Nothing matters. Everything matters. Both statements are true to equal degree. Clearly, our job as individuals is to pick and choose the engagements that are most meaningful to us. Which puts us in an awkward position because those around us want us to engage in ways that are most meaningful to themselves. 

It is the nature of mindfarers to occupy public spaces where such conflicts are out in the open. The only thing we can do is pay attention to the forces acting on all of us and select the issues we as individuals find most personally meaningful, letting go of the others to be dealt with by those who choose to do so.

We each serve as helmsman of our own ship, correcting our course as we go. The choosing of a course is why we are here, how our ancestors got us to this point by navigating under their own stars. We owe it to them to do the same under the stars that shine most clearly for us.

As to the relation between mind and brain: consciousness is not contained in either our brains or minds but in our engagements as they couple perception to meaningful judgment and on to purposeful action in nature, culture, community, and family. Our minds do not fit neatly into our brains but extend to include our sensory and behavioral engagements as well.

You might expect an octogenarian to issue generalities of that magnitude. But as a unique individual, I am at the core of my own generalities. I am speaking for myself, trying to use fitting, encompassing words to do so.

However you take my words, your unique person is at the core of those same words as they speak to you as you know yourself. I read them my way; you read them your way. The main thing is to maintain our intelligent judgement as we consider our own minds.

Those in the truth-seeking professions—philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, theology, forensics, and law, for example—already know this. Each person is primarily out for himself, and can justify whatever act she commits in the name of private (not public) service.

To simply act on our beliefs is not good enough. We must catch ourselves sharpening, emphasizing, distorting those beliefs for personal advantage. Throughout this blog, I have drawn attention to the self-serving nature of our mental processes. In rounds of self-reflection, it is essential to keep a neutral perspective.

Robert Bly advises us to follow our bliss. Thoreau says to follow our dreams and imagination. I say we should engage as we must the situations we get into as the ones having most to teach us, while remaining somewhat remote as if we were truly impartial, not agents of our own beliefs and opinions. It is that critical faculty that is essential to self-reflection. Without it, we become little more than lobbyists or apologists for our subjective beliefs.

As children we do as we are told because our parents are not only bigger and stronger, but also likely to be wiser than we are. We have neither the strength nor the wit to resist. But as adults, to do as we are told binds us to the will of others who have not lived our lives or thought our thoughts, so are addressing their own motives from their own perspectives, not ours.

Too, those others are likely to be dealing with situations different from those we face at the time. The problems we work on are best answered in the context of our unique repertory of personal options.

To ask what Jesus (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mohammad, et al.) would do assumes that we understand the situation he was in when he did what he did, and that that situation is the same as the one we are facing today. Which, given the vagaries of time and place, is a highly questionable assumption.

We learn most from situations we analyze and address as our own. When we make mistakes, as we surely will, they are our personal mistakes, leading to our personal learning. The essential thing is to engage our inner selves without subterfuge.

492. We Engage or We Die

April 24, 2015

My claim in this series of posts is that consciousness is not fully contained within the brain, but is a distributive property achieved by an organism’s collaborative engagement with its planetary environment.

Take the brain out of its normal range of ambient stimulation, as in solitary confinement or other forms of sensory deprivation, and consciousness suffers a morbid decline. In a depleted environment, consciousness develops to a lesser degree.

Those who survive in depleted sensory environments learn to engage with ants and spiders crawling in the corners, or to fall back on the store of memories they bring with them, building upon them by planning what they will do when they get out.

An Sang Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, suffered fifteen years of reduced engagement under house arrest; Nelson Mandela survived twenty-seven years of confinement in three different prisons, actively pounding rock into gravel during the day, later playing football, gardening, reading, studying for his law degree.

No matter what conditions we live under, we find ways to engage—or we die. The other night I was falling asleep and became aware I could not lift my head or move my body. Yet my mind was dimly active. I distinctly remember my last, fading thought, “Friends, I feel I am slipping away,” that is, dying. That’s what death is: a state of non-engagement, forever. Not just unconsciousness, but utter oblivion.

Engagement brings us to life. It is precisely what it means to be alive. To be both perceptive and active, with judgment thrown in between them, if we’re lucky.

We engage to build models of our situations in the outside world by analyzing the patterns of ambient stimulation delivered by our sensory receptors. That is, by finding meaning in those patterns, gauging our options, then judging which option is best as a guide to making an appropriate response.

The problem being that the inner realms our minds create on the inside are never accurate models of the world we inhabit on the outside. Our attention is highly selective, so we can only take in ambient patterns in fragmentary form. Our inner models are made of bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, not replicas of the world.

So we do a lot of guessing, estimating, and interpolating in trying to piece together the world puzzle, the big picture of what’s going on that is likely to affect us. Our sensory abilities may be amazing, but the world is always more complex than we can imagine. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of continuous engagement or we’ll never keep up.

As babies, we are in way over our heads, so require nurturing care from others on a twenty-four-seven basis. That is called parenthood. But if our significant others stick with us, our situation gradually improves, and eventually we learn to stand on our own by backing our engagements with commitment, concentration, and dedicated campaigns of perception-judgment-action for ourselves. We stumble around a lot at first, but slowly straighten up and set our sights on far horizons.

Life is a matter of matching our inner possibilities to the possibilities offered by the world. Consciousness, together with loops of engagement, are our most basic tools for accomplishing that feat. All of which is made possible jointly by our minds, brains, and worlds working together.

That is my crucial point in this blog. We can’t do it by ourselves—survive, that is. Our success is a collaborative effort between mind, brain, and planet. It takes a planet to evolve a brain, and a brain to evolve a mind. In the brief window of life available to us, we are beneficiaries of all three. If, that is, they truly engage in mutual interaction from one moment to the next, one situation to the next. Encouraging us to evolve throughout our lives, infant to senior, getting better day-by-day at whatever it is we are doing with our fleeting gift of life.

As I pointed out in the dissertation quotes I bulleted in post 488, “I Am Not Making This Up,” the nuts and bolts of engagement are made possible by the workings of the limbic system as a finely-tuned comparison between perception and memory, between the present state of the hippocampus as compared to a coded remnant of earlier experience. That comparison is at the heart of our loops of engagement.

If that comparison between present and past results in a disparity, then consciousness springs into action to get a more detailed picture of the situation through further exploration. That’s what trial and error is all about, figuring out a way to get a better fix on what’s going on in order to make a better, more appropriate response. All solutions are pending, not certain.

That’s what learning and education and experience are all about. Our growth and survival depend on doing better under highly variable conditions. There’s no way ahead but to take the plunge, make a mistake, and try again. And again. And again.

I’ve got one more post to go before ending this discussion. Then it’s on to my final conclusions, and wrapping up this blog as a whole.

Engagement is not a trade-off, a simple alternation of give-and-take. It is founded on paying attention to input and output simultaneously, all (or much of) the time, so there is no major gap between them, no lull in attention to both self and world.

When we get on a roll, that’s what happens. We are in the moment totally, not separating input from output but seeing both as integral parts of the same state of mind. We are with it, whatever it is. We are mindfarers so fully engaged with our surroundings that we become an integral part of the scene wherever we are.

As mindfarers, we want our companions to win along with us, not go down in defeat. Each needs to win in her own way. If Israelis and Palestinians fight until only one is left standing, they both lose. Neither side can sacrifice its integrity to the other.

Mindfaring (finding our inner way) is a matter of coordinating our lives with our surroundings, as in dancing, as in music, as in a good marriage, as in sports governed by rules. It is being both with ourselves and with the other, not in spite of.

It is a matter of being together with someone or something else. Of being yourself in a scene or setting that is wholly itself at the same time, so your engagement is mutual, both on an equal footing. Each plays her part, not going off on his own. It is an extension of a state of mind that embraces our partner in engagement, whether person, place, or thing.

Such engagements are fundamentally different states of mind than opposing, conflicting, fighting, defeating. There are times when you must run for your life, and times you must run toward your life or it might get away from you. Mindfaring is running toward, not away. It is seeking, not avoiding. Moving ahead, always ahead (seldom in a straight line). In company with respected companions. Along a path that leads to a natural culmination of the going itself.

Mindfaring is powered by the dimensions of intelligence (experience or consciousness) that make up the situation we are in at a particular point in our life engagements. Those dimensions are qualities that, taken collectively, give structure to a particular moment of awareness and experience.

Such dimensions reflect the balance between the affective roilings and turnings-over in our minds or, in neural terms, along the axis between the midbrain reticular formation and the prefrontal cortex via the limbic system (including amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and septal nuclei)—all in response to the signals derived from our ongoing engagement with our surroundings that spark our intelligence, judgment, and subsequent actions.

Here is a diagram from page 275 of my 1982 dissertation, Metaphor to Mythology, that illustrates neural pathways in the brain that support our engagements with the world.

Schematic of Loops in the Brain

Sensory pathways in the brain, sensory input on right, motor pathways on left, limbic system lower center, loops of engagement suggested by dotted lines.

In experiential terms, those affective roilings and turnings-over in our mental innards include arousal, memory, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, recognition, understanding, imagination, meaning, thought, feeling, emotion, biological and cultural values, humor, comparison, polarity, attitude, and judgment, all abetted by our goals, relationships, projects, selection of tools, skills, language skills, speech, gestures, and overt action, among other dimensions that come to the fore in specific situations.

How does this bear on the relationship between mind and brain? We are each born to our respective worlds of nature, culture, community, and family, all of which challenge and feed our minds on a daily basis, so we become part of them, and they part of us as a kind of reference system that, as we engage with it, defines our uniqueness in our particular time and place in our Earthly career.

Our brains process the endless stream of signals resulting from our engagements, but leave nature, culture, community, and family outside of ourselves where we can draw upon them as needed in particular situations.

The situations we find (or put) ourselves in are temporary configurations of the dimensions of our intelligence as affected by the roilings and turnings-over spurred by our ongoing engagements. They morph into subsequent situations as modified by the ever-changing flux of our experience.

We don’t lug all our memories around with us as an accumulating store of baggage, but develop neural networks capable of recognizing familiar patterns of traffic flowing through them. Our brains excel at pattern recognition, nesting ever-finer concepts together on a great many levels of discrimination. Our brains give us a capacity to recognize patterns as having been met before, not to store those patterns in finest detail.

That is, our brains are no bigger than they need to be to process the engagements we set up between our adventurous insides and ever-changing outsides. What is outside stays outside as a facet of nature, culture, community, and family. When we die, we die to them. They stay behind; we don’t take them with us.

The brain is not a filing cabinet or a closet full of old clothes. It is a director of traffic from perception to action via an experienced and intelligent self that serves as a situation evaluator in matching incoming sensory impressions to outgoing gestures, speech, and actions.

489. Word Cluster

April 21, 2015

Knowing yourself flows from engaging yourself. That is, from your situated intelligence monitoring the actions you take in the role of subjective doer in engagement at the same time with sensory impressions you form in the role of objective perceiver.

At the core of each mind is the situated intelligence that seeks understanding as a state of mind in particular situations encountered during engagement. The understanding sought is to be found by examining the situation in which questions arise.

Those situations themselves are qualities of mind produced by the accrual of experience, which has broadly served as the subject of this blog. Situated intelligence is our agent for knowing the world by reviewing the situations our external environments stir up in us, those situations constituting the inner reality we actively engage with, no matter what else is going on around us.

What a marvelous system it is that we are given at birth and learn to use by living the life that we do. If we but question ourselves, we can trace an answer to how we ourselves frame the question under influence of the experiential situations that spur our engagements and experiences.

Others at our sides will do the same task their own way. Since questions do not pose themselves, the source of all questions is the situated intelligence at the core of our being. The essence of knowing is found by appealing to the interest and curiosity of she who wants to know. Where else can we look but to our own situations as we construct them in our respective minds?

This blog is probably as close as I will ever come to solving the mystery posed by my own mind as viewed by myself. One of my chief learnings is just how few people are concerned with the issues I raise here, most, apparently believing that answers lie in the material world, not their own minds.

I find that the dictum “Know Thyself” is dead to the world in which I find myself alive. As a culture, we are fixated on the brain as the source of all knowing, not the mind that works in conjunction with its own brain during engagements with nature, culture, community, and family to produce the miracle of consciousness.

But consciousness is more than a miracle. It is humanity’s cumulative response to the myriad challenges we are born to. The many facets of mind are the answer to the questions that Earth poses, not the material answer, brain. We have to earn our minds by applying them to the problems we face in just getting through the day, every day.

My chief discovery in writing this blog is a growing awareness of the quality of mind that makes my engagements possible with others and with the world we share together, a quality I don’t really have a name for. Sympathy and empathy are too overburdened already.

The word I am looking for takes the form of a word cluster that, as yet, has no heading. The cluster includes striving, hope, intelligence, wonder, confidence, durability, fragility, respect, responsibility, worthiness, persistence, and trust. These words refer to the mental tools I apply to myself every day. Gather them together and they all fall under the heading . . . what? What is the common denominator that makes effective engagement even possible?

Whatever it turns out to be, that missing heading captures the set of conditions that collectively enables engagement by self with non-self, first-person with world. It is a kind of regard that embraces self and others as being equally worthy and responsible at the same time. It balances durability with fragility, hope with despair, planning with spontaneity.

It is within the aura of that cluster of words that productive engagements can take place, that perception can spur meaning, judgment can spur action, action can spur engagement and subsequent perception.

Does such a word exist as would serve to head that cluster of terms referring to mental conditions? If not, I will have to invent one that fits the need I am alluding to. A word that defines the social contract by which it is safe, desirable, exciting, and gratifying for me to engage you—and you to engage me—in such a way that we will both be changed for the better. As Venus and Serena Williams engage their tennis opponents and take the game itself to a higher level for the benefit of all concerned. As life-long learners turn all experience into a positive good. As contests and rivalries blossom into win-win situations.

I am putting a positive spin on the heading I want because the cluster commonly refers to conditions that favor productive engagement, not isolation, violence, cruelty, distain, disaffection, and all the qualities of disengagement. Engagement enhances the survival of both parties in mutual interaction. It is positive and life-sustaining, not negative and life-stealing-away.

Enmity belongs in the cluster that is opposite to the one I am seeking, as does hatred, as does anger, as does violence. I am searching for a term that includes aspects of Earth, other planets, the sun, the whole shebang. It’s the old problem of a universe that contains both good and evil, angels and devils, heaven and hell. If they are polar opposites, I am emphasizing the pole that favors life and creativity, not death and destruction. Not ruination. Like Ozymandias, we all overextend ourselves and die in the end.

I am looking for a heading that is the opposite of entropy and “the universal heat death.” A term that opens the way to possibilities yet unachieved, not possibilities foreclosed.

The essence of the word I want is that it refers to a process that is ongoing, that has a future, that leads to hope, not regret, not despair. Clearly, I am not talking about using others for my personal advancement. Or about imposing myself on others. Or making myself dependent on others.

I am looking more for a sense of balance between respective durabilities and fragilities, hopes and fears, worthiness and failings. Trust and intelligence come pretty close, as long as they are mutual, and are joined in a process that evolves into a future. I am not seeking a gift that is given once and for all, nor for something either foolishly ventured or demanded.

Equality is of the essence here, between subject and object, so that both are not only taken into account, but can change places at any time. As sharing, turn-taking, and equality are the essence in sports.

Yes, I am looking for something that takes skill, cooperation, commitment, and concentration. Just like any sport you could name—baseball, soccer, track and field, cricket, speed skating, and all the rest (competition without needless violence).

Including everyday wayfaring, making our own way one step at a time. How does that translate to the situated intelligence in our minds that governs our ongoing engagements?

Mindfaring! Not wayfaring. That is, inside the mind, not outside in the world. That’s what I’ll call the heading I want. For, indeed, it takes properties of mind to run effective and ongoing engagements. We are all responsible for making our separate ways. They take place on the outside, but are governed on the inside of our respective black boxes. No one can do the job for us. We are all on our own.

How would that look as the heading of a word cluster (arranged in alphabetical order)?

Mindfaring

  • Action
  • Confidence
  • Desirability
  • Durability
  • Engagement
  • Equality
  • Excitement
  • Fragility
  • Gratification
  • Hope
  • Intelligence
  • Judgment
  • Meaning
  • Persistence
  • Planning
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Safety
  • Spontaneity
  • Striving
  • Trust
  • Wonder
  • Worthiness

That’s my first stab at the clusters in my personal Thesaurus for the qualities of inner life that govern our engagements with the world. If I had another life to live, I’d work on listing the other 999 headings. But I don’t, so I won’t.

We all know the clusters of words that make life a series of failed engagements. We hear them on the news every day. That work has already been done.

It is the building of a platform for self-knowledge that requires doing. I propose that mindfaring is the way for those who choose the future.

How do I know if any of this is right, this probing of my own mind? Many would say that introspection is untrustworthy. Yet here I am asking you to trust me.

Am I to be believed, or am I spinning a yarn? What can I say? No one could be more sincere, earnest, well-meaning than I am. Where have you heard that one before? Probably from someone who wanted to get something from you.

How can I transcend my innocence in order to claim competence in this field—the study of my own mind—in which I am the world’s leading expert solely because I am the only one who is studying this particular subject, namely me?

No points are awarded for effort. It’s the results that matter—the very topic I am trying to report in this blog.

What I can offer without any proof to back it up is that every incident of experience that I cite did actually happen just as I say it did. I pay attention to, and am a close observer of, the passing scene in my own mind. I didn’t make any of this up, the substance of the experience on which I base my case.

And taking those founding incidents together, I offer the coherence of the entire set as evidence that I am onto something real. That is my claim to truth.

Here, let me remind you of a few samples of the kind of subjective incident I am referring to. The kind in which I catch my mind in the act of deceiving me, thereby revealing its inner workings.

  • About to cross Brattle Street, which is one-way, I look toward oncoming traffic and see nothing coming, so I step into the road—and am promptly felled by a bicyclist coming the wrong way. A truck turns the corner and comes down upon me lying in the road, but manages to stop just a few feet from my head.
  • At dusk in a light rain, out of the corner of my eye I see two black-and-white cows on the shoulder, which, as I pass, I recognize as two motorcyclists donning black raingear, the flicking motion of putting an arm into a sleeve looking much like the flicking of a cow’s tail.
  • Almost to Bar Harbor, I see a dead crow just ahead by the side of the road. It feebly lifts a wing and lets it fall. Not a dead crow but a dying crow! Should I stop and wring its neck to end its suffering? I begin to slow, then recognize that black clump as a trash bag blowing in the wake of passing cars.
  • Walking to the post office in late afternoon, I glance to my left and see a jetliner angled down beyond the rooftops about over Bar Island. I look ahead to steady myself and look back: there stands a TV antenna atop the motel, swept-back elements gleaming in sunlight.
  • Heading out for a walk, I ask my partner to wait while I run upstairs to get my camera. Which I do in a rush, coming back camera bag in hand. “How do you like the sunflowers at the head of the stairs?” she asks. “What sunflowers?” I’d passed within six inches of them, both coming and going, and never saw them.

These are such everyday incidents, they are scarcely remarkable, but they are precisely the kind of thing I pick up on in observing the routine operation of my own mind. I turn them into thought experiments after-the-fact, taking conditions at the moment into account.

Clearly, under stress, poor lighting conditions, or inattention, my brain does the best it can to keep me posted about what’s happening around me, but my judgment isn’t always up to the situation I am actually in, so in the moment I warp or distort the pattern that I’m seeing into something else that seems to come out of nowhere, or, if I don’t actively look, I see nothing at all.

  • Walking up Fifth Avenue, I see a familiar figure a short distance ahead of me. Fred! My old friend from school in Seattle. He’d moved to New York, then away; I didn’t know he’d come back. I ran to catch up with him, keeping the fast-moving figure in sight: telltale raglan overcoat, heavy cordovan shoes, long woolen scarf. It had to be Fred, who always moved at a brisk pace. Coming abreast of him, I was about to clap him on the shoulder, when I caught a glimpse of his profile—which was all wrong. Not Fred after all. An imposter. I stood still in the stream of pedestrians to let my high spirits settle down.
  • Laboring up Holland Avenue on winter ice, I lift my eyes and look ahead. Astounding! A man scraping paint from the side of his house in this weather! I look down to steady myself and look up again: a trimmed cedar tree stands in place of the man, its bulk blowing side-to-side in the wind, looking for all the world like a man backing up his scraping motion with the heft of his hips.
  • When I drove with my family from Hamilton, New York, to Seattle in August, 1947, I couldn’t wait to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Driving across eastern Colorado, I was seated in back between two brothers and two dogs, leaning over the front seat, peering through the windshield for my first glimpse of the Rockies. All I could see was a line of white clouds that hid the mountains behind them. I wouldn’t budge until I saw them, so stayed in that position for half-an-hour as the clouds grew closer and larger, and I finally began to see trees among them in the sky. Click! They weren’t clouds, they were the Rockies covered in snow. I’d been looking at them all along, but hadn’t seen them for what they were. Snow in August! I was caught off-guard; snow didn’t fall in Hamilton until November.

More misjudged situations. Fred morphs into a stranger. A paint-scraping man morphs into a tree. Clouds morph into snow. My perception dishes up what I want or expect to see; and closer inspection disabuses me. Successive approximation is what it takes to build familiarity and instant recognition. Nobody told me I had to learn to see. I thought I could just open my eyes and gaze on the world as it is. No, that’s not how it works. Perception proposes; judgment disposes. I have to grow into even my everyday self.

  • Then there was the incident when the skull I so carefully cleaned with a toothbrush while a volunteer on an archaeological dig morphed into the shell of a long-dead turtle, not a Neolithic burial. And the voice late at night crying out a horse “Fa! Fa!” while I was trying to sleep was not calling his cat or his father, or practicing a musical scale, but was shouting “Fire! Fire” with a Boston accent in the loudest voice he could muster. Expectations unmet in both cases, teaching me yet again I had to become more discriminating in determining the exact nature of the situation I thought I was in.

The clip-art cat takes the cake among all the incidents I have examined and reexamined over time in studying my mind.

  • There I was, putting dishes from the drainer next to the sink away so I could wash another round of dishes. The drainer was on my left, the cupboard on the far side of the sink to my right. The cupboard door was open, so I had to step back to get around it in putting dishes on the shelves. Back-and-forth I went, drainer to cupboard, and back. On one return trip, brushing my elbow against the cupboard door, I stepped back right onto the tail of a cat that shrieked at the insult, and I instantly lifted my foot in a kind of hop to remove the pressure, seeing in my mind’s eye an image of a little gray cat looking up at me from the floor, calmly, with not a trace of pain or anger in its eyes. I saw that image for several hours, and can see it now when I want to recall it. The problem being, there was no cat, and hadn’t been one for more than twenty years. The bottom hinge on the cupboard door had squeaked—for the first and last time—when I happened to brush it on that occasion, and I responded with a reflex I had developed years ago when I had owned several cats and stepped on several tails. That image of a guileless gray cat stayed with me all night, and I saw it every time I woke up.

Motion, sight, and sound all came together in forging that incident in my mind. To me it was absolutely real. Yet it didn’t happen. I hallucinated it to fit the occasion of my stepping back to the accompaniment of that squeak. Who would have thought that response could lie quietly inside me all those years? But there it was, with a hair trigger, ready to fire on signal.

I could carry on with more such incidents, but their service has been done. I am just trying to put before you the sort of evidence I have used in the course of studying my own mind. These incidents are part-and-parcel with my study; I cannot separate the two. I know what I know, and don’t what I don’t.

To me, the benefit of introspection is in the accumulation of data such as I have reviewed in this post over a long-enough term to be useful in shedding light on the nature of one person’s mind. Having to meet other people’s standards of evidence is irrelevant, an imposition that destroys the very thing it is meant to preserve. I offer these incidents with the backing of my own observational skills, earnestness, and attention to detail.

I really am trying to understand what happens when I see or hear something, gauge the situation that such sensory impressions create, judge the options available to me in responding to that situation, and set a train of events moving toward making a physical response appropriate to just that series of events in my mind so that I can engage in an effective manner with that aspect of the world puzzle that aroused those original sensory impressions in the first place.

World puzzle, indeed! Given the mistakes I am capable of making, and the complexity of even the simplest act of perception, when going to bed I take stock of what I have learned during the day, and give thanks that things didn’t go any worse than they did. Sometimes I surprise myself in finding that things have been going even better than I thought they would.

Such is life. I believe my self-observing, reporting, and writing-up to be an honest effort at presenting the findings of my inner research. I honestly believe I can hang my hat on that peg.

But that is for you to judge for yourself.

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.

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.

In themselves, stars are meaningless. It takes human minds looking through human eyes (and perhaps a telescope or pair of binoculars) to make stars meaningful. The meanings are in us, ready to be mapped onto stellar features and characteristics—position, motion, relationships, color, brightness, lines of spectral absorption or emission, and so on.

The meanings of stars are in our minds, as all meanings are in our minds.

What, then, are meanings?

I view meanings as the qualities or dimensions of a situation we discover in our minds, a situation made up of some combination of experiential and intellectual values, motivations, emotions, understandings, imaginings, sensory phenomena, remembrances, aesthetic qualities, comparisons, polarities, judgments, thoughts, attitudes, urges to action, and so on, all driven by our personal quota of the life force as delivered by our metabolism.

Meanings and situations are often associated with particular words as supplied by our culture and families for our personal use. These various qualities of inner awareness (what I refer to as dimensions of mind, experience, intellect, or consciousness) are present in greater or lesser degree, forming configurations in our minds that characterize the specific mental situations in which they arise, so constituting the meaning of a given situation in our experience as witnessed from our perspective at any given moment. The proper reference for our meaningful mental activity is the situation we are facing as we configure it at the time.

Words may symbolize such meanings, but the meanings are not in the words themselves. Meanings are properties of the experiential situations that words refer to or represent, however concrete or abstract, specific or general they may be.

I think of words as arising from (or being called forth by) what I sense as preverbal kernels of awareness. Each such kernel is a seed of meaning bearing its particular set of qualities of inner experience as a nugget, node, or item in awareness. I associate each such seed with a particular kind of experience kindled by life situations as they occur (present themselves) to my intelligence as so situated. When I speak, that seed sprouts and blossoms as a stream of words issuing from my lips.

If I find meaning in the stars, what I find is the inner meaning comprising the dimensions of my mental experience activated by a particular occasion for stargazing. That meaning is in me, not the stars. It is something I bring to the stars, not something they give to me.

As visual impressions, stars are gleaming, glistening nonentities, minute dots of radiant nothingness. I can’t hear them, touch them, smell them, heft them, taste them, collect them, or affect them in any way.

How can I engage the stars if they answer me only with silence and their chorus of fixed smiles overhead? I can see them arrayed before me much as I see grains of sand spread out as a beach. It is more their overall effect and relationships that I see, not individual stars.

I can’t even imagine how remote stars are from my everyday world. That remoteness is measured in light years, the distance light travels in the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun in one year. How far can light travel in 365 days at a speed of 186-thousand miles each second for every one of those days? How about 5.88 trillion miles, give or take?

Excluding the sun, our nearest stellar neighbor is the star that astronomers call Alpha Centauri (the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus), which is about 4.4 light years away, almost 26 trillion miles.

What experience can I have of something as remote from my everyday life as that? Contemplating that non-event, I feel overwhelmed by a hypothetical thought experiment of the most trivial kind. I’ve got errands to run and groceries to buy; how can anything as minute as Alpha Centauri rise above the horizon of my concerns? Who needs Alpha Centauri? Who needs the stars?

 

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

A sense of space results from our having to subtract our own motions to be sure of where we are in relation to objects in space, such as opposing players, bases, balls, and sidelines.

A sense of time results from viewing changes we are not responsible for—and so require no compensation on our part—as exemplified by the shifting hands of a clock, regular ticks of a metronome, sweeping shadow cast by the edge of a sundial aligned with Earth’s axis, complementary proportions of upper and lower reservoirs of fine white sand in an hourglass, or the looming approach of a ball hurled in our direction.

Scientists who claim to find time and space in the universe are casting their own abilities, perceptions, and cultural calibrations onto what they observe. Our customary senses of time and space work very well if we apply them consistently to personal observations within the normal range of conditions we are used to.

But projecting such observations—as Albert Einstein did in imaginative thought experiments that transcended the everyday conditions of his mind as cast not only into the universe but while traveling at the speed of light—is a very different matter. He meant his thoughts as goodwill ambassadors from Earth to the far reaches of unobservable space, but in so doing, he violated any conventional limitations imposed by our normal tolerance during extreme acceleration and deceleration in which he could only assume they held true, even while far exceeding any reasonable expectation for our bodily integrity under such conditions. After almost a century, judgments are still pending on whether spacetime is a helpful addition to our view and understanding of events in far space. As far as I am aware, the evidence in favor is not all that compelling.

Speaking of great leaps, it seems a far stretch to get from baseball to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But what I am pointing to is the very different skill sets opposed in offensive and defensive encounters in each play within each inning of each game of baseball.

Both teams may be in the same league, but the players are sure to be processing each play in a game from very different perspectives. Of course they are, being unique individuals trained and managed differently, and coming as they do from different cities and cultures.

All of which adds to the allure of baseball as a medium for individual players to truly express themselves in their own ways. And for fans to respond in kind. Baseball is no thought experiment. It is played in the minds of players and fans, but batters must hit the ball in real time, and fielders catch that same ball as it speeds through real space.

Fortunately for us, through practice and great effort, players get good at performing such acts under difficult conditions, and the rest of us genuinely enjoy the gripping engagements that result in our mindful experience of baseball.

The same can be said of our mindful experiences witnessing or participating in soccer, ballet, ballroom dancing, Olympic Games, cribbage, poker, chess, bird watching, mountaineering, sailing, cooking, dining, glass blowing, filmmaking, jazz, playing an instrument, singing, and all the other engagements that thrill us inside-out and make us glad to be alive in that space at that time.

Do I know what I am talking about? How do I know that I know what I think I know? I don’t believe I can know anything for sure. I make stabs in the dark based on situational insights and conjectures. What I have in this instance is a feeling. A sense of the texture of my thinking. Like fine sand on a shore darkened by the sweep of an incoming tide. I find that texture reassuring. It is more an aesthetic judgment, a sense of pleasing relationships shared during the run of ideas through my mind. In this case, ideas about baseball as played out in time and space.

I am speaking here of my sense of balance, harmony, unity, symmetry, and coherence at this moment. I am pushing that envelope of senses as far as I can in applying it to my experience of baseball. All the while gauging the fittingness of that envelope to my train of thought.

Space and time are two perspectives on change—change due to my own actions when I am in motion, change due to some other motive force when I am still. Both sorts of change calibrated in units agreeable to the culture I grew up in.

Space gives me a perspective on changes as I move about; time gives me a different perspective on changes that do not flow from what I am doing. In that sense, I make space happen around me by moving my body. Time happens to me as a response to changes taking place around me.

Two kinds of changes: changes I create by acting in the world; changes I perceive by the world acting on me. Two different segments of my ongoing loops of engagement. Self-changes; it-changes. Like the batter hitting the ball with his bat, or the fielder catching that same ball in his mitt while running and reaching, I switch from one perspective to the other. Often, while I am acting and perceiving at the same moment, I take the conjoined perspective of spacetime, a way of dealing simultaneously with two very different sorts of change at once.

In my next post I will extend this line of thought to my style of hiking. And question whether or not you recognize two different strategies for dealing with change in your personal experience.