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.

Plato’s cosmology did not die with him but was developed and given new life by his followers such as Aristotle, who broadcast a sharpened image of the prime mover at the center of a universe of stars moving about him in a procession of celestial grandeur.

A Latin translation of the Timaeus found fertile ground among Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria in the third century of our current era, philosophers who subsequently joined Plato’s idealism to Jewish, Christian, and Roman thought, producing a grand image of the heavenly host spread before the mind’s eye for human guidance and edification.

Dionysius (Denys, Dennis) the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius, second century CE, six centuries after Plato), a Neoplatonist with a theological bent, has left us an ornate depiction of the cosmos combined with a religious structure mirroring the heavens in the hierarchy of the Christian church here on Earth.

Dionysius depicted God’s retinue in heaven as divided into a celestial hierarchy of three tiers of heavenly minds placed there for our instruction and imitation here below (a scheme similar to that proposed by the Sumerians–see Post 474).

The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union . . . with God having Him Leader of all religious science and operations, by looking unflinchingly to His most Divine comeliness, and copying. . . its own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted radiance, and . . . spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance with the supremely Divine regulations. . . .

All of which culminates in a grand summary that emphasizes the power that drives the stars in their harmonious orbits:

He, then, who mentions Hierarchy, denotes a certain altogether Holy Order, an image of the supremely Divine freshness, ministering the mysteries of its own illumination in hierarchical ranks, and sciences, and assimilated to its own proper Head as far as lawful. (From The Celestial Hierarchy, Caput III, Section II, 1899, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_13_heavenly_hierarchy.htm, Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.)

For Dionysius, Plato’s cosmos had become a divine holy order immediately accessible to those who would not only contemplate, but obey the directives of its radiance. A strongly prescriptive and mystical tone had crept into the story, comprehensible only to those instructed in decoding such language. But behind the language, the stars can still be seen to shine as clearly and brilliantly as they do overhead on a moonless night through dry air.

The Neoplatonists gave stellar radiance a finely divided and philosophical series of orderly distinctions which they bound into a philosophy centered on a single, luminous, but hidden central God surrounded by ever-larger ranks of heavenly powers, commonly regarded as angels or angelic messengers, the whole troupe of heavenly luminaries being divided into a concentric hierarchy of ever-finer gradations that were meaningful to the informed (indoctrinated) mind.

Dionysius carried his argument to finer levels than most of us care to consider, as if he got points for the number of distinctions he was able to make, creating a lot of confusion and overlap in the process under the guise of devotional scholarship.

His overall scheme, however, divided the celestial hierarchy into three levels, each level composed of three further sub-levels. Beginning tightly around the “Divine Hiddenness” (or prime mover) at the center, the celestial powers or angels are divided into,

  1. a highest, brightest, and hottest circle of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. a second circle farther out divided into somewhat lower, dimmer, cooler groupings of “Heavenly Minds,” Lordships, Powers, and Authorities, or alternatively, Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. with a lesser group of angels in the outer reaches of heaven, those concerned with human welfare and obedience, encompassing Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

And complementing the celestial hierarchy in heaven, Pseudo-Dionysius depicted three Earthly triads intended to enforce the dictates of heaven upon the faithful below:

  1. symbolic sacraments—Baptism, Communion, and Consecration of the Holy Chrism;
  2. holy orders—Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons;
  3. together with Monks in a state of perfection, Initiated Laity in a state of illumination, and Catechumens in a state of purification.

These Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies were a late melding of Neoplatonic ideas with orthodox Christian theology to produce a mystical union of ideas and ritual acts as a blend of philosophical and theological strands to produce a wholly spiritual system of human belief rooted firmly in a personal faith, often embracing incompatible aspects, very much like the state Plato found himself in while penning the Timaeus as his last word on creation of the universe and its cosmology.

Shining through the mists of such doctrines, however, is the awe with which people in every age have gazed upon the stars. Our reward is not so much hearing what the stars would say to us if they could speak, but ideas which we unabashedly put in their mouths so that we take from them what we need to hear.

That is the essential point to be made regarding our perennial engagement with the stars: we make of them what we will, and call it the truth. And that is exactly how our minds work, finding little else but variations upon what we are looking for, be it confidence, comfort, succor, authority, charity, gentility, or whatever quality we need to balance the turmoil (chaos) of daily life. The stars are up there for our free and personal use. Living the difficult lives we do here below, we rely on their guidance as needed.

In my next two posts I will wrap up this section on our popular engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars by seeing our take on the stars through Mediaeval times into the space age of today. Then in future posts I will shift to discussing where I hope to have taken readers on our wayfaring together over the past 150 or so posts, leading to the conclusions I will leave you with regarding my views of consciousness, mind, and engagement as draw from the personal journey I have made across the past eighty-two years.

What intrigues me about Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is how hard it is to reconcile the observable order of the universe with human understanding of that same order. The problem is much like our modern struggle to fit our experience of our own minds with our understanding of the brain that is thought to be largely responsible for those minds in the first place.

In the Timaeus,

  1. First, there is Plato who authored the dialogue to explain his understanding of the cosmos as essentially harmonious.
  2. Second, there is the narrator, Timaeus, in whose words the cosmos is presented and explained.
  3. Third, there is the mythical craftsman, Timaeus’ agent for creating the stars, planets, and Earth as one coherent system.
  4. Followed by the mechanical (and problematic) model of the cosmos from which the craftsman works as a kind of armillary sphere, a model derived from human study of the cosmos itself.
  5. And of course the several translators of the Timaeus, each of whom applies his own perspective and familiarity with Plato’s use of the ancient Greek language.

Taken together with the cosmologies of other ancient philosophers, all leading to the confusion in my mind resulting from my effort to fit Plato into my discussion of what our engagements with the stars reveal about our impulse to find meaning in the stars, whether we know anything about them or not.

And now I have to consider the effects on any of my readers who might try to make sense of the ongoing engagement between human minds and the stars.

The central problem comes down to a glitch in Timaeus’ presentation of the relationship between stars, planets, Earth, and human’s viewing the stars overhead.

  1. The thrust of Timaeus’ argument is that the stars and constellations as mapped onto the cosmos all share in the same coherent system as demonstrated by their harmonious, circular motions.
  2. Except that Earth rotates west-to-east on its axis, while the stars seem to pass east-to-west about the celestial pole.
  3. The two motions in opposite directions cancelling out any need to explain the apparent motion of the stars. Earth’s rotation explains the illusion.
  4. While exactly that explanation is the essential point of the whole cosmic structure that Timaeus presents on Plato’s behalf in insisting on a world soul that unifies the so-called universe as one coherent system driven from the center by godly force.

The celestial craftsman takes pains to create a system in which stars-planets-Earth all move in rational order in conformity with the idea of circular motion in the same direction being the only proof and criterion for the system as a divine whole.

But that isn’t how the universe works. The stars appear to move one way, while Earth rotates in the opposite direction. Plato and his creator-craftsman can’t have it both ways. That wouldn’t fit with Plato’s idea of the world-soul uniting stars-planets-Earth into one perfect system.

So what did he do, the greatest philosopher of all time? He had his cake and ate it too. He let the discrepancy ride for what it was. He shrugged and walked away. That is, he left behind him the unsubstantiated faith that everything would work out all right.

Which is consistent with his belief in men and women forming two mutually exclusive orders of society despite all evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t quibble about both men and women being necessary parts of a unified system. He just settles for a duality as how society is structured in his day with women on a lower level than men.

The moral of this tale is that the more elaborate philosophical systems become, the more likely they are to be inconsistent within themselves, the more prone to error, the more apt to be wrong. And the philosopher more apt to muddle through vaguely because having gotten in over his head, he has no choice but to become an apologist for his own way of thinking.

Even the greatest philosophers are fallible human beings. Particularly when trying to prop-up the foundations of false or dubious beliefs. Beliefs so perfect they ought to be true. It is far easier to believe that the apparent motion of the stars along circular routes through the heavens is due to observers on Earth moving counter to those routes, making the harmonious motion of the stars an illusion projected by human minds onto the heavens.

It was an illusion for the Sumerians, an illusion for the Greeks, and is today an illusion for us, even though we take photographs of star trails by putting cameras on tripods pointed upwards while leaving the shutter open for hours on end.

But it was not an illusion for the priests and philosophers whose livelihoods depended on a cosmological system maintained by adherence to that mistaken belief. Adherence to an idea in their minds being projected onto the stars because it suited the stories they told about a prime mover driving the stars through the heavens, about stars forming the retinue of such a divine being, about planets being angelic messengers bearing commands and prophecies straight from the prime mover to his faithful flock below, and about members of that flock having an obligation to discover profound meaning in precisely the appearances of those relative motions as seen from below.

Whoee! what a ride it is to go to such lengths to devote your one life to such wrong beliefs. And to defend such beliefs against all who doubt them. Or even to burn them as heretics at the stake, as we nowadays kill them with bursts of fire from AK-47s or drone-fired rockets.

Would those who so earnestly instruct us believe in an untruth or out-and-out lie? Unthinkable. Heretical. Grounds for doing battle to stamp out all such contrary beliefs. The rest is the history of the world as told by-and-to gullible human minds.

The stars are a gleaming mirror in the sky giving us back a reflection of our own enticing yet mistaken ideas and beliefs.

 

During my early encounters with psychology, that word held strong connotations of either animal experimentation or pathology and mental illness. Stemming via Latin from two Greek words meaning roughly “breath” or “spirit” (Latin psyche) and “talk” or “thought” (Latin logos), the two roots add up to something like spirit talk or mind lore.

Early on, breath was taken as a sign of life, absence of breath a sign of death. Breath was what we acquired at birth, and surrendered with our last gasp—what some thought of as “spirit.” It came to stand for the non-physical element that seemingly animates our bodies.

The negative connotations of psychology were laid on in the nineteenth century when attention was directed by medical doctors to what might go wrong with a mind in contrast to its right and proper functioning.

Much of my early reading in psychology was given over to discussion of mental disorders. You couldn’t read psychology texts without wondering how crazy you really were. Now, my interest in the mind is directed more toward its normal, everyday performance. I think we need to understand what’s right with the mind before we can properly deal with what’s gone wrong.

That difference itself says a great deal about how our minds work. We pay attention either if our minds seem to work exceptionally well, or if they do poorly. Idiot-savants combine those extreme states of mind. The state of normality in-between is taken for granted without comment. That’s why the connotations of psychology are so often negative, suggesting our minds need mending or healing. If they work as they should, there’s no need to seek out Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung.

The meaning of “mind lore,” then, commonly leans toward the negative polarity, as just owning a car has strong implications of a good garage being available to keep it in good running order.

My preference is to consider the human mind in its everyday mode of wellness and not sickness. For that reason, I now introduce a series of posts dealing with the mind in the context of baseball, our national pastime; Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus, found lying around somewhere in every writer’s workspace; and the stars above, which, remote as they may be, affect our inward lives more profoundly than any creation of mankind ever has.

And now a plug for engagement. The prevailing attitude is that mind puts a consumptive drain on the brain’s physical resources, so cannot be visualized as a kind of spiritual entity operating independently of the brain. But as I have been trying to point out in this blog, engagement is a stimulating activity that, for good or ill, arouses and focuses attention, serving as a kind of on-off switch that directs the brain’s physical resources to mental activities in an extremely efficient manner precisely because of the synchronization it enables between perceptual and physical activity.

Notice how all else falls away when we are fully engaged. Engagement isn’t just a drain, it gives the brain a needed boost as a coherent and smooth-running engine at peak performance. Engagement assures the biggest bang per unit of neurological exertion. When disengaged, the brain is at sixes and sevens without a sense of priority. Each module putts along doing its own self-maintenance chores. When engagement kicks in, the brain comes to life like a dog about to being taken for a walk. Now it can truly show its stuff and not just lie around the house. I would say the brain exists to sharply and deeply engage, as the dog exists to run, leap, and frisk.

Here I will maintain that the mind not only exists, but exists to engage in the play of baseball, of looking up words in the Thesaurus, of celebrating the lights in the sky overhead. As a hint to what lies ahead in this series of posts on baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and human concern with the stars, just imagine the skilled and passionate engagements of those thousands of medieval craftsmen who built Gothic Cathedrals. They might have claimed to be doing God’s bidding, but out of professional pride, they put their hearts into the work of creating the most imaginative, attractive, breath-taking, and durable structures since the fall of the Roman Empire. Those cathedrals were direct expressions of human minds working in collaborative and passionate engagement on the most important projects in a thousand years of human endeavor. We gasp when we look upon those buildings today, monuments to the men who conceived and constructed them stone by stone, window by window, with their hands and eyes engaged in precise coordination.

Baseball. Abner Doubleday (later a General at Gettysburg) is said to have invented baseball in 1839 as a means of keeping his military academy students in good physical shape. Another tradition traces the origin back to the base-running game of rounders in eighteenth-century England. Doubleday did stipulate the dimensions of the playing field, size of and distance between bases, rules governing defensive play by the team in the field and offensive play by the team at bat.

The game itself serves as a metaphor for the battles that make up a military campaign, without the killing. Its very structure flows from the polarity that underscores awareness of events good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable, won or lost. The rules of baseball impose the ideal of fairness on every contest, giving both teams an equal chance at winning the game.

We watch baseball because many of us find it thoroughly engaging. It speaks our language, and we speak its. It’s as if we are born to play and watch baseball. Or so it seems. Actually, we are born to engage with what captures our attention, and baseball is designed to do just that.

Baseball brings out our best at throwing, catching, running, sliding, leaping, batting, playing as a team, and displaying our skills at offense and defense. All of which requires extreme concentration every step of the way. Baseball does exactly what Doubleday intended it to—keep us on our toes while striving to do our best. Even if we’re in bleacher seats, we are aroused, paying attention, and on our toes nonetheless.

 

449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, parents are people. They are who they are. They can’t be all things to all children, who tend to draw closer to one or the other. Sex hormones may be one draw, a sense of shared identity or “identification” another. I’m with him, mister active who plays catch; I’m with her, the listener and supporter who gives me a hug now and then.

I grew up under the teachings of John B. Watson’s recent (1928) book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which advised raising children at an emotional distance as if they were young adults, shaking hands with them, but not hugging or kissing them lest they be spoiled. Young academics were apt to accept Watson’s doctrine as the authentic voice of scientific reasoning, so got suckered in to Watson’s “method,” while more loving parents remained skeptical.

The only time I can remember my father holding me in his lap was once on the front porch when he helped tie my shoes. The incident stands out because it was a unique event. Late in her life, my mother admitted that most people in Hamilton didn’t approve of how she was raising her three boys.

However family attachments are formed, they stir our engagements much as loving hands turn a prayer wheel in Tibet, or, as in my case, dutiful hands dress a child for school to meet community standards of approval. I have always seen my childhood as Platonic in being based on ideas and not feelings. I can’t recommend such treatment to anyone.

After all, it takes only a gentle pressure now and then to keep family relationships active and alive. Like prayer wheels, family engagements are made to spin, two partners in mutual orbit. To endure, they have to spin one around the other. In most families, parents trade off in keeping things going. Both are active while doing different jobs that have to get done every day. Like working for a living, getting dinner on the table, cleaning house, or watching a movie together.

When my parents got married in 1926, my father laid down the law: this is to be a one-career family. My mother was working on her doctorate in geology, so had to switch tracks mid-course. Her father had been a granite worker in the quarries of Sullivan, Maine. It was only natural for her to follow his lead. I remember she kept a few mineral samples in a bowl on her dresser, each labeled with its scientific binomial. In 1923, she did geological research at Acadia National Park. That was the year her father died of silicosis.

In the mid-1920s, her future husband showed up on her doorstep in Sullivan, seeking a rest stop on a hike from Middlebury to Nova Scotia. That was the end of his solo journey. My mother grudgingly learned to specialize in childcare and homemaking, developing a sideline of easel painting on Sundays, her day off.

I remember her boiling the laundry in a huge copper laundry tub that fit over two burners of the coal stove in the kitchen. She was a highly visual person, with marine artists in her family background. A Maine native, she loved the outdoors. In Seattle in the 1940s, I remember her saying after a long spell in the house, “I want to go out and touch trees.” She sent many signals that childrearing was not her chosen thing. But she worked at it as best she could because that was her family role. When she got more free time as her three boys got older, she took up flower gardening as a suitable pastime for a faculty wife.

My father was a distinguished college teacher of English. As far as I could tell, his toolkit consisted of pencils, paperclips, a stapler, pads of paper, and a zinc writing board with a bent corner. His main tool was an upright Underwood typewriter that made clickety noises through the closed door of his study after dinner, starting promptly at seven o’clock.

Each of us three boys had to invent himself for lack of an explicit model to engage with. Career-wise, we each did a lot of flub-dubbing around. Both my older and younger brother had great trouble finding a way through the halls of higher education. Both of them got lost.

Suspended between science and the humanities, I, too, got lost, but as a middle child with lesser influence from both parents, in my late forties I eventually stumbled my way to a doctorate in humanistic and behavioral education from Boston University School of Education in 1982. On the secondary level, I taught English for a time, and poetry, along with creative photography, art, and the humanities. Then I moved to Maine to write my great book, became an environmentalist, made a life for myself, and discovered wayfaring as my true profession. So did I resolve the misguidance of John B. Watson’s early and longstanding influence on my life.

We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?

As bipedal animals, our remarkable, weight-bearing hind limbs support much of our wayfaring, freeing our forelimbs for all manner of clever manipulations for which we are duly famous.

While our legs shuffle, walk, lope, stride, run, hop, leap, jump, skip, dance and generally carry us ahead in a forward direction, our arms, hands, and fingers can hold, carry, throw, catch, pull, push, press, twist, hit, point, tweak, rub, caress, clap, and make a great many other finely-adjusted movements and gestures in accomplishing the myriad tasks we assign ourselves to do every day.

Think of the physical discipline required of ballet dancers, baseball players, musicians, mechanics, assemblers, crafters, artists, chefs, carpenters, jewelers, surgeons, and all who work with trained arms, hands, and fingers. Now think of the thousands of hours of practice, rehearsal, and refinement they put into acquiring the skills they need to create the civilized world we take so for-granted as if being born to it meant it has existed forever just as it is.

No, the world we live in today is largely made and maintained by human hands. Hands consisting of bones, joints, muscles, and tendons all directed and coordinated by human minds that intentionally will them to perform as they do. Here is the crux of our loops of engagement, the behaviors we exhibit as appropriate to the situations we get ourselves into.

This is the leading edge of our intent to get through the day and survive. Every perception, judgment, and action leads to this, our daily performance. Our engagement with life itself by which we prove ourselves worthy.

Just having that thought gives me a jab to the chest, leaving me breathless. It’s that simple? The commotions and alarms, the furor, the folly, the turmoil—all come down to this? Our painstaking engagement in doing whatever it is that we do?

Me, sitting at my computer, leaning back in my chair, staring at my winking cursor at the end of this very sentence? This is what it is all about? The point of my life? Me, sitting here, fingers poised over my keyboard, deciding what to write down whatever it is my happiness dictates?

Yes, in my case, this is precisely the point. I have shut everything else from my mind. My life experience leads to this moment of wonderful tension. What now? After eighty-two years, what do I do in this exact instant?

Picture a life made of millions of such instants. Cumulatively preparing for, adding to, and shaping this particular one. The evidence of my survival for those millions of instants tells me I must be doing something right. As a wayfarer, I have made and followed a course for myself that leads here.

The challenge I take from this instant is to decide how I am to guide my arms, hands, and fingers to type what it is I have to say. Not want to say, but have to say because my entire life is balanced just here at this point in time when I am about to change the configuration of the world with my next stroke of a key. Spiritual guidance is what it takes, in the form of a metaphorical helmsman at the inner wheel of myself.

These thoughts may give you a sense of the urgency that drives me to engage in this task I have assigned to myself by living the life I have lived. To get down on paper my thoughts about how my mind works. The only mind I have access to, which I can only take as a fair example of minds somewhat similar to those of my family and friends.

The recent deaths of my two brothers, both elder and younger, leave me as the last man standing—the last wayfarer—of the generation born to our father and mother, who, too, were survivors as proof they must have taken the right path, as their progenitors must have taken theirs, all the way back to beginning times.

You see how I have fleshed out the instant when I caught myself gazing at the cursor. One instant leads on to the next, and that to the next. Thought follows thought, action follows action, keystroke follows keystroke. The necessary order of my life appears before me, more discovered than planned.

I put myself at the leading edge of my existence, and that edge cuts decisively ahead into the unknown and unpredictable. I barely know what I am thinking and writing. What I do know is that I have to be true to the sense that emerges within me when I put myself in this place.

What I am trying to do is trust the life force that is driving me ahead right now. To listen to that force and write down what it dictates. Except it doesn’t dictate, it passes the burden to my fingers and tells them to get busy and write what they want. Which turns out to be the words you are reading as they flow from the situation my mind is facing just now.

My life force is engaging your life force one-on-one. My mind is speaking to your mind. There’s only the two of us together in this instant. Engaging in our own way. Being wholly ourselves. Separate as individuals in different black boxes, but equal one to the other as joined in common endeavor. Trying to understand what is going on in our respective minds. Caught up in that challenge. Giving our utmost to that cause.

 

Wayfarers all, what are we but course correctors, ever vigilant to steer ourselves clear of reefs all around? To find our way through the uncharted seas ahead?

I view emotions as signaling the relative success (positive or negative, good or bad) of our engagements in furthering the journeys we are making for ourselves. Positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and a general well-being confirm our progress, while disorders of engagement as marked by frustration, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and loneliness signal that we are lost to ourselves.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in making our rounds of engagement. We are fearful of or angry at those who thwart or interrupt us, and smile upon those who cooperate and help us on our way.

Darwin pointed to this duality of emotions at the core of our being:

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they lead to this end; as happiness is an essential part of the general good and the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1974], page 699, my italics).

Better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad—so do we wend our way every day of our lives as guided by a compass of emotion that tells us whether we are on course or not toward the great end of happiness. Darwin wrote of the greatest-happiness principle as a moral force in the context of moral instincts and behavior, but I think the principle applies to our every engagement, with our innermost selves—the intelligence situated at the core of our being—as the judge of our relative failure or success.

What I am saying in this series of posts is that we steer our way through our life’s engagements by a compass that gauges the duality of our happiness and success on an emotional scale. And further, that the space between the poles of that duality is precisely what we are conscious of as we go along.

Nowhere is that duality more evident than in our dreams, which highlight our yearnings as regarded from a perspective of helpless inactivity imposed by sleep during which we cannot connect our intentions to our actions by any means. In that sense, dreams narrate the drama of our good intentions—and inevitable failure to go where we wish to go and do what we wish to do.

Here is the verbatim report of a dream I had on December 4, 2013, that reflects the state of my mind when my loops of engagement were stymied time after time, yet I remained at the helm with my raw feelings exposed. A wayfarer without navigation skills, I couldn’t engage in a meaningful way with the situation I found myself in, so things inevitably went from bad to worse.

I am hired to operate a big electronic machine. I have two assistants to work with me, but no one has explained how the machine works, so I feel strong pressure to explain it to my helpers, but I can’t live up to that responsibility. I have the machine moved outside to be where other machines are. I wait for instructions, which don’t come. To get back in the building, we all must climb up the forty-five-degree slope of the loading dock made of slippery metal. The climb is arduous. After climbing the ramp twice and slipping back, I say I won’t do it again, so am shown an alternate route up the back wall of a dark room where my superiors are meeting around a table. I hear my name mentioned as I scale the back wall to reach a narrow (horizontal) cupboard door at ceiling level that I must crawl through. It leads to a kitchen shelf in an adjoining room where two men are preparing food. I apologize for getting in their way, but imagine the meeting’s view of my legs sticking out of the narrow opening as I barely squeeze through it. I have a strong sense of the direction I must take to get back to work along a metal-lined walkway up a steep slope and along slippery rocks. I wear boots and keep slipping back, making no headway. I wake up while slipping back once again.

To me, that is a clear portrait of a mind that is driven to act, but can’t act effectively because it can’t engage in a meaningful exchange with significant features of its surroundings. That mind is my dream mind, pursuing happiness, but being thwarted at every turn because I have no means of enacting my intentions.

It is precisely the feel or texture of such thwarted adventures that fuels the bulk of my dreams. There is no on-the-spot revision or change of course, no learning from experience. Each such dream situation depicts a series of errors without correction. My dreams are one-dimensional, relentlessly rushing on from situation to situation without any course adjustments whatever.

I find myself navigating without judgment—because as helmsman, I can’t turn the wheel, or it is broken. It is always a relief to wake up and return to my senses, to effectively engage my world once again by getting up, washing my face, and performing such a simple task as making breakfast. That, I discover again and again, is a source of true happiness in being both conscious and in control of my destiny.

 

I see comparison as the common feature of a great many of our mental operations. In fact, it looms in my mind as the essential function of the brain in leading to consciousness.

It is not any particular signal that matters so much as the difference between signals in adjacent or linked cortical columns that sparks and maintains both attention and consciousness, particularly as a comparison between present and former perceptual events. I think of such mental comparisons as producing a delta (Δ, δ) signal in proportion to the Difference, Discrepancy, Disparity, or Displacement between corresponding signals originating in different but closely related regions of the brain

I call these virtual signals because they can only be appreciated from a vantage point that looks upon the relative discrepancy as being meaningful in itself.

Such delta signals are the determining feature of three aspects of consciousness I have already mentioned: binocular vision, binaural hearing, and motion detection in semicircular canals on opposite sides of the head.

I have also provided the image of the helmsman (read helmswoman) at his/her wheel gauging the delta signal representing the discrepancy between the desired and actual heading of the vessel as told by its compass, leading to his/her compensating for that difference by turning the wheel an equal degree in the opposite direction. So do we correct our wayfaring courses every day of our lives.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin himself depicts humans as possessing a moral compass: “A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives—of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.”

In that quote, Darwin holds the key to consciousness in his hand, but never quite inserts it into the lock, so diverting his readers to moral considerations rather than to the human mind as a whole. He continues:

I have endeavored to show that the moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and, thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals.

From my perspective, what he calls “the high activity of his mental faculties” is not merely a factor but is the essence of consciousness itself resulting from comparative judgments of past and present states of awareness. Darwin continues:

Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backward and forward and comparing past impressions. Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future—and this is conscience (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1874], page 698, my italics).

Moral considerations aside, Darwin had stumbled his way to the gateway of consciousness, but was distracted by the moral preoccupation of his Victorian days from actually discovering the true nature of the mind. Just as we helmspersons seek guidance from inner compasses, so do we learn by trial and error, adjusting our behavior to compensate for the many ways we mislead ourselves time and again.

I have frequently said that my true education has been based not on remembering what I have been taught but by going off as led by my own lights, getting lost in the Slough of Despond, then, wiser for my slogging, fighting my way back.

This is the essence of empiricism, learning the lessons, not of ideals or of theory, but of concrete sensory experience.

Which is precisely what our minds provide us via our loops of experiential engagement. Namely, our displacement as the result of a specific course of action by which we discover where our effort has taken us. We don’t look out on the world so much as on what’s right or wrong with the world, to which we direct our attention.

We are all learners by doing. If we don’t make the initial effort, we are stuck exactly where we were before, with no sense of how to correct ourselves. Mind is our means of making successive approximations in approaching the goals we hope to achieve.

If we make a foray, at least we learn whether or not that is the way we want to go. Standing still doing nothing, our learning, as always, is in direct proportion to our effort.

Following perception, the next stage of our mental engagement is to put the resulting understanding in the context of our current situation so that a judgment of its meaning or place in our scheme of things prepares us to frame an appropriate response.

The agent performing that judgment in the presence of affect or emotion is what I call the self or situated intelligence at the core of the mind where it serves as mediator between perception and action. The self is the intelligent agent having access to memory, perception, understanding, emotion, and biological values, together with the life force as the metabolic fuel driving us to act on our own behalf in a particular situation.

How the self resolves the various motivations feeding into it by comparing, weighing, and judging their influence is what we call free will.  It is “free” in the sense that each person judges the relative importance of the various motivating forces in the light of her personal experience, the residuum of her having lived this far in her life and earned the right (if not the obligation) to be the person she is.

Free will is nothing else than the gift of learning through experience that evolution equips us with as we face into the situations we encounter, and decide how to respond in light of the teachings of our personal life story.

There is no blanket formula for survival we can all call upon such as insects’ reliance on a small set of pre-programmed instincts; we are under our own recognizance, and have the privilege to decide for ourselves what to do, including calling on the judgment of others when we need their help.

What we call belief is a conceptual summation of the internal forces of motivation which drive us to construe a given situation one way or another. The irony of the situated self is that living within the confines of its particular intelligence in its figurative black box as uniquely suspended between input and output (perception and action), as each of us does, our primary motivators together make up the situation that we occupy at any particular time, so that our operative reality, experienced uniquely by each of us, is a matter of subjective belief.

That is, we construct the situations we find ourselves in from the inherent mental forces that motivate us at the time, and those forces—memory, understanding, imagination, thought, values, emotions, energy level, among many others—are weighed against one another in forming a judgment upon how best to resolve the tension between perception and action in a manner appropriate to that subjective situation.

The world we claim to live in is a high-level abstraction, a concoction of our unique intelligence in its internally-structured situation.

Our subjective reality results from the categorization (interpretation) of impressions as projected upon the energy field that surrounds us, and as such, is subject to a construct or construal for which each of us is wholly responsible.

The world lives in us as much as we live in the world. And that world is largely a matter of subjective, affect-driven belief, not demonstrable fact.