used wooden tools, my father used metal tools, I use electrical and electronic tools. Mothers can cook with open fires, wood stoves, electric stoves, microwave ovens—or not cook at all if somebody else is up for the job. Not many sons would dub their mothers sink creatures today—nor would many mothers permit what sounds like a slur. Tooling around in an SUV is more like it, or toting a briefcase to work. 

These days, cultural ways change so fast, it is hard to keep up. I used logarithms in school, a slide rule in college, a mechanical desk calculator at work, and now a photon-powered electronic calculator. My early film cameras were variations on a black box with lens on one end, film on the other. Then I got a 35mm rangefinder, followed by a 120 twin-lens reflex, later a 35mm single-lens reflex. Now I’ve gone digital and abandoned black-and-white photography altogether. Whatever happened to pens and pencils? Typewriters? Linotype machines? Newspapers? I remember them all as essential parts of the world I grew up in. A good many parts of my consciousness were shaped to their use, parts now obsolete. If you don’t keep up, you become obsolete yourself because your mind is tooled to times gone by. Corporations can suffer that fate (think General Motors, Bell Telephone, IBM, Sears), or even once-great nations grown too full of themselves (France, England, Russia, the U.S.A.).

Language certainly changes over time. As a kid, I read six or seven Dr. Dolittle books from the library. Wanting to reconnect with those days, I planned to reread them—but got only to the third page of the first one I picked up. Hugh Lofting wrote in a stuffy style intended for a world gone by, now largely extinct. As the Hugh Lofting part of me is extinct. I recently had a similar experience trying to reconnect with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In today’s world, Thoreau has a touch of the archaic, but he is too original a mind to be classed with the dinosaurs. So is Walt Whitman. And Thomas Paine. As for the classic texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, efforts to keep them alive through heroic efforts are so desperate and extreme, it would be better to shut off life-support and retire them to the Museum of Outworn Cultures so modern consciousness can deal with current problems such as overpopulation, excessive consumption, the collapse of capitalism, global warming, wars without end, among others we have yet to develop ways of thinking about or vocabularies adequate to suitably framing so we can come up with workable solutions.

To draw a few examples from the history of my personal consciousness as recorded in memory, I offer these as determinants of modern history as this blogger has lived it:

  1. The 1937 crash and inferno of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin Hindenburg in landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey after crossing the Atlantic—I remember the spread in the rotogravure section of the Syracuse Post Standard.
  2. Admiral William Byrd’s bright red, six-wheeled, crevasse-proof Snow Cruiser being driven in 1939 along U.S. Route 20 en route to New York and ultimately Antarctica, where it promptly got lodged in a crevasse—I yearned desperately to be that shirtless guy stretched out in the sun along the sloping engine hood.
  3. The film version of The Wizard of Oz changed me forever by setting the standard for what entertainment could be—I loved the story, the characters, the sets, the music, the visual effects, the colors.
  4. Racing ahead of the family after the Sunday movie, turning on the radio, hearing serious voices tell of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—me telling my parents something bad had happened.
  5. The Life Magazine cover photo during the war showing the head of a German soldier roasted alive in an armored vehicle in North Africa—the first time I remember being drawn to look again and again at something so horrifying.
  6. The school assembly called the day FDR died in 1945, me sitting in tears on a folding chair at the end of the row, being told school would let out early—which I knew wouldn’t do any good.
  7. Walking along a gravel road at scout camp in August, looking up at the blue sky, wondering what an atomic bomb was—I’d never heard of one before the raid on Hiroshima made it into the newspaper.
  8. Walking by Symphony Hall on Mass. Ave. in Boston, seeing door ajar, walking in on an open rehearsal, sitting in back under the balcony, seeing Pierre Monteux conduct the Boston Symphony in Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—I suddenly realized what music was all about, and that LPs didn’t capture half of it.
  9. The turbulent era of the 1960s with war in Viet Nam, flower children, the pill, racial violence, drugs, JFK’s assassination in 1963, RFK’s and MLK’s in 1968, and civil strife throughout—my father died, I had two children got divorced, remarried, changed jobs, every day demanded total concentration just to stay even, this was not the world I grew up in.
  10. In the late 1970s I took three courses with Sigmund Koch at Boston University, the one truly inspirational teacher I had in college or graduate school, a man big enough to critique the entire field of psychology at mid-century—he showed me what applied consciousness could do.

My conscious history is a tale of anxiety and revelation, which may be true for others as well. Evolution sets us up for such a life, we and our times do the rest, culture following through on what nature and our heritage have begun in our genome. Consciousness isn’t just for the moment or the day, it’s for a lifetime. Very little of it goes to waste. Coming to us in scraps, we stitch it together into the coherent tapestry of our outlook so that expectancy rewards us with a future containing more of the same. Which sometimes it doesn’t, so we settle for another round of anxiety, hoping for revelation. Consciousness, such as it is, steers every life to the end, creating the history of ourselves as individuals long before the history of a people or the world is even imagined, much less recorded.

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