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.

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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?

 

What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

It was in 1852 that Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

As I view it, that book gives us a portrait of his mind striving to map meanings onto words in English, a task he began early in life to support his own writing, and completed well after his retirement from medical practice in 1840.

In 1805 as a young writer, he first compiled for his own use “a system of verbal classification” that he later believed would be useful to all who take care in selecting words to suit their intended use in particular settings. Throughout his life, Roget kept his mind active in pursuit of a wide range of interests. The Thesaurus is but one of his many accomplishments—the one for which he is cited today, even if its author is only dimly remembered.

I am of two minds regarding Dr. Roget and his Thesaurus. I admire his identifying a thousand categories of meaning in his own mind, and then systematically sorting his personal vocabulary of words and phrases among those headings. As one who takes his own mind seriously, I identify with him in making that effort.

But, too, I feel almost claustrophobic in wending my way along the quaint and weedy pathways he treads among the meanings and feelings he discovered within himself so long ago. His era is not my era, his reverence for Latinate expressions not my reverence, his verbal style not my style.

I cringe at many of the word clusters he amassed from terms he believed to share a core sense of meaning. I find myself silently dusting off and editing his lists, which, fortunately, others have done overtly in updating his now antiquated original to suit the needs of changing times.

But even so, I feel pinched in reading through earlier editions of his Thesaurus as I try to get as close to the man as I can from my remote perspective in the twenty-first century. Mine is a labor of, if not love, then of fellowship with a kindred wayfarer on his then journey through a now forgotten inner life.

Some would claim “we are all one” and it should be no labor at all to enter the mind of another. Tich Nhat Hahn has declared “We are here to recover from the illusion of our separateness.” I have heard it said that “We can escape from the self-imposed prison of personal isolation by deconstructing through personal meditation the bonds imposed by the delusion of selfhood.”

But endless repetition of the mantra “We are all one” does not make it so. As a convinced separatist, I believe that each of us is born either with or to a unique genome, immune system, neural network, memory, lifelong accumulation of experience, dream life, and succession of daily engagements, which taken together confirm each of us as a unique and separate experiment for which he or she is wholly responsible for perfecting, much as Peter Mark Roget was born to the task of refining his system of verbal classification precisely for the lifetime he was granted.

If I meditate, I am struck by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings—the psychic Armageddon—that would result if our fundamental separation turned out to be delusionary, a mere construction and convention of the culture we live in.

In my view, the workings of evolution depend on us responding differentially to the forces acting upon us; we tailor ourselves to the niches we occupy for the sake of survival. If we all thought and acted as if we were of one mind, we would self-destruct in an instant.

Instead of solving our common problems, deconstructing our individual minds would bring about the end, not only of personhood, but all humankind. Only discrete selves can take responsibility for their actions, and join cooperatively with others who are doing the same as led by their respective—and demonstrably separate—points of view.

My discomfort at approaching Dr. Roget’s mental processes too closely is a faint shadow of what might happen if we knocked down the walls of separation between our individual minds. Imagine having access to others’ minds in such a way that we could witness their thoughts and feelings from the perspective of our unique life experience!

That thought doesn’t bear thinking. I value Roget’s Thesaurus as the compilation by another man of his semantic struggle to ensure that his words reflected his personal thinking, as he hoped the words of others would reflect theirs. He was out to provide each of us with a tool that would do just that in each case. I find his effort—if worn and musty in places—to be not only admirable but remarkable in creating a set of word clusters that provide partial access to the workings of his subjective mind while, at the same time, are broad enough to allow the rest of us to do somewhat the same.

 

To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

403. Number People

January 12, 2015

Some of us are music people or food people. Others are visual arts people, TV people, sports people, booze people, film people, word people. This is not simply a matter of choice but more a matter of experience. We get good at what we do most often and with greatest concentration.

Number people use numbers a lot because they find them meaningful. They understand numbers, and use them to express themselves on important subjects. Scientists, statisticians, financiers, mathematicians, sportscasters, astrologers, and many others build worlds around themselves by relying on numbers in everyday life.

Numbers, that is, are one of the ways people engage with the world around them. We are born to cultures having a heritage of numbers, and we have the option of immersing ourselves in that or some other heritage as our primary means of expression and understanding.

In that sense, numbers are one of the ways we use to fit into and anchor ourselves to a world of our personal choosing. Our aptitude with numbers affects our making such a choice. So does our exposure to numbers, our education, our job, our early childhood experience with numbers, and so on. As we count on our fingers, so do we become—finger counters, who grow professionally into some of the fields I have mentioned above.

Numbers are an aspect of the language we are born to. They allow us to make meaningful sounds and gestures in situations where we want to tally a set of separate items or perform some mathematical feat such as measuring, adding, subtracting, and so on.

The genius of numbers is that each one has a unique but memorable name as part of a system we carry with us wherever we go. A system that serves as a kind of lens we use in viewing the world. We can speak or write those names in referring to the purely quantitative aspect of whatever we are directing our attention to in a given situation.

The sounds and symbols of numbers differ from language to language, but their numerical value remains in the same sequence in each language. As long as the sequence is unbroken, the concept of numbers is limited only by the the practical needs of its users. No number is too large or too small to imagine as long as it keeps its place in the number series embodied in our everyday usage.

Infinity seems to be a number, but being beyond the farthest reach of the number series, it is a concept that violates the concept of numbers as forming an unbroken series. Infinity is a supposition, not an actual number. In being beyond reach, it is a contradiction in terms, not an actual number that has a particular place in a sequence.

Zero, too, seems to be a number, but we use it as an imaginary threshold between nothing and something, or the dimensionless divide between positive and negative somethings as a kind of placeholder to remind us of the break or discontinuity we are inserting into our conventional system. The letter n stands for any real number that might occur beyond zero in the direction of or toward, but not including, infinity.

Numbers originate in the human mind as immersed in one culture or another. That mind is based on activated and inhibited pathways for conducting neural impulses, which allow for sequence, addition, multiplication, integration, subtraction, division, differentiation, and other numerical operations.

Too, the mind is based on comparison between signals in different parts of the neural network. Numbers, that is, are not so much in the world as they are in the mind as products of the same neural capabilities for engagement as allow for the production of gestures and speech.

Numbers are abstractions from primary experiences having their characterizing qualities deleted—qualities such as redness, coldness, roughness, motion, size, direction, and so on—leaving a residuum of purified quantity devoid of particular qualities.

Numbers play a prominent role in our many engagements with aspects of our natural environment. Our poise during those engagements depends on the feedback we get in comparing our sensory impressions with past impressions or with our intentions in acting as we do. Did we hit the target or are we low and to the left? By how much? How much thrust do we need to launch a million-ton rocket toward Mars? What is the Earth’s population of ants?

In the practical use of mathematics, we must consider the instrument that employs numbers in a particular situation. Invariably, that instrument is the human mind (not the so-called mind of God or of the universe) which depends largely on memory and the flow of sensory energy from perception to judgment and on to action as key portions of our engagements with the world.

The power of numbers is not in the order of the universe we discover in using them as a tool of our minds; that power is in the educated, dedicated, and systematic workings of our own minds. The laws of physical motion are laws of our perceiving, not of discovery. Of description, not causation. Saying that the universe is inherently based on mathematical principles is like saying the Creator must speak English because his work is so aptly described by our English poets.

More wonderfully, we should applaud ourselves for learning how to use both numbers and our minds to advance our personal grasp of the world around us. When our species dies off, that grasp will go with us, leaving an undescribed universe behind on its own.

 

 

 

 

402. Expletives!

January 10, 2015

Following-through on my previous post: The question is, can we avoid becoming creatures of our technologies by controlling our urge to revel in the thrill and novelty of the latest electronic gadget we don’t need?

As I said, the world we live in is shaped by our subjective opinions and motivations. The lesson of my study of mind is that each of us is responsible for the workings of her own. When it comes to saving the planet through yet more technology, let believers beware. Particularly believers in technologies that boast of being artificially intelligent. Our numbers are already far too large for our planet to bear at current levels of consumption and life expectancy.

We talk a lot about saving the world, but it is our actions in that same world that count. Speech saves effort, but it can also interrupt and divert us from more meaningful engagements requiring bolder action. So to continue on the topic of action I will briefly speculate on the origin of the movements of breath, tongue, lips, and teeth we call speech.

We justly pride ourselves on our skills in speaking, reading, writing, and comprehending, the very skills that separate us from our animal neighbors and ancestors. Speech has evolved as a kind of substitute for exerting ourselves by flexing our larger muscles. It is far more efficient to gently release air through our throats and lips than it is to lunge forward while making threatening gestures with raised arms brandishing sticks. It is also less risky.

It is humbling to think that the origin of speech might have been in uttering expletives whenever our ancestors’ engagements were thwarted or went awry. That is my belief, largely resting on observation of my own behavior in dealing with my tired old computer, which is programmed to do its own thing, and so pays no heed when I want it to do something else.

My vulgar outbursts wrest attention from all ears within range. I shout curt obscenities at my laptop when it goes off on its own, but having no ears (mine is an older model), it ignores me and sits there doing its thing whereas I paid good money for it to do my thing. Why else would I buy it?

Why, indeed? I mean to use my computer to facilitate my many projects depending on use of words and pictures. All my writing, all my photographs, all my illustrations are on my computer. Books, articles, PowerPoints, slide shows, pechakuchas, notes, lists, random thoughts, address—my entire creative output all stored on my hard drive.

So when I can’t get at them because my computer is busy doing something else—installing updates, scanning every file, printing pages I didn’t ask it to print, posting inexplicable error messages about not being able to do some task it thought up on its own—I get—how shall I put it?—upset. Mad. Angry. Finally furious after not being able to get through to it to get it to stop what it’s doing and do what I want it to do.

By nature, I am a very calm person. I have confidence in making that judgment. People are amazed at my not getting upset in situations that would have driven them batty. But when engagements requiring my deep concentration are interrupted, I have trouble restoring the focus that my balance of mind depends on. I am forced to switch my mind to some irrelevant task. I am on a roll, but can’t continue.

Imagine my distress. Which requires some kind of outlet as a stand-in to release the energy that I was putting into the project I was focused on. So these sounds come out of my mouth. Not words that fit the sentence I was writing when so rudely interrupted, but sounds out of nowhere. Shit. Fuck. Chert, click, runt, frump, fart, muck, flack, blat. Expletives. Sudden explosions of sound that bear the burden of my frustration and annoyance.

That, I believe, is the true origin of language. Or at least a contributing factor in drawing attention to the urgency of some issue or another. In this case, an issue with a negative valence giving evidence that breaking into an ongoing engagement is wrong, bad, undesirable, annoying, perturbing, frustrating, immoral, unsettling, etc., and ought to be against the law.

In the opposite situation (consciousness thrives on opposition, remember), when I am caught unaware by something surpassingly pleasing that gives me pause, I say, like astronauts ogling the Earth from above, Wow! Oh boy. Amazing. Beautiful. Stunning. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Hallelujah. Hooray. Lookadat! Or some cooing expletive suitable to such an occasion. In which case the issue of expression is to release a gasp of sudden joy, happiness, surprise, wonder, satisfaction, insight, gratitude, and other such utterance suggesting a positive valence that gives approval to an engagement that is right, proper, good, desirable, affirming, pleasing, enjoyable, and essentially positive in deserving to be called to everyone’s attention.

It is in those two opposite situations—the rude interruption and the affirming revelation—that I discover a burst or rush of sound issuing from my throat as if I had invented language on the spot for that very occasion. Extrapolating, I identify with my primitive ancestors who had the same uncontrollable urge so long ago.

 

376. Worlds in Collision

December 6, 2014

If we need proof that our minds are sustained by loops of sensory-motor engagement with the world, such proof is amply provided by how upset we get when our loops are interrupted for any reason.

“Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy?” “Go ask your mother!” “Don’t you have better things to do?” “Shut the door as you go out!” “Turn it down for God’s sake!” And a host of expletives that erupt without warning on just such occasions.

Concentration takes dedicated effort. Not only on sensory perception, but on coordinated judgment and action at the same time. Mental coherence is the issue. Voices of children and telemarketers break into our trains of thought, disrupting the flow, causing us to break stride, falter, and suffer confusion.

This is the end of world order as we know it. Distraction, interruption, competition, contradiction, opposition—we loathe them all, and do everything we can to suppress or avoid them. Physically. Violently. Repeatedly. We retreat to our rooms or cubicles and turn on soft music. Or we lash out in anger at a world that won’t let us alone. We love the worlds we create for ourselves at great personal effort and sacrifice. Our expressions, gestures, and body language warn others not to mess with what they can’t understand. Not to tread where they don’t belong.

Which is why the human world is and always has been in such turmoil. There isn’t one world out there but currently more than seven billion different worlds, each wrought to the liking of its creator and most ardent defender. Shouldn’t the right not to be offended or thwarted be one of our most fundamental freedoms?

What we fashion for ourselves within our sheltering black boxes, we cast upon the waters in which we are bathed, as if those waters were an extension of our private domains. As if Cuba were subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Ukraine subject to Putin’s dreams of glory.

If only we could put a one-way mirror in the end of our box so we could cast our gaze outward whenever we wanted to, but the seven billion couldn’t see in. All we want is freedom of thought and the right not to be bothered or thwarted. Is that asking too much? A right to maintain a personal sanctuary from which we can engage as we wish?

It’ll never happen. Engagement is a two-way street. Traffic flows both ways. Imposing our inner worlds on our outer worlds isn’t engagement at all; it is authoritarianism, tyranny, a forlorn hope. We need the world to temper our fantasies. Just as the world needs our separate inner worlds to spark the next stage of our common evolution.

Engagement is an art, not a right to have things our own way. Free speech lets us say what we want; whether anyone is listening is another matter entirely. If we are smart, we will go out of our way to balance sensory input against behavioral output, striving to learn by trial and error to steer a wise course.