Evolution’s achievement of consciousness is a collaborative effort between animal life and its Earthly environment.

Consciousness does not reside in the brain so much as it is a product of life’s engagement with its home planet. When Henry Adams walked out of Chartres Cathedral a changed man and wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the cathedral remained as it was before he arrived, undiminished, unconsumed.

Half of Adams’ engagement came from his attention, concentration, and action; the other half was the cathedral’s doing as a provocative source of engaging stimulation.

If we give ourselves to life, life gives us back in kind. Consciousness springs from just such rounds of give-and-take. It is not something we possess, or have a right to. It is something we invite to happen by opening ourselves to our environment, and trading with it as we are able.

I didn’t need cognitive neuroscience to tell me that, nor a suite of fMRIs and other a la mode research apparatus. What I needed was half of the mind that has sustained me through life, engaged with the other half of environmental stimulation that, taken together, have spurred my thinking, awareness, and experience all my days, including the writing of this blog.

As phenomenologists say, consciousness is always of one thing or another. It isn’t a thing in itself so much as a reacher-toward things. That is called intentionality. As intentional beings, we are always intent on solving this or that problem.

We all start out in life as a quickened egg—largest cell in the human body. And then in nine months run through the developmental cycle it took life itself three-and-a-half billion years to complete. We are modern-day miracles, inventing our own brand of consciousness during our brief stay in the womb.

Everyone’s consciousness is unique because the specifics of its origins are unique—DNA, grandparents, parents, immune system, etc., plus engagements in the womb from conception on. Engagements initiated by our genes, but of which we get the gist and do our part as birth approaches.

We are like an impromptu melody played in the distance, only that melody is inside us, at the core of our being on Earth. We are here not only because our parents conceived us, but because Earth has provided them with the wherewithal to produce us. We are Earthlings from our earliest beginnings, with our own ration of Earthly (perhaps universal) consciousness.

We become citizens of the cosmos that truly begat us, so are eager to show our stuff to anyone who will engage us during our brief stay in the area.

The view of consciousness I offer in this blog is very different from the version that neuroscientists are so relentlessly searching for in the brain. Consciousness is not made of matter in physical form; it is an interaction between specific lifeforms and the worlds they are born to, as Henry Adams was born to a world containing Chartres Cathedral. Scientists won’t find that magnificent structure in anyone’s brain because (as in Adam’s case) it’s at the other end of an engagement that went on for years under all sorts of weather, light, shifts in attitude, and altering comprehension.

I have tried to keep up with published writings about consciousness, but I have yet to find any that make sense to me on the topic as I personally experience it in living my own life. And introspection is so out of fashion in the twenty-first century that I am not likely to meet up with any before I die.

Am I that eccentric? That far out on the fringe? That much of a deviant? I think not. From my standpoint, others are barking up the wrong tree, looking for a physical state of some kind, when consciousness is an ongoing process of engagement between a living mind and whatever object of its notice gives a jolt sufficient to draw attention.

Loops of engagement are way more than feedback loops. Rather than stabilizers, they are disrupters, attention getters, annoyers, or announcers of success. In short, situation creators. They set the parameters of intelligence in such a configuration that arouses a meaningful response leading to a review of options and judgment of what is to be done.

As I visualize them, loops of engagement are kindlers of consciousness leading to appropriate action. They start with disturbing perceptions that create meaningful situations to which intelligence reacts with discernment in judging what plan of action to put into effect. They are mind organizers whose job is to transform perceptions into behaviors suitable to the occasion.

Essential to our humanity, none of us would get through the day without one. And probably not be likely to get through the next five seconds. I call them loops because they keep going on and on. Coming back to slightly altered situations, tweaking a little here and there, more like a helix than a circle, but running on till the job is done. Then it’s on to the next job, and the one in line after that.

Go to the store for groceries, lay out the kitchen, make dinner, serve it up, eat it, congratulate the cook, clear the table, wash the dishes, put dishes away, lay things out for breakfast. How else would we manage to get through the day? If such engagements didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

But they do exist in what William James called the stream of consciousness, the endless succession of one-thing-after-another that we dub collectively conscious life. They are our tools for building a succession of worlds about ourselves as we go through the day.

Loops of engagement are world-puzzle solvers that connect our minds to our mysterious environment, but that have to keep checking because that environment is bound to change. We can never get it just right. The world is too complex, too dynamic, too flexible, too uncertain—and our view too limited and schematic. Whatever we think it is in the instant is bound to be wrong.

So we play the game of successive approximation. Moving in the direction of certain understanding—but like the bounding hare, the world always gets away from us. The more certain we are that we understand what’s going on, the more apt we are to be wrong. Our firmest beliefs are so much foam on the waves. Life is more like splashing around in shallow water than swimming in a straight lane.

Loops of engagement are the best tool we’ve got for figuring out our situation at the moment. They never stop; they never give up; they never claim success. Like our streams of consciousness, they just keep going, until we fall into bed too tired to keep up the pursuit.

Consciousness extends far into the world—and back again. It is not imprisoned within a single brain. We are born to engage our mothers and fathers, and they to engage us, their infant children. Mother and child form a fundamental unit of consciousness, hinting at all that lies beyond and is yet to come. Each is an extension of the other. Each needs the other; each serves the other.

Talk about being bound-back, once conceived, we are members of such relationships forever. As members of families, communities, cultures, and nature, we are set for life to engage with them, and they with us.

Our individual minds depend on ongoing activities far beyond the walls of our black boxes, far beyond our particular bodies and brains. We are kinetic beings that thrive by being perpetually active on all levels of engagement. When we can no longer sustain our engagements across our bodily envelopes, we cease to thrive. No more exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, food for waste, talking for listening, giving for receiving, acting for being acted upon.

For the duration of our lives, we are simultaneously subjects and objects. That duality is built into our bodily equipment. Even movers and shakers are themselves moved upon and shaken up. Even in the confines of our respective black boxes, we are informed by sunlight and starlight, rising moons and setting planets.

We are partnered in life by the times we live in. Those times live in us with their full cast of characters, as much as we live in those times. That is the nature of engagement, of being alive.

Neuroscientists have begun to observe the distribution of blood in our brains as altered by our mental activity. That’s a start at understanding our engagements, but it’s a hard way of going about it.

I think my way is better because I have access to at least my side of an engagement, not a mere hint provided by a drop of blood in my brain. In truth, our experience is far larger and more influential than can be told by observing those drops of blood.

Our history is told by our ideas, beliefs, thoughts, judgments, actions, engagements, and perceptions. Only our conscious minds have access to that history as it flows through our awareness.

I have here been trying to offer a glimpse of that flow through countless human minds engaged in making meaning of baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and now the stars. It will take neuroscientists a long time to engage on that level of complexity and undeniable significance.

Which is why I am writing this blog, to encourage mindworkers to cooperate rather than waste time belittling one another’s efforts. All engagements add up to a lifetime of awareness in the mind. And that unit of awareness is available to only one unique stream of consciousness. Making it one of the most precious commodities on Earth.

Aristotle’s image of heavenly bodies singing and dancing together flows from his engagement with, and understanding of, the stars. His conclusion was that their unison is due to, and under the direction of, their master and prime mover.

That close brush with wisdom, that approximate truth, has duly been passed down from one generation to the next for five thousand years, backed by the highest authorities in each generation—which is why I am willing to own up to beliefs, opinions, and ideas, but not knowledge, not truth.

The whole scheme was as wrong in Aristotle’s day as it had been among the Sumerians. The passing down of this wisdom was no casual game of telephone; it was a codified and systematic effort to pass the baton of orthodox belief forward, mind to mind, memory to memory, which confirms much of what I have claimed for my own mind. Pierandello’s phrase “It is true if you think so,” is a more honest way of approaching what somebody wants you to believe. That little “if” is a good thing to remember, placing the burden of proof on the one who swallows the meme, not the one who offers you a dose to cure what ails you.

The art to understanding a situation assembled by human intelligence is to gather the pieces together and try to fit them along their natural contours so that they complement one another, adding to a larger whole—forming what my high school physics teacher called “the big picture.”

In recent posts to my blog (since about post No. 347), I have been trying to develop the big picture of my personal consciousness, piece by piece, in a consecutive series intended to present my inner mind as a whole. After engaging with the stars in this series of posts, I will discuss the progress I have made, summarize my findings, and draw what conclusions I think are warranted by my work on this project.

The greatest difficulty I have had is a result of my going against the grain of consciousness studies in this technological age of neuroscience. Modern researchers are highly invested in their costly equipment, and overlook introspection as a suspiciously low-tech, low-budget enterprise beyond the reach of peer review. With only one experimental subject, what value can one such limited study contribute to our current understanding of consciousness?

That is, the baby gets unwittingly tossed with the bath water before anyone (but the introspector) suspects a case can be made for something splashing about in the tub. Once I claim in my big-picture findings that, indeed, such a case might be warranted, there is no one around willing to go back to Go and start developing the big picture all over again.

The irony is that the only direct access to consciousness is available on a first-person basis to the subject herself. Studying the brain will not reveal the structure of consciousness. Disciplined introspection is the only method that provides a clear picture of the constituents and structure of consciousness.

My focus has been on my perceptual errors, the very criterion professionals use to dismiss consciousness as a serious topic of study by way of introspection. But errors open the way to the big picture they reveal in their shadow. You just have to stick with it; in two years you’ll have enough data to fuel ten years of analysis and writing-up results.

Yet in other fields, I see feisty individuals gathering all the relevant pieces and assembling something entirely fresh with the discards from what has already been done, expanding the limits of what is thought possible. Croatian cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser are turning musical conventions to entirely new uses by combining pop and classical styles once thought incompatible, with formidable (yes, that’s the word) results.

An Indonesian woman working as a domestic in Hong Kong has gathered the courage to defy the convention of cowering before her employer, and has splashed the big picture across front pages around the world, publically declaring the secret tyranny of the system.

Big pictures expose the hidden truth trapped in the shadows of conventional practice. We get so caught up in our conventional wisdom that we can’t see anything else but the lies and half-truths we keep telling ourselves in maintaining our respectable ways and beliefs.

Taking the fragments of historical human engagements with the stars, what sense can we make of them as a group? That is my next project in this blog. Cosmologist Brian Swimme did it before me in the late 1980s and 1990s in his twelve-part video, Canticle to the Cosmos. He and Thomas Berry developed the notion that we need a “new story” about humanity’s place in the universe. Theologians, who have been on the forefront of human understanding of such matters for some five thousand years, now must give way to a new breed of cosmologists who update the story from a wholly new perspective based on recent achievements in space science.

I was born to a small town with five steeple houses built well before my time. I passed them every day on my way to school, but no one told me what they were about. Later I got a dose of the old story in one of them, a tale of mumbo-jumbo about virgin births and resurrections and assumptions into heaven. Even as a kid I knew enough about the way the world works to recognize flapdoodle when I heard it directed at me as God’s truth.

My life has been a matter of gathering fragments to piece together as a big picture that puts the small, narrow picture hung in all those steeple houses to shame. The very word religion stems from Latin religare meaning to bind or tie back to old ways of belief based on God’s directives relayed to Earthly priests by patterns among the stars. The priests’ job was to make sure that people did what God told them to do from his high seat in heaven.

It would be nice if we could start with recent archaeological findings at sites such as Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey because of its dating back to 9,000 BCE. But it’s a recent dig, and theories about its purpose haven’t had time to reach any sort of consensus. Some of its incised reliefs remind me of imaginative renderings of stellar constellations, but it isn’t known whether the many so-called temples were roofed over or open to the sky.

Stonehenge on England’s Salisbury Plain and Several Sumerian sites at the then head of the Persian Gulf were roughly contemporary in dating to 3,200 BCE. Stonehenge is definitely aligned along its major axis with the summer solstice, so could have been established as an observatory to keep track of the sun’s apparent motion along the ecliptic, so serving to peg seasonal labors and rituals to cyclical celestial events. Which was exactly what Sumerian priests did with their ziggurats, now just mounds in the desert, but once the center of human understanding of man’s place in the universe.

In my next post I will begin with the Sumerian system of belief, which still lives in our religious views of today.

442. Why Community?

February 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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