Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

374. Brain Talk

December 4, 2014

Brain talk is full of words like data, information, computation, processing, knowledge, and other terms of that noble family of academic abstractions. But seldom do we live up to the expectations of the scientists and engineers who treat the brain as if they had designed it themselves by rational means, which they didn’t and never could.

Such terms are descriptors of what neuroscientists want to find, not necessarily of what’s there in the brain to discover. That is, neuroscience is salted with metaphors meaningful to those who study the brain, but many of those same terms are wide of the mark set by instinctual users of particular brains as tools for conducting life as a work-in-progress at every stage.

Most of the mass of the brain is made up of axons (connectors) that lead from one nerve cell nucleus to its terminus, not the nuclei, cortical columns, and synapses that actually perform so much of our mental work. It is the chemical flow between nerve cells that brings minds to life, as facilitated by the travel of ionic potentials from cell bodies to their extremities.

The flow of neurotransmitters across synaptic gaps between nerve cells at myriad points of connection enables those chemicals to get to the right place at the right time to activate or inhibit a comparison in synchrony with other signals so that simultaneous connections are sustained between different regions of the brain, furthering the coherent neural traffic we experience as mind, awareness, or consciousness.

Mind is not confined to the brain but reaches through skilled action to the outer limits of the body and, beyond that, via traffic through nature, culture, community, and family, to the cascade of energy impinging on our sensory organs.

Our minds acquire language and numbers because they are born to language and numbers as two of the cultural media in which they are immersed. They acquire a genome and genetic heritage by being born to particular parents who, at conception, consist of one man and one woman who inhabit a particular niche (nest) in the physical world.

Mind is a collaborative function of brain, body, nature, culture, community, and family. It is the seat of our organic intelligence together with  the many situations and active engagements that make up our lives. I think that to call it a computer or data processor is to miss the point of what the mind actually does and how it operates.

The flow of situations through the mind makes up what we call a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Each baseball player in a given game lives his own story from the perspective of his defensive position on the field and offensive turns at bat. The story of the game as a whole is a compilation of the stories lived by the individual players (characters) as woven into a coherent narrative binding the high points of separate plays into a pattern making up the flow of collective experience from first to last inning.

The basic organization (plot) of the 2014 World Series as played out in Kansas City (beginning and end) and San Francisco (middle) is based on the conflicting motivations of two teams from different regions each dedicated to defeating the other. Conflict between worthy adversaries is at the heart of every game of baseball (football, basketball, soccer, cricket, chess, bridge, etc.) That is, each game is meant to display the similarities and differences between two teams playing by the same rules under identical circumstances, the score giving a measure of their relative strengths and weaknesses on a particular occasion.

Which is a gross generalization when put into words, while each game of baseball is based on specific comparisons played out on the field: strike or ball, fair or foul, safe or out, left or right, on or off, fast or slow, stop or go, ahead or behind, win or lose. Each game is told by its experiential specifics at the time of play, not its watered-down statistics after the fact.

The drama is in the setting up, enacting, and fulfillment of one play after another in the stream of each player’s consciousness. The game exists in the subjective experience of all in attendance, not in the record books which are dry summaries stacked on shelves.

What we notice at the time are the contrasts that test our expectancies for better or worse, falling short in disappointment or exceeding in joy at the way thing turn out. That’s where the excitement and adventure lie—in the difference between what we expect and what happens on the field. Every play sprouts from the soil prepared by preceding plays. Each game is organic, not factual or statistical. It lives in the minds of those who witness it. Those fully present to each play as it unfolds.

Baseball plays right into the arms of consciousness, which thrives on contrasts, differences, oppositions, disparities, and surprises. Pea soup is an apt metaphor for fog because it’s the same all around us, masking the beacons and landmarks we need to navigate by. Baseball wakes us up. It is nothing but landmarks for navigating the bases, infield, outfield. Keep your eye on the ball and act accordingly. Singles, doubles, triples, home runs—these are the outstanding features of baseball, along with pitches, catches, throws, swings, hits, misses, walks, bunts, stolen bases, outs, and errors. You never know what the next pitch will bring.

In game 7, Mike Moustakas’ triple with two out in the bottom of the ninth sent an electric jolt through every mind in the park. As Pablo Sandoval’s catch a few heartbeats later gave an even bigger jolt, clinching a year of champion pride for the Giants, a year of regretful determination for the Royals.

Those jolts are what baseball is all about. Showing what you can do. Playing to make a difference. Distinguishing yourself in a field of worthy rivals. That is the essential story of our living our lives on this Earth. Not eliminating the competition as in warfare, but bringing it up to your level so you can both do your best, even if at the moment one comes in first and the other second.

Reflection 320: Wild Once More

September 17, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.     [Including 12 photos.]

OK, so wildness is in me, waiting to be projected onto sensory patterns I’m not used to. That is, my expectations are wild, or wide of the mark. Wildness is in my rough fit to the world of patterns I meet in everyday life. To me, they seem wild.

Like flies on the carcass of a dead snowshoe hare.

P1020704 96-dead-hareI’ve seen lots of dead animals on the island where I have been taking these pictures: voles, red squirrels, porcupines, harbor seal pups, loons, ring-billed gulls, Canada geese, ruffed grouse, great blue herons, red-breasted mergansers, among others. Death is a big part of the natural scene. Anything having the scent of death always seems wild. Unruly. Untamed. Unnatural, even though it’s the most natural thing on Earth.

As dead trees—snags—are natural.

P1020475 96-snag-2 P1020653 96-snag-1A pileated woodpecker made those holes looking for carpenter ants at the heart of a dead tree. That’s how it made its living, eating insects to keep it undead for another day. We all benefit from other creatures’ deaths. So wildness has an upside and a downside. It depends on which side of the engagement you are located as predator or prey.

P1020733 96-red-pine-bark

I love the look of red pine bark, which is the dead outer skin of a living tree. When laid down, those now flaking layers protected the flow of sap up and down, roots to leaves and back again. Then a new layer was added beneath them, and they were no longer useful in their original sense, but took on a wild new function as habitat for lichens, insects, birds, and tree huggers, so stayed useful in new ways.

As remnant shells of sea creatures are useful as habitat for gleaners and scavengers. And dead trees remain useful to the fungi that grow on them.

P1020767 96-mussels P1020755 96-bracket-3P1020798 96-bracket-2 P1020862 96-bracket New life from old, that is the motto of fungi, who make a living by recycling moisture and nutrients in the soil. And come to think about it, is also true of even the “lowest” of plants, lichens, and algae in recycling radiant energy from the sun.

P1020670 96-fungi-2

P1020919 96-lichen-1 P1020539 96-cranberry

One question I asked when photographing Indian pipes was, Who pollinates these pale stalks rising from damp soil? I got my answer later on when the white flowers turned upward toward the sky—or at least one possible answer.

P1020454 96-IndPipe-waspWhile I was focused on the Indian pipe in the foreground, a yellow jacket landed on the one in the background. Several yellow jackets, in fact, flew around me as I was crouched down taking pictures of their flowers. They let me finish, and I kept a respectful distance after that.

Wherever the torch of life is passed—from hares to flies, dead trees to bracket fungi, flowers to wasps—wildness is there in our inner awareness of the creative urge of nature itself. Wildness is the leading edge of life’s forward thrust as witnessed by those who are truly engaged. It is all around us all of the time if we but give ourselves to it, making it experientially, bioenergetically, phenomenologically, ours.

As natural beings ourselves, we find what we reach for in ways we never imagined. Y’rs as ever, –Steve from Planet Earth.

Reflection 239: Findings

March 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK  summarizes 30 years of my first-person effort to describe and understand my own mind. The book itself is the record of my thinking about my own thinking. Starting with this blog in 2008, it has taken me four years to put my findings all together in written form. What did I learn from that effort?

In no particular order, here are some of my main learnings:

  • My brain knows nothing; my mind knows all.
  • Without memory I would know nothing.
  • Consciousness compares past patterns of experience with present patterns of arousal, using the former to get leverage on the latter.
  • The act of comparison releases feelings of novelty or familiarity, kindling laughter or tears, polar feelings of this is good or this is bad.
  • That polarity arouses consciousness so it can recommend an appropriate behavioral response to the situation that brought on the feeling.
  • Neutral feelings are blah and do not arouse high levels of consciousness. Routine gestures will do the job, driven perhaps by assumptions, habits, or prejudices.
  • Expectancy is the leading edge of memory in a recognizable or familiar situation.
  • Surprise, novelty, or lack of understanding can alert consciousness to pay attention to the telling details of an arousing situation.
  • Perception, categorization (interpretation), and understanding go together when I try to wrap my mind around a salient situation. My past reaches out through the medium of expectation to grapple with what is currently happening. I try to fit novel events into conceptual bins (categories) in order to assimilate the new to the old and familiar.
  • If I can’t fit a sensory pattern into a conceptual bin I already have, I have to accommodate by stretching an existing bin to allow a metaphorical extension, or even create a new concept for what is happening (this is called learning).
  • Attention, memory, and action are stages in my looping engagement with my sensory world.
  • I can only receive signals based on energy and matter through my senses, not knowledge or information. My sense of smell and taste acknowledge actual molecules from the outside have found their way inside my nose and mouth. What I make of such signals is strictly my doing, not the world’s, not some sign of universal truth.
  • Consciousness receives patterns of energy. It’s assignment is to interpret what that pattern means, determine its significance, and to channel the results forward in my mind as the basis for appropriate action through an immediate physical response or a project accomplished over a period of time.
  • That is the basic functioning of my end of my loop of engagement with my unknown surroundings. The far end courses through the world around me, which in turn sends signals back to my senses, which I need to diagnose and interpret in order to adjust my initial understanding of my current situation, leading to a refined course of gestures aimed at making an increasingly appropriate response.
  • Round and round I go, alternately hitting the ball, seeing where it goes, and fielding it the best I can when it comes back—or not—whichever proves to be the case. My life is a game of action and response governed by reflexes, habits, prejudice, or conscious reflection.
  • My culture does its best to calibrate my sensibility so I interpret set routines the way my mentors and teachers do. That way, I become a member in good standing with those around me. What I know is what they know because they are the ones who have taught me how to respond to a repertory of set cues.
  • Which often does violence to what I have come to understand on my own through personal experience. Creating a tension between my original self and my community, causing me to seek some kind of rationale for explaining and justifying the difference.
  • Self-determination is the most authentic and powerful of all values and motivations. If I don’t act out of the full weight of my personal experience, then I am acting as others would have me act, and I end up doing the bidding of those others for the sake of social conformity—often at great cost to my personal identity.
  • Each person on Earth is a unique individual. His or her childhood rearing is unique, schooling is unique, work history is unique, emotional history, genetic makeup, neural network, autobiography, feelings, values—all unique. If we don’t act for ourselves, who, then, are we acting for? Working for? Living for?
  • Consciousness matters. Personal consciousness as driven by the unique history of our individual lives in the regions of the Earth we have experienced most directly—that sets who we are. Who we are drives how we behave. How we behave determines what we do. What we do provides a base for others to respond to us. How others and the world respond completes our personal loops of engagement. By which we judge how well we fit to our time and place on Earth.
  • We each employ a different set of tools or accessories in conducting our engagements. We wear hats and sweaters, which are our hats and sweaters. They are our personal property because our looping engagements depend on them—on our cars, dwellings, computers, cooking utensils, pets, spouses and partners, children, parents, friends—and all the rest. It is no accident who we choose to live with, what pets we have, where we live, what hat we make or buy. They all tell us something about how our consciousness engages our surroundings.

That’s some of what my book deals with from a first-person, singular point of view. Not only a single point of view, but a unique point of view. As you are unique in the point of view from which you lead your life. The upshot being that our diversity is our strength because it determines what we have to offer one another.

That’s part of the story. More later. Y’r friend, –Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2010)

I posted Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness to set my mind straight before attending the Feb. 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine. I also made up a handout on species utilizing rockweed as habitat one way or another, the different perspectives I thought might be represented at the symposium, and, yes, a list of terms I thought attendees might use in categorizing rockweed from their different perspectives. Forty-five people showed up, representing harvesters and industrial processors, resource managers, teachers and researchers, and interested members of the public.

No one spoke of rockweed as a commodity, but the other 14 terms I expected to hear all came up at one time or another: rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, seaweed, seawrack, wrack, marine resource, public-trust resource, marine or estuarine habitat, primary producer, fishery, property, private property, alga or algae, and biomass. The first talk was called “Biomass Assessment,” the second “Ecology and Habitat” (my italics).

The biomass speaker added a few broad terms I hadn’t anticipated: weed, beds, stock. The habitat man made a great many distinctions, including energy production; carbon sequestration; refuge, feeding, foraging, and nursery areas; predation; structural terms including architecture, assemblages, and communities; and specifically pointed to spatial and temporal scales of observation, as well as particular species utilizing rockweed one way or another.

The biomass man effectively lumped all organic matter into one one pot of gunk or goo, ignoring structural and functional considerations entirely. I didn’t hear the word “ecosystem” ever crossing his lips. The habitat man refined that matter into specific regions providing a wide variety of functions within a living estuarine community and the larger ecosystem beyond. He asked “How much habitat loss is too much?” (turning the biomass perspective on its head by seeing it in terms of habitat reduction), raising the issue of habitat restoration after harvesting reduces habitat to so many tons of biomass. 

The two speakers were both educators, one from a marine resource perspective, the other from an ecological perspective. What you learn as a student depends on where you go to school, the classes you take, the teachers you engage. Very likely, it is the attitude you have toward the subject that decides which path you follow. And that attitude goes back to the orthodox perspective you acquired during childhood as connections between nerve cells were either strengthened or weakened in response to the behaviors, speech patterns, and attitudes of your formative caregivers.

The after-lunch talk was on “Effects of Harvesting.” Following a brief detour to ecologyland, we were home again in the realm of biomass. But from a more nuanced perspective that combined aspects of both earlier talks. This was the issue many of us had come to consider—not where the rubber meets the road, but cutting blades meet lively habitats. The harvesting metaphor led to talk of rockweed as a “standing crop,” which was acceptable to many as a variant form of agriculture—sea farming without plowing furrows or planting seeds. Nowhere is consciousness more evident than in categorizing one thing as something else entirely for the sake of effect—to make a new recipe, idea, or practice “palatable” as an acquired taste (or unpalatable, as when Rush Limbaugh characterizes President Obama as a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist).

If compromise is to be reached, the issue must be framed in terms equally acceptable to both sides. In this case, the biomass people and the habitat people have to agree to categorize or conceptualize the issue in such a way that both retain their integrity on a playing field they see as level. The people who perform this service are called educators. They are the ones who train us to direct our expectations in such a way to be mutually agreeable to as large a population as possible by selecting an appropriate level of discourse. That is, society at large is invested in minimizing its internal differences to enable a wide a range of social needs to be met on an everyday basis. Since each person is unique, this can only be done by convincing a majority of people to adopt a common perspective for looking at things in such a way that their differences become invisible.

Framing the rockweed symposium as biomass people vs. habitat people would lead to open conflict. The art of compromise demands the conversation be conducted on a higher level of discourse to avoid concrete disagreements between the parties affected. The more familiar and acceptable the level, the better to restore order. Which is precisely what the harvesting metaphor provides. We all have to make a living, we all have to eat, we all want to go about our business without criticism, undue regulation, and harassment. The farmer and cowman can be friends if they look at each other the right way. Arranged marriages throughout history have turned competing tribes and kingdoms into extended families, transforming warring states into good neighbors through vows of eternal fidelity.

Sports, money, law, and religion are a few common currencies of social compromise, enabling many to live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony. Any Red Sox fan is a friend of mine; My vote goes to the highest bidder; I present the image of a law-abiding citizen; Jihad in the name of God is man’s highest calling. No wonder sports is the most prominent section in the paper; the economy is always newsworthy; law, order, and military might are esteemed virtues; religions offer comfort to all who humble themselves before a supreme being. Social  orthodoxy is a means of compromise that requires individuals to surrender their particular take on events by subscribing to a higher order (or even absolute) level of generality. Toeing the company or party line replaces personal consciousness with a particular brand of cultural consciousness for the sake of taking unified action on an issue.

The rockweed symposium did not end on a wholly orthodox note. Rather, it asked attenders to identify gaps in our scientific grasp of the issue. The idea being to stimulate research aimed at filling those gaps. This is the stage before orthodoxy can be achieved. Science is another currency of social compromise. It is conducted at such a high level of certainty as to be almost divorced from personal experience, statistical-derived concepts wholly substituting for immediate engagement with the world. The very methods of science are methods of high-level, peer-reviewed compromise, enabled by statistical analysis if not immediate personal knowledge.

The current industry standard governing how much weed can be cut in a given bed is a target of 17% of extant rockweed biomass. The idea is that cutting too low on the axis diminishes regrowth, so cutting should be restricted to the upper 50% of the “plant” (really an alga). And cutting too broad a swath also diminishes regrowth, so harvesters allow themselves to cut only a third as much—33% of the upper 50%—or 17% of the “standing crop.”

The question is, what are the ecological implications of that 17% loss of estuarine habitat? As for natural mortality aside from any harvest, to cite a study conducted in Cobscook Bay, Maine,* “The proportion of Ascophyllum standing biomass lost annually and expressed as turnover rates, ranged from 29 to 71%,” with a mean turnover of roughly 51%. This is no standing crop, it is a fleeing crop, its so-called biomass turning over every two years. It strikes me that if the 17% is removed from the 50% likely to survive the normal turnover to detritus, it makes the harvest more like 34% of the surviving crop rather than the guideline of 17% of the standing crop might suggest. This would appear to double the impact on habitat over what the industry now claims is the case. Until we grapple with percentages seemingly plucked from a hat, and come to agreement on whether, say, 5% harvest might be more reasonable from a scientifically-grounded perspective, then natural-resource managers in Maine won’t be able to adopt a statewide (that is, orthodox) standard for allowable cutting of rockweed.

Where else in the blogosphere can you find such practical considerations to emerge from the study of human consciousness? Track these posts for updates on how mind affects the varied facets of the material universe.

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* Robert L. Vadas, et al., “Biomass and Productivity of Intertidal Biomass,” in Peter F. Larsen, Ed., Ecosystem Modeling in Cobscook Bay, Maine, (Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Special Issue 2, 2004, page 136).

Seal mother & nursing pup on rockweed

 

 

Reflection 178: Mind Sets

February 4, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Never underestimate the power of is.

One and one is two.

Abbas is yesterday’s man.

God is love.

The cat is on the mat.

That giraffe is one sick animal.

In each case, one part of the human mind (conceptual memory from the past) reaches out to another part (sensory perception in the now) in such a way to categorize or characterize (lend character to) it, using language to create a meaningful moment of experience. The is bestows not only attention, recognition, or existence on the perception by naming it, but gives it definite qualities or character as we see it in our mind’s eye.

One and one is two. Two distinct things make one unified thing—a pair, couple, item, entity. If that isn’t mental magic, I don’t know what is. The only way that can happen is for all particularity to be stripped away, making the entities identical for our present purposes. One apple and one orange make two pieces of fruit. One boy and one girl make a pair or an item. They may be separate, but we come to think of them together, even to see them together. Different sexes perhaps, different blood types, different genomes—but in our minds we bind them as one. Jack and Jill, Antony and Cleopatra, Rogers and Astaire, Laurel and Hardy. Separate but equal contributors to a whole. If not in reality, then in our minds. That’s where the magic is performed.

Abbas is yesterday’s man. Let me give you the whole sentence as Fawaz A. Gerges wrote it (“The Transformation of Hamas,” in The Nation (January 25, 2010):

P[alestinian] A[uthority] President Mahmoud Abbas has been weakened by a series of blunders of his own making, and with his moral authority compromised in the eyes of a sizable Palestinian constituency, Abbas is yesterday’s man—no matter how long he remains in power as a lame duck, and whether or not he competes in the upcoming presidential elections (page 22).

Presenting Abbas as a man who has outlived his time, how powerful is that? Mind magic, again, categorizing a person from a particular point of view—as seen through another man’s eyes. Here the author’s attitude toward his subject colors what he finds, or places him in a box wholly different  from the conventional form of “PA President.”

God is love. The ultimate abstraction is painted in terms of a feeling we have all known at one time or another, as if the abstraction generated the feeling: Where love is, there is God—confounding a concept with a biological state of mind. This is not just mixing metaphors, it is smashing them together in a particle collider. The phrase rolls off the tongue, and is much cited, but it doesn’t mean anything because it treats two different categories of life experience—one essentially mythical and literary, the other experiential—as if they were the same.

The cat is on the mat. You wouldn’t believe how many linguists have analyzed this sentence to find out where it came from. It categorizes the cat by giving it a place, answering the eternal questions, “Where’s the cat?” or “What’s that thing on the mat?” or “What’s under the cat?” etc. The whole sentence betrays a scientific attitude toward syntax and the spontaneous generation of language. As such, it is a conceptual horror, an artifact, a research tool never imagined by real children. Teacher says, “Give me a sentence of one syllable words containing a prepositional phrase and a word rhyming with cat.” It may look like language, but it died in the making.

That giraffe is one sick animal. Here the abstract concept “giraffe” is qualified by unmentioned symptoms of illness, so is categorized very loosely as “sick” without telling us why. This is an intuitive, folk diagnosis, on a par with “Tell me what’s wrong, Doc,” betraying a certain wariness, which is the true subject of the sentence. The squeamish attitude of the speaker or writer is the unstated issue (subject), not the giraffe—and it doesn’t even appear in the sentence in so many words. If you diagram it correctly, you miss the point.

The point I’m trying to bring out is that categorizations, which each of us perform a thousand times a day, are trickier than at first they seem. Only rarely can we get away with calling a spade a spade. Or stripping all qualities away and dealing solely with quantities, as if 1 + 1 = 2 were actually true and not code for a multitude, depending on how you look at it. I call individual posts to this blog “reflections,” trying to draw attention to our personal responsibility for seeing the world as we do, which is invariably other than it is. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about finding “an echo of thought in sight,” which sums up my whole point. Yet we unwittingly cast those echoes into the world without seeing them for the projections they really are. We are the magicians who create meaningful episodes of experience, and yet take no credit for our skill.

The recognition of a pear as a pear, a road as a road, a cloud as a cloud—is in us, not any pear, road, cloud, all coming to us unlabeled and uncategorized. We cast pearhood upon this one, roadhood on that one, cloudhood on the one up above—transferring a handy item in memory to the scene before us, as if our experience were a property of the scene itself and not of personal consciousness—as if everyone else sees it exactly as we do. But meaningful couplings of concepts and percepts, memories and phenomena, are demonstrably features of the mind, not the world. In truth, nothing can be as it appears without a mind making that judgment. In calling a spade a spade, it is the calling that matters, not the spade or the idea of a spade. It is the act of categorizing, recognizing, projecting, transferring that matters, the bodily casting of an idea upon the waters of the world. Which we all do all the time without realizing it, turning the world outside-in, ourselves inside-out—all as a matter of course, not appreciating the magic in what we do every day.

Our minds are full of sets of things. Categories, types, sorts—in a word, concepts. Which we have interpolated from similarities between a string of earlier sensory experiences, laying down networks of linked pathways in our brains, ready to cast upon the world whenever sensory phenomena assume a familiar pattern—itself generated by the networks that perform the recognizing each time. We see what we are familiar with because becoming familiar with the patterns we encounter in our minds is what we do best. Allowing us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, as if we invented the whole process, which we did! As we look upon the world, so do we see. If we fear terrorist attacks, we suspect them everywhere. Wheat makes me sick, so I even imagine it blowing on the wind. Real or imagined, the world is as we categorize the patterns we look for—and inevitably find. Each in her own way because her life experience and her physical development and her genome are unique. So each of our worlds is unique; it has to be, it is our own doing.

On playing fields, umpires categorize as a profession, telling balls from strikes, safe from out. Judges in their courtrooms do much the same, distinguishing falsehood from truth, guilt from innocence. Careers are at stake here, reputations on the line; which is it to be, personal freedom or incarceration, or even capital punishment? Categorizations matter. They are often mistaken or plainly wrong because we are all creatures of strong views and prejudices. Politicians distinguish very broadly between party beliefs and affiliation, party members seeming to inhabit separate universes whose laws are mutually exclusive. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to be an expert at recognizing Communist sympathizers on sight. Whatever the facts, he would sniff them out, as long as they fit the pattern in his head, or the scent that so famously stopped up his nose.

Speaking of noses, the molecules our bodies are made of—together with the atoms making them up—are loaned to us by the universe to see what we can make of them and do with them. The animalcules on our skin and in our gut—ten times more numerous than the cells making up our bodies—are also loaned to us to see what, together, we can do. What we can make happen in this crazy paradise we call Earth. Plants arrange their molecules into cells conducting sap from soil to leaves. At the heart of the stem, cells die, forming a structure that is flexible and holds the tree up, swaying in strong winds. Near the outside just under the bark, living cells conduct sap upward, nutrients downward, promoting growth and life’s continuance. Other beings come from outside the tree to drill holes in the bark, allowing sap to ooze out, so bacteria have access to it, then the other beings—yellow-bellied sapsuckers, say—come back to check on what is happening in the holes it drilled earlier, eat the sap and bacteria to replenish their bodies in order to see what they, in turn, can make happen on Earth. Each being is a unique agent of the universe, all collectively striving to see what this generation of Earthlings can make happen.

My personal categorizations flows like sap from my body and from the experience of its molecules and atoms, its cells, organs, and organ systems. This enables my brain and my body to make collective sense of what I can know of the Earth, to organize an understanding of how Earth works for the purpose of working with similar systems or enhancing those that constitute my tribe and my kind of people. All this came to me in a dream as I was waking up this morning. A crazy dream, but no crazier than the life system that makes it possible, no crazier than the categories I project onto other dreamers so they will fit my understanding of my time and my place and what I am here to make happen while my particular mix of molecules gives me and my animalcules the structure we share together to make events happen in the universe. Thank you atoms and molecules, animalcules, thank you universe. I’ll see what I can do. When I die, I will donate my atoms and molecules to those who come after me; perhaps they will make better use of them than I have been able to do.

Speaking of craziness, I once sat through a lecture feeling uncomfortable the whole time because the speaker looked straight at me and no one else in the audience. Afterwards, I asked her why she had singled me out and she said I looked just liker her son. She was talking to him, not to me; I was just a dummy sitting in a chair. In certain circles, that is called transference, but at root it is miscategorization—treating a spade as if it were an eggplant. One thing leading to another, as it so often does in this life, I later (1970s) found myself in a graduate student professional development program studying how to use such projections or transferences to raise self-awareness. That led me to a brief acquaintance with the percept language developed by John Weir. I realize now the broader implication of percept language as a tool for mastering categorization by helping us see how we do violence to the world by shaping our worlds to conform to our personal experiences, as that speaker so long ago did—as I sat quietly in my chair—violence to me. It felt like rape at a distance, she using me for her own purposes while I was defenseless to do anything about it.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in revenge for the leveling of the Twin Towers fits the same pattern, transferring our hurt and anger to an innocent nation we didn’t particularly like, even though we had used it in the 1980s as a pawn on our side in the Cold War. Just as the nation of Israel now vents its spleen on the current generation of Palestinians whose parents it displaced in invading Palestine in 1948, deflecting its own collective guilt onto innocent parties, blaming the victims, not seeing that its own hostility is a projection, transference, or miscategorization aimed at the wrong target employed precisely to get itself off the hook so it can sleep comfortably in its bed at night.

Such is consciousness, and the life conducted in its name. I call it crazy and shameful, unless we all assume an attitude of curiosity about why we do the things we do, and take personal responsibility for the chaotic scripts we enact in doing the terrible things we inflict on others. Heightened self-awareness is the less-traveled road we could take if such a course fit our itinerary. Instead, we insist on plummeting toward Armageddon as if that were our destined endpoint. Which is where Weir’s percept language comes in, designed for those who catch themselves in the act of using other beings for their purposes. The language is so powerful, it makes you take responsibility for your own actions instead of blaming others, abusing them as if they deserved it through repeated acts of aggressive self-justification. I don’t think John Weir understood the greatness of his contribution. Since the early 1980s, I have never met anyone who has even heard of him.

To set the record straight, I will end this post with two paragraphs from his chapter on “The Personal Growth Laboratory” in Benne, K., et al., The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application (Science and Behavior Books, 1975; available at GreenPsychology.net on January 25, 2010, when I downloaded it):

The first morning session is devoted to reporting the previous night’s dreams. At this time, we introduce a special point of view which we will emphasize throughout the lab. We start with the centuries-old philosophical theory of solipsism which states that only the self exists, or can be proven to exist. In our application, we take the position that, as far as I, the perceiver, am concerned, the external world “exists” only inside me as sensations and images. Objects as experienced are solely the consequence of my perceptual processes. . . . All my experience takes place solely within me, within the confines of my body. It occurs continuously, from moment to moment. I live only in the here and now. . . .

Our frame of reference for the lab, then, is that each of us is continually perceiving and organizing his world in his unique way, never precisely the same as anyone else. I am “doing” myself and you are “doing” yourself. Your “existence” is for me always my perception of you, the “you-in-me,” and I “exist” for you only as the “me-in-you.” You are there, you act, you may even physically influence me. This has the consequence of changing the “you-in-me” and the “me-in-you.” How I “do” the “you-in-me” is determined by my deeds, my perceptions, and my past experiences. It is, I am, always my own responsibility. This is true both for how I do myself and how you do yourself. We conclude that the perceptual elements of our interpersonal interactions consist of a “you,” a “me,” a “you-in-me,” and a “me-in-you.”

Like the umpire or referee, our behavior is invariably a matter of judgment calls. To make this line of thinking more accessible to ourselves, we can think of all behavior as being, at base, metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are miscategorizations to a purpose, which is to emphasize a particular aspect of an event, thing, situation, or phenomenon in awareness. They are deliberate cartoons, distortions, exaggerations, or misrepresentations drawing attention to something as seen from one point of view or another. We take responsibility for the metaphors we cast on the world. When we take them at face value and don’t see them as intentional distortions, is when we get into (and cause) so much trouble. Then we label our intent as God’s truth, which others may experience as Satan’s outright lies. Thus our respective worlds turn about an axis provided by the unique set of our own minds.

As we look, so do we see.

(Copyright © 2010)

When I made a cribbage board as a present for my partner some years ago, I used the hand drill I bought at The Tool Barn in Hulls Cove, a place that sells recycled tools. I know the feel of that drill, its weight in my hand, its balance, the snug mesh of the gears. I’ve made it my drill now, an extension of my hands when I use it to engage the world by drilling a hole in a piece of driftwood (such as I used for the cribbage board). Tools are specific, precise, useful—in several senses, handy. As a kid I liked tools a lot. I still do. I remember my grandfather teaching me tools are not toys. I even sensed some of the difference before he firmly taught me that lesson when he caught me at his workbench in his shop in the barn.

I also have a hammer from The Tool Barn, hand brace, two sorts of pliers, and different sized clamps. I get a kick out of just citing those names as I did in that sentence. Familiar tools are parts of my body I keep ready for special projects. It is their feel and their use that makes them distinctive. Tools are sensory objects with, beyond heft, size, and utility, a certain intimate acquaintance. I know their curves and angles, the sounds they make, the smells they give off, the materials they are made of—and what they will do for me when I need them. Tools extend my consciousness beyond what I can do on my own. They solve problems, each in its particular way. They have character and temperaments, like some people I know.

The mailbox I wrote about in Reflection 174 is just a place where a very limited range of things can occur. I don’t much care about my mailbox, it’s more the contents that interest me. Hand tools affect me more strongly. When I grasp them, for instance, they grasp me right back. Working together, we make a good team. I’m talking hand tools, not power tools. Physical, personal engagement, not a bunch of hired electrons doing my work for me. My tools are friends and companions, colleagues and helpmeets, not robots.

As I’ve said, the point of consciousness is effective action in the world. That’s what evolution has tailored our Paleolithic minds and bodies to accomplish in the cause of survival. Artificial intelligence can’t do that job in our stead; it is still up to us. And hand tools can help. Spears, boomerangs, axes, pencils, chopsticks, even paperclips. They help shape us to a world that was built without people, primates, or even tree shrews in mind. The energy behind them has to come from us—from our physical bodies—as directed by consciousness with aid from careful attention and skilled physical effort. Nothing is more satisfying than doing the job right. It involves every part of our bodies and minds, our hearts and our souls. Because in making things, what we do matters in relation to our biological values. Old men sitting around whittling totems—deer, ducks, and chickadees—are doing what matters to them, as making hamburgers and cookies matters to boys and girls learning to feed themselves. Oh, I forget, these are things of the past. You can always eat out. And buy plastic toys made in China.

As tools, computers and cell phones are a different story in that we haven’t a clue how they work; just click or push a button and they do their thing, not ours. The same for computer games, CDs, and videos. Slight skill is involved, which meets no innate survival need. Everything now is cut and paste, which any preschooler can do. You can learn to use electronic gadgets in a few minutes, not months of patient practice spent schooling your body to work with and across the grain. And if these electronic wonders break, you can’t fix them. When the last battery runs down, or the power goes out, you are sunk.

Everything now is pre-packaged, even gift platters and salads at the supermarket. No preparation required, all you have to do is rip open the package and eat. No wonder we’re restless; we don’t know how to do anything with our hands guided by consciousness anymore. That is, our consciousness is on cruise-control pretty much all the time. We just keep whizzing ahead with no need to pay attention to how we whiz. With the result Google does it all for us—flicking insistent ads in front of our eyes so we’ll know what to buy. I went through that bit in my last post (Reflection 176: Heart Rot). We used to know how to make model airplanes out of tissue and balsawood, and build ships in bottles. Those days are gone. But they’ll be back; wait till the grid fails and the power goes out.

In the mailbox story, I started from the abstract end and worked toward the concrete, like boring a tunnel from one side of a mountain. Now I’m working my way around to the concrete, sensory side, boring in the other direction, hoping both tunnels will connect in the middle. Today it’s tools as hands-on aids to existential, sensory experience, not mailboxes as empty placeholders or containers. OK, I’m mixing my metaphors. Never the twain shall meet in the middle. But say I ordered a wood plane or set of carving chisels from The Tool Barn and they sent them by mail. Now my expectancy can picture both mailbox and tools in the same image, mailbox as placeholder being fulfilled in this instance by a box containing tools so sharp you can cut your finger and draw blood if not careful. I intend that sort of image to illustrate what happens when concepts and percepts come together in mutual fulfillment, memory reaching from one side of the mountain, perception from the other, the two coming together in the middle of the mountain, uniting, forming a single item in consciousness—a coupling of both sensory and conceptual aspects of meaning. Ta-da, lived experience as we know and love it every day of our lives!

I know what I mean, even though I can’t say it without resorting to imagery and metaphor. You know what I mean, too, because the two aspects of consciousness come together in mutual fulfillment in your mind as surely as mine. I didn’t make this up, I merely take pains to keep track of the workings of my own mind. Here is categorization in action, recognizing things as what we know them to be, even though they are no such thing in and of themselves—it’s just that for us they go together so naturally we think of them as one. Think of an animal—say, sheep. A sheep is an animal; an animal can be a sheep, an ostrich, or a kangaroo. We know which one when we see it, even though it doesn’t bear a label. The label is in our conceptual memory, tied to an empty (uninstantiated) placeholder, both ready to leap out when perception presents us with a suitable pattern. We put the two together so naturally, we don’t even appreciate the wonder of it all. Or that we are responsible for making it happen. Where we see a flock of sheep, others might recognize die Schafen (Germany), les moutons (France), le pecore (Italy), or las ovejas (Spain). Different category labels, same animals. In childhood, we learn to put them together by imitating what others in our language group do.

So are sheep the same as die Schafen and les moutons? Yes, and no. The same, but different. It all depends on who is putting percept and concept together in a particular instance of categorization. In each case, the concept with the best fit might differ a little, or a lot. Even if we use the same term, that does not necessarily mean our concepts are identical. That depends on our cumulative life experience with sheep, whether we know them only from books, saw a movie about them once, or perhaps grew up on a sheep ranch and herded them with our father in the mountains. But I stray from the tools I began with. That’s easy to do with concepts, one keeps leading on to others. I don’t know how sheep got into the picture, but there they are—purebred conceptual sheep out of nowhere. That is, out of my conceptual memory. No, not nowhere. In North Blue Hill, Maine. The last animals I took pictures of were sheep on a farm that had a lot of farm tools and machinery lying around. Which reminded me of my grandfather’s farm in Vermont. Not farm, really, but house in farm country where he had an old barn. That, I believe, is the connecting link between tools and sheep in my mind. You had to have been there, to have lived my little life.

Tricky, this mind of ours. Hard to keep up with. But easy, once you put in your ten-thousand hours of self-study. If, every time we put a sentence together, we are balancing concepts with percepts, percepts with concepts, you’d think after a time we’d get a sense of what we were doing and develop a sense of responsibility so we could do the job better, that is, more truthfully. Not so with the mind. It likes to keep us dumb and happy. Or, more accurately, we like to keep ourselves dumb and happy precisely so we can avoid being responsible for what we say and do. With results such as that politicians, say, along with economists, lawyers, and priests are all irrepressible liars. To be a pro is to lie the party line. That is, to commit category errors as a matter of principle. Because talking nonsense is safe: you can say anything to anybody at all, and they will hear your words and almost believe you if you keep a straight face. Words, too, are tools, mouth tools if not hand tools.

I will end this post by quoting the letter I wrote today to the editor of Newsweek in response to the January 25 issue on the earthquake in Haiti. I never saw so much categorical gibberish as is packed between the covers of that issue. Here Haiti lies in ruins after a devastating earthquake, and the media—together with the president himself—fumble for a conceptual or rhetorical framework within which to make it all seem fitting that so many people lie concretely and demonstrably dead or dying in the streets. This underscores the importance of categorization—giving character to a given situation—in deciding how to make an appropriate response:

Is it me, or these times? Newsweek, your cloying smugness astounds me. First I read Jon Meacham cynically reducing Haiti to a character in a historical novel. Then Lisa Miller resorts to the will of a stock God in attempting to explain a natural disaster. And Obama himself gets up on his high horse to proclaim the greatness of a country that for years supported a series of dictators in Haiti, as if we were caring beyond any other nation. “Life can be unimaginably cruel,” he intones, as if life, like Miller’s God, were a bad actor. When I got to David Rothkopf’s “I told you this was going to happen” piece, I wanted to throw my shoe at you. As Gertrude said to Polonius, “More matter, less art.” And if it isn’t matter but personal opinion, then chuck it, get the facts, and start over.

 Sheep, pecora, mouton?