The essential benefit of families is to give children a chance to build a store of memories that will serve to get them started in life, and perhaps see them through to the end. Love, liking, sex, companionship, respect, and cooperation help parents bond with each other as essentially different people. That bond is a gift they give their children who, born wholly naïve to the ways of the world, need early engagements with others to build memories, habits, and skills that will help them to stand on their own legs as capable adults when the time comes.

Whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or other, adult pairs that complement each other can provide the stimulation and stability necessary to maintain a functioning family that benefits children directly or indirectly during the restless journey to adulthood.

Couples don’t need to justify their existence by having children. They provide the same services by engaging each other so that, having a shared home to return to that restores them, they can go forth and do the work of the world in turning solar energy into deeds.

This benefit also spreads throughout the neighboring community. It takes true, skilled, generous, and reliable engagements to run the world, not the union of one man with one woman, which is only one example of a wide variety of productive human relationships.

There are as many kinds of marriages as there are couples. The essence of family is stability through mutual engagement, not any one particular kind of relationship. If we over-specify the nature of families based on a particular personal preference, morality founders on the sharp rocks of that heedless specificity.

Children don’t need orthodox beliefs to grow into competent adults, nor do any partners who already function on that level of competency. Expressions of mutual love help, along with enough healthful food to fuel the currents flowing through minds both young and adult, endowing them with coherent thoughts and meanings.

The essential thing in a family is to build a core of common experiences that stimulates the growth of all members on their respective levels of attainment. This requires a certain flexibility of expectation, not the rigidity of preordained results.

When I was two or three, the bed of an old canal that passed at the rear of our back yard in Hamilton, New York, was selected as the route of a new sewer. Big sections of concrete pipe were lined up along the banks of the canal, ready to be rolled into place. Walking unattended as a very young child along that line of pipe, I came to its end, which I immediately crawled into.

I remember the feel of the rough concrete surface on my hands and knees. My way into that tube of darkness grew ever dimmer, without any sign of light ahead. The pipe was too tight around my crawling frame to let me turn, so I tried backing up, which didn’t work. I had no choice but to keep crawling into the depths. Crawling. Crawling, scrape after scrape. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out.

The separate sections of pipe were pieced together so tightly that only faint hints of an outside world glowed dimly here and there. I was firm in my conviction that the only way out had to lie ahead. At a slight bend, I suddenly saw a faint shimmer from a wider gap in the distance. I kept crawling, and came to two sections of pipe that had not been closely fitted together, leaving a six-inch gap flooded with daylight. This was my chance! I scraped my way through that gap, drawing blood and white scratches along my arms and legs. I wormed my way upward toward the light, and stood free in the open air, taking the coolest, freshest breaths of my life.

Only then did I admit my stupidity in crawling into that line of pipe as if the dark opening had invited me in. I recognized taking that initial move as the bad idea it had been. I remember scolding myself never to do that again.

A certain lack of parental supervision in my case as middle child led to many subsequent episodes of my learning about the world on my own. I became an independent thinker. Whenever I could, I roamed the hills around town, getting scratched, wet, tired, and cold, but never cutting back on my roving explorations. I was on the path to adventure, realizing that if I was under anyone’s supervision, it was my own.

I see those qualities now as the gift of independence that my father took from his birth mother’s not showing up when he needed her. Turning bad situations into positive outcomes is an unsought but necessary result of living through tough times. Finding that positive way is up to those who suffer neglect, abuse, bullying, cruelty, or deprivation. If others torment us, we always have the ultimate option of going it alone under our own recognizance.

Here I am today, facing into the tunnel of introspection so surely shunned by respectable science. Well, so be it. Some may regard it as a sewer pipe; I see it as my way to revelation. My path of life lies precisely into this particular darkness. I’ve already seen many faint shimmers of light, and have no intention of turning back. This Web log is the record of my adventures so far. If I don’t take this particular path, who will? The way is not obvious, but I judge it to be essentially positive. It happens to be the route I’ve followed since earliest childhood.

Thanks for checking it out.

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450. Family Story

March 6, 2015

My grandmother died of a heart attack in 1896 after giving birth to her only child, so he, my father, had never know her, his own mother. He was christened at her graveside. And as it turned out, his own children never knew him, our father. To us he might well have been a cobbler hammering at his last in some distant workroom across town.

But we loved him in spirit because he often read to us before bedtime. In the end, he pipe-smoked himself to death at age sixty-four. When he said good night, he smelled like an ashtray.

Though famous in a professional sense, he never found the engagement he missed-out on when the one person destined to be there for him never showed up. He never engaged her, his own mother, so never had a chance to respond to her personal qualities, and so never developed his own. He was a presence notable for its absence due to professional duties. Throughout my life, he was always this bemused man in the background.

In retrospect, I see him as a good provider, but, too, as a kind of silent partner, a sort of blank to be filled-in upon later reflection. That is what I see myself doing in writing this blog using the English language to write about the one mind I have to work with. And saw my two brothers doing late in life before they died, putting themselves into typing out plays and poetry, respectively. Reminding me of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, children of the John B. Watson era of child abuse by means of edicts issued from academia.

My father’s great gift to his family was Burying Island, which my mother brought to family attention as a memory from her childhood, presented to her in a dream she had in 1937 of a time she and her father had rowed to the island to pick raspberries. Talk about family engagements: I have spent almost my whole life interacting with that island on the Maine coast, and I am sure that connection explains why I moved to Maine in 1986 to become an inadvertent environmentalist.

My love for that island goes back to its meaning for both of my parents. For my mother it was a living remnant of her relationship with her father; for my father is was a fantasy remnant of a relationship with the mother he never knew. For me, it was the setting of the happiest days we enjoyed as a family before we went our separate ways into disparate worlds of our own.

I now manage Burying Island LLC for the three families that used to own it in undivided shares, but together formed an LLC to assure protection of its ecological integrity for the foreseeable future. A good part of my life’s energy has gone toward protecting that island from innocent degradation by well-meaning family members. That island is at the core of my creative life as Steve from planet Earth.

Mind, self, island, planet—I can’t keep them separate because in my experience they aren’t separate at all. They are levels of life on Earth as expressed through my lineage. I had to live my whole life to this point in order to write that sentence in the context of this reflection.

That is how my mind works. And I would now say how minds work in general. Ultimately they are expressions of the planet that bore them, their families, communities, cultures, and natural surroundings, at root based on sunlight and water joining forces with soil to create mindful life.

Our families provide a core around which our engagements are wrapped, giving shape to our actions, judgments, and perceptions. Here I am connecting the words in this blog to the situation I have created for myself by undertaking this project as an expression of my family history as kindled by my mother and father all the way back to the founding of one-celled life in ancient waters and soils pooled together and both warmed and lit by rays from the sun.

This is my story as dictated to my fingers by my mind. All told by trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling that make up the mind that I am.

Can you feel it—that flow? That’s who I am in alerting you to that flow in yourself, to give you encouragement to keep your own flow flooding through your mind and activities as a vehicle for your family’s history of turning sunlight and moisture into deeds that perpetually flower in the guise of your creative engagements.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that is why I undertook the project of writing this blog—to earn the right to say what I just did in these last few sentences and paragraphs.

 

442. Why Community?

February 25, 2015

Why am I carrying on about community as I have been in my last three posts? And culture before that? And nature before that? And will be carrying on about the family level of our engagements in posts yet to come?

My point is that consciousness as I see it is not neatly packaged in the brain, but is a messy, collaborative effort between our minds and the worlds around us. I divide those worlds into levels of nature, culture, community, and family. Our brains tell only half the story; the surroundings with which we engage tell the other half.

Without ambient worlds, we’d have no minds at all. Think sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, living in a cave, or on a tiny desert island with one sheltering palm as we depict in cartoons. Our minds are built to engage with outside worlds. Without such worlds we’d go stir crazy because of lack of any kind of response to our gestures.

Community is just one level of the many engagements I find in myself through introspection. I am not alone in my mind and have never been alone. I was born to the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family such as they were in Hamilton, New York, in 1932. I could have been born in Damas in Syria to an entirely different set of worlds in that same year. Or to yet other worlds in Christianshaab, Greenland; La Libertad, Guatemala; Banzyville, Belgian Congo; or Saigon in French Indo-China. But, no, I wasn’t born to any of those sets of worlds; I was born to the multi-layered worlds of Hamilton, New York.

Schine State Theater was the movie house in town when I grew up; that’s where I first saw the Wizard of Oz. The image of the man behind the curtain manipulating the wizard still lives in my brain. My family went to the movies there on December 7, 1941, when for some reason I ran home and turned on the radio, then told my father that something bad had happened in Pearl Harbor, wherever that was. Rausa’s Cigar Store next door had pinball machines and an electric cigar lighter that threw sparks between electrodes. My young mind was shaped by engagements in a Hamilton that now no longer exist in the world, yet still exist in me.

My early mind was shaped by events in Hamilton a long time ago, yet I carry my naïve version of those events to this day. That’s why I blog about community, because it is one major strand of experience that makes our minds what they are. Other formative communities I bear with me are the Seattle of 1947, Cambridge of 1951, Kaiserslautern of 1957, Ames of 1960, Burying Island of 1987, and now Bar Harbor of today. I am he who has just such a mind that dwells on the nature of consciousness.

What else would I blog about but the myriad engagements with nature, culture, community, and family that make me who I am? Introspection opens onto just such a complex world as stirs up my consciousness to this day. The same world that situates my intelligence from moment to moment within the field of memory I carry with me wherever I go, sparking my attention and concentration on themes called-up and directed from inside my head.

Neuroscientists blog about information being passed to and processed by different areas of the brain. It is my belief that they will never discover consciousness in their research; what they will find is what they bring with them and project onto the workings of the brain. Until they acknowledge that a great chunk of what they are looking for exists in such layers of experience as nature, culture, community, and family, I believe their expensive machinery will tell them more and more about less and less because it misses the point that consciousness is given us to help us collaborate with, and adapt to, the several worlds we actually live in, not the world as it exists in their highly trained and indoctrinated minds.

But what do I know? Only what my mind whispers to me in my dreams, and I struggle to organize as simply as I can in my waking hours. I can only speak for myself from my personal experience. Which, I believe, is all any of us can do, each being unique as we all are. But at least I can do that, and as I see it, owe it to the world to publish one post at a time as an honest account of one man’s situated intelligence, against which others are invited to compare their own.

 

Early human settlements were commonly located on the banks of lakes, streams, or wetlands where water for drinking, fishing, hunting, washing, removing waste, and boating was readily available. London was founded at the junction where the River Fleete flowed into the Thames Estuary, New York between the Hudson and East Rivers, Rome on the Tiber, Paris on the Seine, Alexandria in the Nile Delta.

Communities spring up where they do for good reason, often having to do with protection from the elements, plentiful food, water, and natural resources essential to survival, together with ease of access to other areas.

People gather in communities for many reasons. We have school communities, work communities, religious communities, ethnic group communities, and common interest communities of all sorts. I see all these various groupings as communities of engagement. We gather together either formally or informally but always personally, at meetings and events, or on the Internet, to suit our common needs and interests.

In community there is strength because engagement builds connections between separate individuals. When facing difficulties, two minds are better than one. Communication by means of a common language is of the essence in building communities to meet common needs and purposes. Communities are where we learn the language(s) we will use to express our minds for the rest of our lives.

To achieve mutual benefit, all members of a community must abide by the same set of rules and expectations. In reflection 427 I suggested ten rules of engagement with nature. Local courts and law enforcement agencies enforce our formal rules of engagement with our local communities. Pay your taxes, honor contracts, don’t go bankrupt, drive on the right side of the road, and so on. If we’re late for school, we’ll be called to the office. If we’re late for work, we’ll be docked.

There are no laws requiring us to respect our neighbors, but without doubt communities depend on harmony between neighbors of all sorts. If you borrow a cup of sugar, repay the favor as soon as you can. If you borrow a lawnmower, return it all gassed-up the same day. Invite the neighbors over at least once a year, and by all means be sure the kids go to birthday parties bearing gifts when invited.

In my case, coastal Hancock County, Maine, provides the context of my personal engagements. It is the particular sector of nature and culture that I engage with every day. It is where my wayfaring feet meet the pathways of the collective society I am a member of. Community is the footprint of my personal experience on my local culture and, in turn, my culture’s footprint on my mind. In practical terms, my community is the locus of my engagements within walking (and short driving) distance of where I live.

A circle with a fifteen-mile radius around my apartment in the town of Bar Harbor embraces the coastal community (both land and water) I have engaged with for the past twenty-nine years. If I have made any kind of a mark, it would lie within that circle. Certainly that circle has left its mark on my mind.

I have a good many albums of photographs I have taken within that circle, and thousands of jpg files on my several computers. I have made a dozen aerial surveys of bays, ponds, streams, and mountains within that circle, and written four illustrated books about my natural experiences within that same geographic area.

My son and his wife blow glass within that circle, and his brother is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along with my mother, father, and two brothers. Stephen Merchant, my great-great-great-grandfather (after whom I was named), who spent the Revolutionary War in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would have been buried next to his wife in that circle had he not died at sea as crew of a ship loaded with lumber that went down off Cape Cod in “the memorable snowstorm” of November 20, 1798.

Communities write their memories on our minds, as we blaze our ways through the generations along their walks, trails, and roads. My father first met my mother at her family home within the bounds of my communal circle. He was walking from Middlebury, Vermont, to Nova Scotia in 1925 when he stopped at a colleague’s wife’s family home in Sullivan, Maine. That wife’s sister bore me as a child seven years later. My father never made it any farther along his intended journey than that stop. Had he not entered my community circle, I would not be writing this blog today.

On December 23, 1988, I left Burying Island after my two-and-a-half-year stay in the wild to live with Janwillem van de Wetering and his wife , Juanita, in Surry, Maine. Janwillem was a Duch writer of police non-procedurals based on his experiences in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. His wife was a skilled sculptor from Colombia. They were ideal hosts and companions during the two years it took me to develop a new community on the mainland centered on environmental activities.

Both Janwillem and I were on the rebound from excessive indulgence, sobered by pushing ourselves too far in searching for an ideal community to engage with, he in Zen Buddhism, I in going solo as an outlier in nature on Burying Island. We both found a sense of humor essential to our recovery. He offered me a small bedroom in an uninsulated studio on his land on the Union River near Ellsworth. Having little money, I gratefully accepted, and stayed with him and Juanita for two years.

In 1993, I took a job as a seasonal ranger at Acadia National Park, lived in park housing, and in the off-season did volunteer work in the Lands Office in exchange for a place to stay for the winter. I worked first as volunteer coordinator, then as a writer-editor in the Planning Office. My community involvement began to expand, first due to contact with over a thousand park volunteers, then through planning projects in the park and beyond.

Today I live in senior housing in Bar Harbor adjacent to the park, a more suitable habitat among many people, so I am not the conspicuous exception disturbing the natural order of my wild habitat on Burying Island, my toehold in Maine. Now retired, I serve on the Bar Harbor Housing Commission, am the token atheist member of Acadia Friends Meeting (Quakers), and spend my days writing and blogging about the miracle of consciousness as witnessed during many daily bouts of introspection. I also manage Burying Island LLC, a company that owns the island on behalf of its members among my extended family.

As I view it, our life’s energy courses through our varied engagements within our several communities. We act, and are acted upon in return, round after round of exchange. In that sense, the communities we contribute our life’s energy to are dynamic and ever-changing. Our immediate surroundings support us, as we support them, each in our own way. Community building is one of our main jobs in life.

With this blog, I am striving to contribute to a global community of conscious individuals with a shared understanding of, and appreciation for, our common endeavor.

 

412. Introspection

January 22, 2015

My understanding of my own mind is based almost exclusively on introspection—looking within. The gleanings of that inner search are the topic of this blog. The issue is, how do my findings stand up against your view of your own mind?

In 1953, Edwin G. Boring, professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a detailed history of introspection. In it he included this seemingly dismissive summation:

[L]iterally immediate observation, the introspection that cannot lie, does not exist. All observation is a process that takes some time and is subject to error in the course of its occurrence (A History of Introspection, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 50, No.3, May, 1953, page 187).

Rather than as a dismissal, I take those words as a challenge to study, through introspection, the errors I make in my everyday perceptions. That study has led to discovery and development of the ideas on which this blog is based. Those errors include such incidents as the following.

  • My being struck by a bicyclist going against traffic on a one-way street because I failed to consider that possibility in advance.
  • Driving at dusk in the rain, seeing two motorcyclists putting on black raingear at the side of the road as two cows, in dim light the flicking motion of putting an arm into a sleeve looking to me like the abrupt swishing of a tail.
  • Seeing a dying crow, apparently hit by a car, feebly lifting one wing, which turns into a black trash bag fluttering in the wash of passing cars.
  • Catching a glimpse of sunlight striking the shape of an airplane about to crash into the roofs of Bar Harbor, which at second look turned into a ridgeline TV antenna with swept-back elements.
  • Happily running after my high-school friend Fred walking up Fifth Avenue in New York, only to find an imposter mimicking Fred’s gait while wearing Fred’s characteristic raglan-sleeved overcoat, scarf, hat, and heavy Cordovan shoes.
  • Me, the famous noticer and photographer, not seeing a vase of Mexican sunflowers at the head of the stairs while retrieving my camera so I could go on a walk with my partner. How did you like the sunflowers, she said. What sunflowers? I said.
  • Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am peering from the back seat of the family car as we drive through Eastern Colorado on our way to Seattle in August, 1947, looking for the Rockies, seeing only clouds. Which, half-an-hour later, become snow on the very mountains I yearn to see, but am blind to because I’m not used to snow in late summer.
  • Glancing up icy Holland Avenue, seeing a man applying pressure with his hips, moving side-to-side, scraping paint off his house in midwinter, a scene that abruptly morphs into a cedar tree blowing in the wind.
  • As a budding archaeologist, carefully scraping soil off a human skull I’ve uncovered on the Nespelum Indian Reservation along the Columbia River in 1950, I twist my toothbrush carefully to clear an eye hole under the heavy brow. “Whatcha’ got there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle,” says my supervisor, who has come to check on me.
  • After five minutes of hearing a husky voice shout “Fa, fa, fa,” in the middle of the night, I finally realize he’s shouting “Fire” in a Boston accent, so rush to the phone to dial 911.
  • Screening the photos of granite quarrying I’ve just taken, I really like the one of lighting the torch powered by diesel fuel and compressed air with flames shooting six feet out of the long pipe. I’m so excited about the prospect of PhotoShopping them, when asked if I want to delete all the photos from my camera, assuming I’ve saved them to my hard drive automatically, as I always do, I deleted them—only to realize that I had not, in fact, saved them to my computer.
  • I felt extremely uncomfortable when the lecturer on sex education looked directly at me all during her talk. Afterwards, I asked why she singled me out. “You look just like my son,” she said.
  • And so on.

In explaining to myself how I could make all those mistakes, I got to know myself in a wholly new way by taking full responsibility for everything that happened, including my take on the context of what was going on. It is that personal take on consciousness that I am sharing in this blog.

The serial division of inner experience into perception, judgment, and action makes sense to me, as does the ongoing experience (stream of consciousness) idea which unites them with worldly aspects of consciousness into one continuous loop of engagement. I view that loop as being driven by a valenced sense of disparity (toward gravity or levity, say, good or bad, yes or no) between what I intend to do and what actually happens, providing a conscious sense of the degree and direction of refinement I need to make in order to bring about a desirable relationship with my surroundings.

Now that I am turning my attention to the external portions of my loops of engagement on the four parallel levels of Nature, Culture, Community, and Family as I depicted them in my previous post (No. 411), I want to stress the fact that I am in no way privy to the world as it is, so am still reliant on introspection to present my internal views of what I think the world is like from my current perspective.

As always, all I have to work with is my side of the story. This is precisely the point that I believe many people miss in conducting their lives as if they had cornered the market in Truth. I know nothing of truth. Truth is a concept. What I have available to me is consciousness as an ongoing process that never comes to rest.

Imagine a blog with no end. A blog that continues forever, always hedging, modifying, improving, changing. That is the story of philosophy and every other human activity. Plato’s reflections are only one of the blogs of his day.

I am merely putting my oar into the waters of changing perspectives. I’ve reached a crucial turning point, so I want to be clear that my method will continue to be the same, even though I am taking on a new dimension of my topic. As before, so from now on: introspection is my guide and navigator.

I’m still the same old wayfarer, on a new phase of my journey.

 

One thing stands out in my mind. I am on the right track. I can feel the energy pulsing through me without opposition or resistance. I am onto something big: the workings of my mind as the muse of my fingers at my computer. No ifs, ands, or buts. I am on a roll. After more than eighty years of wandering, I am getting close to my final destination.

I know that because I am living that destination in my actions. This is the payoff of my being a wayfarer. Of following my own path. Of being myself to the hilt. My bones, tendons, and muscles are fully coordinated with the traffic through the pathways in my mind, in turn coordinated with my sensory experience in living the life that I have made for myself.

It is all coming together in this particular engagement, the one, without realizing it, I have been aiming at all these years. It is here in these posts to my blog.

Imagine: the realization of a lifetime. I’ve never had that thought before. I wasn’t ready. But now I am. Because I have spent the last thirty years preparing for this instant. I have deliberately taken step after step in pursuit of this moment. Wary game, indeed. So wary as to be unimaginable because I couldn’t picture the form it would take. I had to live that form in my own mind to discover how it works.

Now I have it. Memory of past thoughts prepares the way so that my learning has been cumulative, even though I didn’t know it. My doings are now adding up. Step after step, wrong turn after wrong turn.

Now I am here, deep in my own thoughts about the very essence of thinking and doing. Clicking fingers taking dictation from a mind shaped over the years by its ongoing engagements, a mind that has arrived, so these fingers, too, have arrived. Or are engaged in the process of arriving, which earlier seemed without end.

Once, I was setting out, wandering, exploring. Now I see where I was heading all along. The route may include detours and setbacks, but the destination is fixed. Like a labyrinth, so that at the next-to-last moment you are as far as ever from your goal—then suddenly you’re there!

I’ll tell you a secret. One that’s been a secret to me until just now, these last few steps. I love being me. I love the journey I’ve taken. I love the frustration of not understanding what’s right in front of me. Of getting lost and confused. Of waking up and following the lead of my own nighttime dreams into my own daytime thoughts. The two are intimately connected. The dreamer and the waker are the same person. The trick is to realize the difference. One can’t act; the other can.

The ability to follow thought with action makes all the difference. That’s what makes each of us so powerful. The ability to follow our dreams with actions having a similar drift. To accept our dreaming self as our guide on our journey within our own mind. As a comrade following the same path we are on. That is the key: to accept our minds as whole and concerted, even when they seem rent by confusion.

 

How to respond to events is always our call as a reflection of our integrity, maturity, and intelligence in meeting challenges head-on by suiting our behavior to what we feel is called for in the moment, drawing on strengths, skills, and inclinations we have built-up in living the lives we have led as preparation for making this particular judgment.

The “I” is the seat of life’s engagements because, having access to them all, it is the seat of perception, memory, meaning, emotion, judgment, and drive of the life force in a particular body. It is the seat of the self because it is at the core of our identity, who we are to ourselves as seen from inside our situated intelligence.

The self’s job is to find meaning in sensory impressions, and to channel that meaning forward into a course of purposive action.

A good portion of the self is an emergent property of the brain with its neurons, ions, and chemicals, but it is not limited to that physical organ because its reach extends fore and aft, from sensing incoming energy from the world to looking ahead to outgoing action in the world beyond body and brain.

The self is situated in the flow of energy through its portals, the flow of traffic through pathways in the brain, and outward into the world, which it extrapolates from awareness by paying attention to particular sensory features as inciters of meaning and significance.

No, this is not the prevailing view in neuroscientific circles, but it fits the facts when mind, will, and judgment are allowed to be real, and the brain is accepted as the vehicle or vessel of mind, a vehicle such as an automobile that knows nothing of its driver’s plans, but serves the will of that driver nonetheless. The car has no idea where it is going; that understanding has been reserved for the mind of the driver (or now her GPS unit as prompted by her mind).

Experience is the cumulative ability we accrue through the years to judge situations in light of our own wits, our personal grasp of how the world works and how we ourselves work as complementary members of that world. Even inside our black boxes, we live within whatever awareness we can eke of what’s happening around and within us so that we can make an appropriate response.

I could not have written these thoughts when I was thirty or sixty years old. I had to wait until I was in my eighties to discover the audacity within myself to feel that I knew what I was talking about and that I wanted to give the world an opportunity to consider my message.

In the meantime, I have read works by thinkers such as Gerald M. Edelman, Joseph LeDoux, Michael Gazzaniga, Douglas Hofstadter, and shorter pieces by a great many soldiers in the trenches of neuroscience.

But my primary source for over thirty years has been my personal witness to the workings of my own mind, not to be confused with my brain, of which, concretely speaking, I am wholly oblivious.

To me, as the helmsman of my own vessel, it makes sense to learn from my personal experience of being conscious while others tend to the detailed complexity of the vessel itself. As I see it, without a helmsman, that vessel is worse than useless, it becomes a hazard to others. I want to be the best helmsman I can be, which is why I pay so much attention to, and learn so much from, the foibles of my own mind.

 

 

 

Without apology, I can truly state that I am the world’s leading expert on the mental goings-on within my personal black box according to the perspectives provided by my own mind from inside that box. You can make the same claim for yourself.

Other than by my personal understanding as based on my reading in psychology and neuroscience, I have no authority to speak about events taking place on a neurochemical level in any brain whatsoever.

Brain is implicit in mind at every stage of engagement. So too is the perceptual energy flowing through pathways within the brain, energy that reflects its spatial and temporal organization upon being translated into neural terms by our body’s sensory receptors.

Though my view of these processes has been formed during a long course of self-reflection, I generalize here by writing variously in reference to “I,” “you,” and “we” as if I were intimately acquainted with mental events in everyone’s brain (including yours). I do this to encourage readers to take part in the mental exercise I am performing on myself, so to offer other wayfarers an opportunity for self-discovery in light of their own experience. Feel free to modify my offer as you see fit so that your findings are your own.

Personal memory plays in the background of every engagement as called for by the different situations and patterns of stimulation we encounter. This provides a backstory that helps us translate what is happening into the familiar terms of our mental understanding.

The plot runs like this: starting with arousal so that memory is poised to entertain signals stirred by our readiness to pay attention, an inner sense of the current situation we are dealing with focuses expectancy on what is likely to happen.

What we notice in particular is deviations from, or exceptions to, our expectancies. Novel features catch our attention because they have much to tell us in relation to the pattern of what we expected to find, which instantly becomes background to what actually strikes our senses.

Looking up from a hospital bed (where I was having stitches put in my hand after a recent fall on slippery shoreline rocks), I noticed, not the pattern of white netting that attached the curtain around my bed to a track in the ceiling, but the one-inch hole in that netting that formed a black exception to the white regularity of that grid of fibers.

Attention is drawn to the buzzing fly that is a conspicuous exception to the silence around us, to the lightning striking out of dark clouds, to the silhouette of the sole sandpiper running along the tideline, to the stain on the white tablecloth, the cough arising from a rapt audience, the new rattle in our car, and so on.

Expectancy establishes the pattern of what we are used to seeing; attention rushes in to focus on particular details that stand out against the background of those expectations.

 

379. Wayfarer In a Black Box

December 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The more I experience the effects that artificial intelligence (AI) imposes on my life, the more I see it as a parody of our native situated intelligence. Once upon a time, corporations employed humans to communicate with the public by answering phones and letters in person. Now I get to speak to or hear from a digital algorithm on a computer. An algorithm meant to serve as the interface between humans and the coded persona of a corporation now risen to the status of a person. Ha! That claim may fool the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t fool me. I can tell if I am facing off with a person or a machine.

Think of all the real persons put out of work as sacrificial victims to the technology of the day. The people who benefit from AI now get the checks that formerly went out to people who performed skilled work for a living. Men and women who sewed clothing, made cars, wrote letters, spoke with human-powered voices on the telephone. People who with just pride took responsibility for their engagement with the public.

No longer. Last January, I learned that my younger brother had died from an unsigned form letter sent out by New York Life Insurance Company trying to establish contact with the beneficiary of a policy he had taken out. For eight months my brother’s Social Security number was listed on the SS Death Index (SSDI) by  unaccountable mistake, from May 8, 2013, to January 23, 2014. After eight months of inaction, on January 23, New York Life issued the anonymous inquiry printed by a machine. On or about January 12, my brother actually did die alone in his home, so when I requested a wellness check by the local police on January 27, they found him dead on the floor from a heart attack he’d suffered after unwittingly being listed as dead for those many months. Thank you, AI, for your kind attention. While bloodless corporations are now legally counted as persons, flesh-and-blood persons have been demoted to the status of mere data.

In self-defense, I hereby issue the following reminder of the many dimensions of human intelligence activated during the course of our daily engagements, as based on my 30 years of keeping track of my own mind in its engagements with family, community, culture, and nature.

In my several families over the years, intimate contact is maintained with grandparents, parents, brothers, relatives, friends, and a variety of pets, forming the durable core of my mental life. I won’t detail any of those engagements here, but ask you to substitute your own such engagements at the core of your own mental life. Clearly, none of us would be who we are without our family engagements. I learned about marriage, birth, death, divorce, and all the other significant milestones of leading a life in my family. I experienced the essential nature of shelter in a wide variety of houses, apartments, barracks, dormitories and campgrounds lived in over the years. I learned about indoor plumbing in relation to tubs, toilets, sinks, and leaking hoses and faucets. My engagements with beds taught me almost all I know about the making and moving of them, washing sheets, moving furniture, sleep, sickness, and sex. Family closets held all sorts of delicious secrets, which I gradually discovered over the years. My families have taught me about hobbies, possessions, collections, jokes, games, birthdays, holidays, vacations, cooking, cleaning, and watching TV. The obvious truth is that none of us would be here today if it weren’t for our families. And I will point out that artificial intelligence is never tempered by having anything in its background resembling a family.

On the community level of mental engagement, where perception, emotion, and action are simultaneously active at the same focus, that’s where we learn about jobs and working for a living, about shopping, getting things repaired, going to school, the medical center, catching the train or the bus. Think how different obtaining food at a supermarket today is from hunting and gathering it in the wild, or even using crude tools to dig up the soil to plant seeds. All the communities I have lived in have police and fire stations, town offices, neighborhoods, and shingles declaring the presence of doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychiatrists, and other stalwarts of the professional class. Recycling is a community effort, as is garbage disposal. My first community introduced me to a variety of religions identified by the various architectures of their meeting places, and to the burial grounds where their former members were thought to reside.

My engagements with my culture have given me speech, reading, writing, books, poetry, numbers, roadmaps, and animated films. Banks are cultural edifices where money (enabler of many of our engagements) is housed in great vaults (think of your impression of  just the steel door, latches, and locks in your first bank). Without culture, I would be deprived of music, art, literature, and professional sports. Real estate is a product of my culture, as is the idea of ownership, travel, time and space. My experience with tools is a gift from my culture, which sponsors hardware stores, camera stores, computer stores, fabric stores, and in Hulls Cove, Maine, The Tool Barn where I recycle old tools for my own use. I am at home in my culture, and an outlander in most others.

Which leaves engagements with nature on the most fundamental level of them all. My experience of terrain, salt and fresh water, streams, lakes, watersheds, habitats, soil, wildlife, birds, primates, mammals, stars and planets, day and night, the seasons, rocks, plants, lichen, mosses, conservation, and survival itself—all these are products of my engagements with nature. We are born to the planet that brought us forth from its own flesh as Earthlings. We are indeed children of the third planet out from the sun. Its ways are our ways. Its thoughts are our thoughts. Its fate is our fate.

That is a brief summary of the engagements with the outside world that stoke our native intelligence and make us who we are as conscious beings. We are not intelligent in and by ourselves. We depend absolutely on such interactions to stimulate, shape, and hone our human intelligence, each in keeping with the influence of nature, culture, community, and family.

By comparison, artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. It is simply another tool—actually a weapon—corporations have devised in preparation for coming wars, hoping to gain an edge over other warring nations by taking the initiative of starting the last battle. With the result that the autonomy we have won over the past ten-thousand years is being taken from us by stealth in the name of technological progress. AI, I think, makes no improvement in our life situations. Rather, it is rapidly diminishing our remaining days on this Earth. Human consciousness itself is being demeaned as second rate, as human values are being demeaned, along with human skills, human emotions, human strivings, human priorities.

This post is a reminder that this is happening in our brief span on our home planet. I offer it now that we realize what we are about to lose. We’ve come all this way, for this. This travesty of human ignorance in triumphal guise as artificial intelligence while it is just the opposite, the dehumanization of the planet that has borne us this far. When it comes to intelligence, ours is made possible by such goings-on as I have tried to suggest in these last two posts. AI isn’t even in the running. An aberration, it is the end of the road.