I have covered a lot of ground in getting this far with my blog telling the inside story of consciousness. I here offer an opportunity to see that journey not as a sequence of hesitant steps, but as an adventure entire in itself. Here are a few bulleted reminders of the stages I have passed through.

  • Consciousness is a collaborative effort between mind, body, and world. It intercedes between perception and action, and can be bypassed by reflex thinking, rote learning, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and ideology.
  • Solving the world puzzle from the perspective provided by our minds is a matter of conjecture based on personal experience, not knowledge, not truth.
  • Perception provides not a glimpse of the world so much as a heightened impression of the world from a particular wayfarer’s point of view.
  • Like Plato, we all share in the common failing of mistaking our personal solution to the world puzzle for the way the world really is. Our beliefs are custom-made for true believers (that is, ourselves, who couldn’t be more earnest).
  • The more ardently we hold our beliefs, the more likely we are to be wrong.
  • Expectancy and recognition reveal the participation of memory in perception.

No matter how finely we resolve the tissues of the brain, consciousness will elude us because it is an ongoing process of engagement between our minds, actions, and the world.

  • Attention is the gateway to consciousness. It is aroused by a delta signal stemming from a sense of discrepancy between what we expect or hope for and what actually happens.
  • From the outset, all awareness is polarized as being either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, satisfying or dissatisfying, right or wrong, true or false.
  • It takes persistence and concentration to explore the forbidden middle ground between the two poles of awareness.
  • The engagements that link us to our worlds couple perception to meaningful judgment to fitting action on one or more levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which in turn affects our attention and stimulates sensory perception.
  • Our engagements are told by the situations they create in our minds as made up of various dimensions of intelligence such as memory, sensory impressions, understanding, feelings, motivations, biological values, humor, imagination, temperament, interest, thought, and available energy (what I refer to as the life force).
  • Language in the form of speech, writing, thought, and comprehension flows from the situations we find ourselves in when we experience the urge to speak or to listen.

As a writer, I have long wondered where words come from. I now feel that our situated intelligence shapes our current situation from the dimensions of personal awareness (or intelligence) aroused in a given moment of experience. In being conscious, it is just those situations that we become conscious of, and subsequently respond to.

  • All life engages its surroundings in an ongoing exchange of matter and energy. It is the job of our minds to monitor how that exchange is going, and to feed-forward to judgment a selection of options for how we might respond. For good or ill—and engagements can strike us either way—we must engage in order to find our place in the world.
  • We are linked and anchored to our worlds by a spectrum of ongoing (often simultaneous) engagements. It is essential for us to keep up with what is happening around us. Hence we live in a world of media all striving to influence and inform us from their respective points of view.
  • Time is a calibrated sense of change that is not of our doing; space is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our own actions. Spacetime is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our simultaneously doing and perceiving at once.
  • Ownership and possessiveness are attitudes toward persons and objects with which we meaningfully engage in being fully ourselves. Money is a tool we use to engage on cultural terms. The law is our culture’s effort to regulate the conduct of our engagements so that each of us enjoys equal freedom and opportunity in pursuit of our personal goals.
  • Freedom is an opportunity to engage the world with full respect for the integrity of each of its inhabitants, whether plant, animal, or human.
  • Baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars provide examples of aspects of the world puzzle we are apt to engage with in our search for personal happiness. There is no limit to the importance we project onto such personal engagements as primary shapers of our lives.

I view my personal consciousness as culminating in the image of a wayfarer finding his way among others who are making their own ways for themselves. Our respective journeys are so varied and personal, I identify with each wayfarer in taking on the challenge of finding a way forward from wherever she or he is at any given stage of life.

The task each one of us faces is solving the world puzzle in a meaningful way for ourselves, while respecting other solutions for other wayfarers on journeys of their own.

If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only tool is a gun, every stranger looks like an enemy. If your only tool is faith, every cause looks like God.

These are the wages of consciousness. What we’re seeing is not the real world but the world puzzle as we solve it day-by-day with the primary tool available inside our black boxes, our fallible human mind.

We do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed under the conditions that prevail at the time.

The problem being that once we’ve solved the world problem, we consider it solved for all time. That is, we elevate our personal convictions to the realm of knowledge describing the world as it truly is.

But an idea in the mind is a glimmer that shines in our eyes like a beacon of truth. Actually, it’s a guess or hypothesis that seemed like a good idea at the time. If it’s truth we’re after, not just operative truth, then follow-through and reconsideration are all important. Our primary tool of mind is more like trial and error or successive approximation than sudden revelation.

And from the vantage point inside our black boxes, that is a hard lesson to learn. We make a benefit of any doubt that we have so that, as it turns out, no White jury will ever convict a White police officer of needlessly killing a Black man.

Scientists speak of the brain as an information processor that operates by computations based on data, as if the brain were actually the precision machine they want it to turn out to be. But that is just their way of casting their beliefs ahead of them, so guiding their search for understanding from behind the shelter of their living convictions instead of what may lie before them in the shadow of their uncertainty.

All of what I have written so far in this post says far more about how the mind works than how we want it to work. Whenever a new metaphor for a wondrous machine become available, it becomes the rage of the hour for explaining how consciousness works as a function of an orderly brain. People earnestly propose the mind in terms of clockworks, quantum theory, holograms, or the staid conventions of the scientific method—in every case mistaking the tool at hand for the solution they seek.

My approach is different. I start with my mind as it presents itself to me, and take its folly seriously enough to wonder why it should work in that way. My only method is to pay attention to everything my mind does. Incidents of mistaken belief pile up; questions accrue, my answer file stays empty. My own mind remains a mystery. Which I keep poking and probing with everyday incidents of lived experience.

I don’t play the games of peer review or publish-or-perish. Truth is, I am going to perish anyway, no matter what I come up with. Rather, I take my time, waiting on my mind to reveal itself to me in new ways. Which, when my files are stuffed, it does, offering a response to the whole of my uncertainty all at once, not one bit at a time.

So here I sit at my computer while trying to clear the walk of ice and snow, cook breakfast, and work on my blog simultaneously—because my mind is working on three problems at once. I am only its recording secretary, so I do the best I can to keep up with it. Oops, the egg is getting overdone. . . .

Back and forth I run between walkway, kitchen, bedroom (where my computer happens to be), on a roll because my mind won’t let me alone after I awoke well-rested and ready to do what I’m told.

I’ve been living with my mind for eighty-two years, and respectfully scrutinizing it for the last thirty-seven, so I’m starting to get clear on a number of issues all at once. I wouldn’t say it’s an additive process so much as an all-hands-on-deck process that shares what’s going on with all concerned.

My first method was to keep notes on a yellow pad with pen or pencil. But as soon as I wrote something, I’d want to change it with an insertion or correction, so very quickly I became unable to read my snarled notes. What to do? I turned to a typewriter, which I thought would be neater. But the urge to make changes persisted, so I wrote one draft of a paragraph after another, and page-by-page, my neat record of my thought became gibberish.

The word-processor on my computer helped me produce cleaner copy because I could cut and paste-over what I had written. Then I thought of having a small, selected audience of true believers to keep me on my writing toes, so started a blog—this very one on WordPress in 2008, Consciousness: The Inside Story. That effort led to two self-published books meant to summarize what I’d written so far, and a couple of Acadia Senior College classes based on those books.

But my thinking on trying to understand my own mind was always a work in progress, so as soon as I reached another stage, I’d want to change and expand it. Last year I wrote down my thoughts on consciousness in an article one-hundred-and-forty pages long, which I set up a new Website to host. But seeing my summary on the Web, I saw it was still gibberish, so went black to blogging the material contained in that piece in small chunks.

And that is where I am today. The challenge will never end. I will die a work-in-progress. Thinking about consciousness, or my consciousness thinking about me, either way, I’ll never reach a tidy conclusion. Too many problems; too many suggested answers.

Consciousness is what it is, different in each instance, and I’ll never get it down on paper or in digital form.

Consciousness is a way of life for each one of us. I’ll never get to the bottom of it because its bottom is leaky and runs into everything else. But I will never wallow in that psychic slough of despond. At least I’ve made it this far, and have learned a good deal, if not all there is to know.

I’ve been thinking of retiring from this long search and enjoying what time I have left on the coast of Maine, which for me is the center of my little universe. I’m almost to the end of the discussion and conclusion sections of this blog. When those last posts are done, I don’t think I’ll turn around and go over the same material in yet a new way. Enough, already.

But the issues I raised at the start of this post on the wages of consciousness still weigh on my mind. To kill in the name of racial or religious belief is a heinous crime. Conscious conviction plays a central role in every such death. To kill for an idea in the mind is absurd, no matter how lofty, beautifully crafted, or convincing.

So there’s still a mountain of work for humans to do in not only understanding, but civilizing their own minds. I’d like to think I could become part of the solution, and I suspect that such thoughts will occupy me as I take my ease in the land of my dreams here on Earth—even as the North Atlantic rises ever higher against this section of coast.

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.

 

The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

What Sumerian priests discovered 5,400 years ago was synchrony between goings-on in the night sky and human labors on Earth below—on both daily and yearly scales of events.

What they didn’t discover was the cause of that dual synchrony in the daily rotation of Earth on its axis, together with its annual and seasonal journey around the sun, with the planes of those two motions tilted at an angle of twenty-three-and-a-half degrees one to the other.

Instead, the stars and planets themselves were credited with their own self-propulsive powers as inherent in the cosmic order fulfilled nightly overhead.

How marvelous that daily and yearly procession must have seemed. It was truly a revelation. A grasping of the stunning difference between chaos and cosmos, disorder and order. What a powerful idea! That a system with so many moving parts was ruled by the gratifying harmony of motion that joined Earth, planets, sun, moon, and stars in unison together as one idea or system of ideas. Not for a day, a season, a year, but—as evidence and wonder accrued from generation to generation—seemingly forever.

If we put ourselves in that era of grand discovery, the temple priests who formulated that formative cosmology were clearly on the leading edge of their personal experience, and the collective experience of their people.

Their grand vision of cosmic harmony (as of 3,200 BCE), combined with belief that the power of self-motion was shared by stars, planets, and humans as indubitable proof of the motive power of the living soul (because only living beings could move of their own will)—that coupling of ideas was the intellectual achievement of their time in expressing their early grasp of cosmology in the intuitive concept that bound human understanding and labor to the very force that drove the universe.

It was apparently the Sumerians who saw that each point of light in the sky reflected the overall scheme of a world (or cosmic) soul as the driving force behind the evidence they beheld with their own eyes.

Do stars have meaning for humans? Indeed, as profound as meaning can be. Practical meaning. Cultural meaning. Historic meaning. Religious meaning. Aesthetic meaning. Ideal meaning. Survival meaning. All taken together surely amounting to the truth. Or at least an approximation of the truth. A truth that would stand until a more durable one came along. A truth in the fallible human mind. Which, no matter how many people believe it, is where all concepts-ideas-thoughts-truths reside.

The fragility of this particular truth was compounded in coming generations by the combined musings of Plato, Aristotle, and both their Neoplatonist and Christian heirs early in the new millennium—unto Thomas Aquinas and the builders of Mediaeval cathedrals who expressed this singular truth in stone and stained glass—in idealizing and personifying the idea that drives the universe as the principle of absolute reason, goodness, and harmony at the core of a universe such as they chose to believe in.

 

When as adults we put child’s play behind us, we continue to live a life of illusions in a world of illusions. We run every trick by our attorney and public relations office before we commit ourselves to a course of public behavior. If we don’t have an attorney or PR team, we all do have internal censors and dressers that provide the same services.

How many hours do we put in dressing and grooming our wild selves before making a public appearance? Illusionists all, we thrive by editing our minds and performances so others will see us as we want them to, not as we are. And we expect others to do the same in joining us in creating a so-called civilized society we can agree on beforehand.

That is a different kind of “play” entirely. Think of Bernie Madoff gulling his friends into investing their life savings with him. Think of financial institutions bundling worthless debts as attractive investments, and insuring themselves against loss whether their offerings are worthless or sound. Think of groomed politicians posing in their neckties and suits before an American flag and wall of books, all wearing lapel pins as miniature bumper-stickers their constituents would approve of.

Even on the highest level—especially on the highest level—what you see is sure to be an illusion meant to deceive you. You can’t tell the difference between a TV serial and real life. Rampant deception is the name of this game of conning the public to believe true is false and back is white.

Judging by the headlines, there’s a lot of it around these days, making it seem the national and global pastime. The state secrets that Edward Snowden revealed add weight to that view. The discrepancy between public and private postures was too much for him. In the right situations, our sensitivity to conflicting signals in our minds makes each of us a potential whistle-blower.

Which is exactly the sort of engagement I am talking about in this blog—the linking of perception to action for the sake of mental clarity and effectiveness, not deception. On an individual scale, each of us supervising her own mental processes so that what friends, family, and colleagues see is what they get.

No one can do that work for us. It is we who have the responsibility of learning from our own mistakes on the basis of our personal judgments of right or wrong. True or false. Good or bad. Win or lose. We receive the gift of mind at birth, but, sadly, not the instructions telling us how to use it. That we have to pick up on our own as we go.

As illusionists, every time we learn a new trick, we have to maintain our reputation by going ourselves one better the next time. Life becomes a massive Ponzi scheme, and we become slaves of our own illusions, which is the worst kind of addiction. The only way out is to break the cycle of engagements we undertake to maintain the phony self-image.

That is called learning from experience. Our salvation depends upon it. Not fooling ourselves. Being simply who we are, not who we pretend to be. We can recognize our true friends by whether they support us in making that effort or not.

As unique individuals, each of us might be the only one who appreciates the difference we strive to make by acting in the world as we do. At the same time, we often underestimate the damage we do by undertaking those same actions. We are change agents by nature. And hugely successful. But not as we might intend.

I own a two-volume report of an international symposium sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, held in Princeton during June, 1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1193 pages in 2 volumes, © 1956 by the University of Chicago.) Edited by William L. Thomas Jr., the report details the impact that humans have had on the habitats we have occupied since antiquity, and changed forever after, almost always for the worse.

The report makes fascinating but extremely hard reading. Not hard because of any density or specialized jargon; hard because of its crystal-clear message, which we disregard at our peril. As our numbers increase, our collective wayfaring is inevitably wounding the planet that supports us, impairing its habitability for not only ourselves but for many of the species that share our space with us. Global Warming, also our doing, particularly through our power generation and motorized travels and transport, is but our latest assault on the hospitable planet that supports our every activity.

In his summary remarks on “Prospect” at the end of the report, Lewis Mumford, one of three main contributors to the structure of the symposium, includes these words of caution derived from the decline of Rome:

In the third century A.D. an objective observer might well have predicted, on the basis of the imperial public works program, an increase in the number of baths, gladiatorial arenas, garrison towns, and aqueducts. But he would have had no anticipation of the real future, which was the product of a deep subjective rejection of the whole classic way of life and so moved not merely away from it but in the opposite direction. Within three centuries the frontier garrisons were withdrawn, the Roman baths were closed, and some of the great Roman buildings were either being used as Christian churches or treated as quarries for building new structures. Can anyone who remembers this historic transformation believe that the rate of scientific and technological change must accelerate indefinitely or that this technological civilization will inevitably remain dominant and will absorb all the energies of life for its own narrow purposes—profit and power? (Volume 2, pages 1142-1143.)

Our individual actions—our wayfaring journeys—it seems, have massive collective consequences. Not only those we purposefully strive for, but also the cumulative impact of our species on the blue planet that hosts us in the vastness of space.

We don’t mean any harm, but deadly harm we surely inflict.

Now that polar ice sheets are melting, the race is on to claim the fish and resources that our carelessness is opening unto us in the Arctic. Never mind the polar bears. We are out to consume the flesh of our planet, not realizing our own folly. How cruel, how thoughtless, how ironic is that? We plead innocent, but stand guilty—each one of us—nonetheless.

No, this is not the point of my story about our active engagement with our surroundings. But it is a pointed digression to suggest that minds which evolved to survive in a Paleolithic world may not be suited to a world we have largely modified for our own comfort. Can we further evolve in time to save ourselves and our world, or are we destined to thwart our own intentions—as I so often do in my dreams?

Perhaps we can stage a recall of our advanced model of humans and have chips inserted in our brains that will program us to recognize when we have done more damage than Earth can bear. I merely wish to point out that, as currently equipped, we have outrun our warrantee and are doomed for the scrapyard, proving our mortality yet again (as if more proof were needed).

As I have written, we act to make a difference in the world and, indeed, we are proving successful beyond our wildest dreams, but not in the ways we intended.

We took a wrong turn getting out of the Neolithic, inventing roads and engines and cities and weapons, which led to assembly lines, cars, atom bombs, and the fix we are now in. We would have done better striding on the legs we were born with instead of lounging in luxury motorcars. But that’s a far less-likely ending to our story.

 

377. The World Inside-Out

December 8, 2014

In our heart of hearts, we dwell at the center of our respective little worlds. The same worlds we have painstakingly built for ourselves over the years. The worlds we wholly believe in because we live in a black box that would never lie to us. Or allow us to lie to ourselves. We have only the facts of our little life to go on, along with our little beliefs, our little experience, and our little openness to the world.

I carry on like this because I’m trying to point out that, for everyday purposes, our minds are poorly equipped to deal with delicate shades and subtleties. Our sensory systems substitute boldness for accuracy. Not better to see what is out there on the far side of our senses, but more to impose our grasp of such a world as conforms to our inner remembrance and belief—the doctrine by which we live.

Because we reach out of our black boxes with expectations driven by personal memory, we perceive the world inside-out, not outside-in.

That is, our engagements are more apt to be driven by what we already know than by questions, doubts, or uncertainties. Stuck in our ways, beliefs, and extreme convictions, we seem to be parodies of any thoughtful, curious, rational beings we might imagine. We are stuck in ways we have learned in the past, busily imposing that past on the present and future.

Our credentials stem from the fact that we have survived to this point, so must be doing something right. Let’s get this rig moving full-throttle ahead, back to the future, indeed.

That sketch of our minds is bothersome because so counter-intuitive. Is that the best we can do? Will our demise as the result of sectarian strife in a warming world be the monumental achievement we have been working toward all this time?

Not necessarily. We have other options. The obvious one is to become better acquainted with our minds in their respective black boxes so that our actions are governed by a truer understanding of how we bend the world to our will, with ever more dire consequences.

If we can trace our self-destructive behavior to our unwittingly self-centered attitude toward others and the world, then we may gradually come to see that same world as the source of all benefit on every level of our existence. Caring first for the natural, biological world that provides for us, and from which we derive our well-being, then we may find better ways to care for ourselves than taking what we want and running to get away with it.

Once we assume responsibility for the state of our sheltered minds, we discover the errors of our ways, not those of the world.