This post is the last installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

10. Space Junk. Early in 1962, I started work at Harvard College Observatory by setting up a photo lab that eventually expanded to become worthy of the Space Age. I started my fiefdom in a one-room darkroom with walls eight feet apart, which ultimately led to a fourteen-room photo lab suite near Fresh Pond on the outskirts of Cambridge. Apparently there was money for expansion available in those days.

Early on I was handed a remnant from a fallen Russian satellite that had landed piecemeal in northern Canada. No one knew what its function was, but as a novel piece of space junk, it deserved to have its picture taken.

That was a first for me, and the beginning of Harvard’s playing an active role, along with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in lofting research satellites into orbit. With one click of my shutter, my mind went from a dark-wood kind of nineteenth-century awareness into a full-fledged, gold-plated, twentieth century engagement with the new world of space exploration and surveillance.

11. J.F.K. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was in the photo lab darkroom at Harvard College Observatory making prints with the enlarger under the glow of a red safelight. I had the radio tuned to WGBH. When the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I called my assistant on the intercom and asked if he was listening to the radio. He was. The horror of that moment was implied in neither of us commenting on what was happening. Suddenly cut adrift from my everyday assumptions, I did what was familiar, so went on with what I knew how to do without thinking, my insides churning all the while. I never felt more cut off from the culture I lived in than I did contemplating that violent act in Dallas. Doubly sealed in my darkroom and in my own thoughts, bathed in red light, I got myself set to enter the new reality under the fluorescent lights beyond my lightproof darkroom door.

12. MIT Chapel. On a Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1973, I drove my Humanities 3 class at Abbott Academy from Andover to Cambridge to see what we could discover in two hours exploring MIT. Starting on the steps of Building 10, we headed off in different directions to see what engagements we could have and sense we could make of a cultural institution devoted to science and engineering.

A chapel had been added to the campus since my days at the school, so I was curious about what sort of building could acknowledge the ineffabilities of faith in those stark surroundings. On the outside it resembled a red brick pillbox much smaller than I thought it would be. Without windows, which surprised me. Entrance was through a curved archway.

Passing into the interior, I left Cambridge, Mass., behind and entered another world. It was dark, almost black. I left my pupils to adjust at their own rate. Arcs of chairs spread across a circular floor. A larger space than I expected in a pillbox, almost infinite—like the darkness outdoors on a moonless night. Beautifully lit from above by a gentle shower of light descending from an off-center light tube onto a table below. Golden rectangles like leaves hung suspended in the glow as if falling through eternity. I was stunned by the aura of the place.

I sat and savored the ambience. Everything faded except for those golden leaves. I had not a thought in my head. Unlike the granite institution on the far side of Mass. Ave., here was no place for thought. Awe, comfort, and wonder were the currency in this space. Whatever I needed at that moment, there it was. Released inside, not outside of my body.

As my eyes adapted to the shadows, I sensed movement in front of me to the right of the table. I was not alone. A silent figure removing something from a case. Raising it up. Suddenly a burst of music. A violin. Bach. A solo sonata. The voice of that place on that day. Exactly what I needed to hear. What I had come for and didn’t know it. At MIT of all places.

I just sat, wholly open to the dark, the music, the falling golden leaves. I knew exactly where I was, who I was. I was meant for this experience. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

After a time, the music stopped, the figure of a woman carrying a violin case passed up the aisle. Who could she be? Why had she begun playing in the dark after I sat down? But I already knew. She was kin. A fellow wayfarer. Making sense of her brief stay on Earth by doing what she had to do. As I had had to take my class on yet one last voyage of discovery before Abbott (oldest girls’ school in the U.S.) shut for good in a few weeks, to be swallowed by the boys’ school up the street, leaving me out of a job.

What these twelve cultural engagements share in common is that I remember them from the years between 1951 and 1973, each having made its mark on my mind and memory so that it is still available to me today in 2015. Available, I now believe, because of an element of surprise in that things turned out other than I had expected them to.

Each incident of engagement is based on a discrepancy between my expectancy on that occasion and what actually happened. The combination of discrepancy and surprise heightened the engagement itself, making it memorable, for either its positive or negative polarity in comparison to what I was ready for at the time.

These incidents are the stuff of my personal consciousness. The emotionally-charged high points between long hours of my flying on automatic pilot, between routine engagements leading up to the peak occasions marked by disparities such as these.

Why do I call myself a wayfarer? Because I love going beyond where I’ve been before. Exceeding my own expectations. For good or ill, trial-and-error is the name of my game. Taking the next step, and the step after that. Some would call it empiricism. Or experimentation. I call it being a wayfarer driven by heartfelt curiosity, and the conviction that wonders surely lie around the next bend in the trail.

Now, onward to the community level of engagement.

 

403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

These days, technologists seem to believe that intelligence is one mental property applicable across the spectrum of all imaginable problems as if our know-how were somehow universal, but that can’t be the case. Beethoven being Beethoven, he did not propose a theory of general relativity, and Einstein being Einstein didn’t compose nine world-famous symphonies.

Machines will never possess universal experience, which is why I believe they will never fulfill the expectations of earnest engineers who maintain otherwise.

In humans, intelligence is called for by the situation an individual faces under the conditions that prevail in her experience at that moment. There is a rhinoceros in the road ahead; My best friend died of cancer; My ice cream fell out of the cone and is now a splat in the road. Such a situation has many (what I call) dimensions such as affect, values, understanding, precedents, judgment, meaning, motivation, relevant memories, confidence, humor, temperament, integrity, coherence, priorities, beliefs, imagination, and so on.

No two experiential moments contain the same mix or proportion of such conditions. Each is subjectively unique, so must be dealt with as it is constituted this time around.

Watch a baseball game and you will know what I mean. No two instants have the same constitution. Each must be dealt with under the pressures that develop on the spot. Given that eighteen individual players grouped into two teams are playing off against each other for nine innings of alternately playing offense and defense, the possibilities are infinitely variable. Which is why fans face each game with hope that this time their team will win.

The same is true for each game of cribbage, chess, golf—and for everything else people concentrate on over time. Intelligence exists on a variable scale. It is composed of myriad dimensions arrayed differently in each situation as it develops.

Can any manmade machine even mimic the diverse forms of intelligence it takes for one person just to get through one hour of one day? Machines may be able to master routine tasks, but when in life is a routine performance good enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

If mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family, what may not be obvious is that human consciousness is a largely edited version of both internal and external reality.

Our minds sharpen, clarify, emphasize, and inhibit as they go, creating models of the great world, but not an accurate rendition of that world itself. Evolution may have brought us this far by allowing us individual discretion, but the specific situations each person is born to are subject to unique, non-genetic influences that shape each life world in idiosyncratic fashion.

With the result that the world each of us lives in is unlike any other in finest detail. The more the brain sharpens and emphasizes the signals it processes (a necessity for survival based on fast and appropriate action), the less the inner world of awareness can be assumed to portray the world itself as it might exist on the far side of our senses.

Our minds leap the hurdle of non-representation by sampling our surroundings as often as possible through rapid deployment of as many loops of engagement as we can sustain on different levels of awareness. This allows each mind to update its input as frequently as it can, and so judge its situation and govern its behavior accordingly.

But such rapid sampling comes at the high cost of rendering a world as more of a précis than an accurate representation. We see what we see, and don’t what we don’t. To sense sharply and clearly means we see boldly and schematically. Our sensing becomes warped without our knowing because we see what we see so clearly that we take it as the true state of worldly affairs rather than our rash stab at portraying such a world.

We create a world that suits our purpose of the moment, which is all the more believable because memory recognizes that world not as it is but insofar as it conforms to our beliefs as based on personal experience. The world we are likely to find is the world we seek in keeping with our background of expectations.

That is, we see through the filter of the history behind us, making the now conform to the then out of habit rather than updating the past. We are gold standards unto ourselves so it makes sense to judge world situations by the performance of our own eyes (ears, nose, grasp, memory, and so on).

Successive approximation is the name of the game we play with our minds. Sometimes we are right on; other times close. Often we are dead wrong without a clue which way to turn. We muddle through, and if we are smart, learn from every engagement to do better.

 

These heady days of artificial intelligence imply that we have a full understanding of intelligence in its native form. Apparently it has something to do with the ability to solve problems. Or at least to get good grades in school. Or to appear bright, quick, and agile in dealing with mental issues.

We rate individuals on a scale of intelligence where a score of 100 is judged to be normal. I once saw a vanity plate in Harvard square, IQ 205, so I assumed the driver of that car had a higher intelligence quotient than 204. If we can measure it that finely, and can make machines having artificial intelligence, surely we must recognize the real McCoy when we meet it face to face, mind to mind.

But since every person on Earth is unique in having a different immune system, nervous system, upbringing, education, work history, emotional life, reservoir of life experience, etc., I wonder how we can claim to measure intelligence as if it were the same mental quality across all those fundamental variables.

For myself, I find that my performance on a specific task depends on the situation I am in at the time, and also on whether or not I have been in that situation before. My mind is a mix of facets, elements, or dimensions of conscious and habitual experience. These facets come into play in varying degrees and proportions, so that on each occasion my mind is composed to meet the needs of the moment. That is, I find my so-called intelligence is present on a sliding scale. Or, put differently, is composed of different facets as called up in me by different situations.

As I was starting to think of writing this blog, I happened to be reading the 1874 edition of Charles Darwin’s book on human evolution, The Descent of Man. In the third chapter, Darwin compares the “mental powers of man and the lower animals.” I took those mental powers to be an early treatment of what today we might collectively refer to as intelligence. I perked up and paid close attention to what Darwin had written to see how his list of mental powers compared with the one I have been compiling under the guise of dimensions of consciousness or, as I now say, situated intelligence.

In my system I break consciousness into three main divisions: perception, judgment, and action. Perception deals with sensory input to the mind, judgment deals with determining the meaning of such input as a preparation for action, and action itself deals with how we go about forming an apt response to that input. These three divisions of mind connect our continuous loop of engagement with the world so, like the old serpent Ouroborus depicted as biting its own tail, our actions come full circle and we are in a position to compare the bite of perception in the context of our intended action, allowing us to revise our stance in making another round of action unto subsequent perception. That act of comparison is what we are conscious of at the moment so, as I see it, is the fundamental basis of what we call intelligence.

How do my 2014 dimensions of consciousness stack up against Darwin’s 1874 treatment of mental powers shared by people and animals? His point, of course, is that human minds have evolved from animal (primate) minds, so our mental powers are variations on the earlier powers possessed by our ancestors. Those variations can be either elaborations or diminutions, depending on the developmental pressure applied by our need to fit into the particular environmental situations we face from year to decade to century to millennium. Our sense of smell and pedal dexterity, for example, have decreased from what they were in the wild, while our vocalizations and manual dexterity have increased.

Grouping Darwin’s mental powers according to my distinctions between Perception, Judgment, and Action, I discover under the heading of Perception the following mental powers in common: same senses in man as primates, curiosity, anticipation, foresight, dread, danger, attention, distraction, senses of pleasure and pain, memory required for recognition, wonder, and sense of beauty.

Under the heading of Judgment: choice, instincts, intuition, abstraction, conception, association of ideas, episodic memory, cunning, deceit, deliberation, imagination, dreams, emotions (affection, alarm, ennui, fidelity, gratitude, jealousy, happiness/misery, love, magnanimity, passions, revenge, ridicule, suspicion, sympathy), reason, language (cries of pain, fear, surprise, anger, murmurs mother to child, song), self-consciousness, sense of humor.

Darwin glosses entire repertoires of behavior under Action, along with self-improvement. In the following chapter, he deals with the common powers of sociability, social instincts, social virtues, judgment on conduct, and transmission of moral tendencies.

His conclusion in 1874 is that the “intellectual powers” “of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement.” Wayfarers that we are today, up on two legs and following our inclinations, our modern intelligence is living proof of Darwin’s belief.

The question now is, can we transfer that advancement to our machines so that they serve as the next stage in the trend we have begun? Taking us with them, or leaving us behind?

I will follow up that query in my next blog.