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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflection 328: Pandemic

October 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When overwhelmed by the wackiness of today’s “civilized” world, I often view my own consciousness as a theater of the absurd. What I see is one crank after another bantering about his eccentric view of the world being the one and only view that everyone else should take as a revelation of true reality. Tyrants do it, political leaders do it, holy men do it, as do newscasters, pundits, businessmen, bankers, economists, entertainers, making it seem that a tsunami of craziness has swept over us in the night, engulfing us in a flood of absurdity.

My defense against this flood is to look upon today’s reality as a kind of dream where the conventional social order is overturned in a wild Saturnalia of anything goes. If it can be thought, it will be thought by someone, somewhere. If it can be said, ditto. If it can be done, double ditto. Which is much like many of my nightmares, and creates a sense of frustration similar to how I, powerless in my sleep, react to those dreams.

Except the current pandemic of self-seeking wackiness is no dream. It is the most brutish kind of reality where every man squares off against all others for himself alone to see what he can get by forcing his burden of craziness on the rest of us.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has assigned the status of personhood to corporations, thereby granting the right of free speech and free spending of money to for-profit entities out to make a killing from the rest of us mere mortals by transferring our personal wealth to their coffers as quickly as possible. That is no way to run a world, and since there’s only one world based on potential consciousness, that is no way to run this world, the one we’ve been born to.

I dream of the possibility of a world based on decency, courtesy, and respect—a world where citizens are civil one to another, and do not base their engagements solely on power and money, that is, on what they can get from others and from the Earth.

Our current passion for competition comes from a false reading of Darwin’s message. We are one human family among our fellow plants and animals, without whom we would not be here. We are not the top dog, the essential nation, the leader of all tribes. Above all, we are not “man-the-wise.” Whatever happened to empathy and humility? Where did we go wrong in selling our souls for (temporary) personal advantage?

We are a primate species, born of a long line of expert tree climbers and leapers, come down to earth, now risen up on two legs and looking for trouble, which we seem to thrive on. Yet we are all mortal beings, heading for certain illness and death, born of woman, conceived by a man and a woman, who were both conceived by male and female going back to the beginning of primate life. The lady in France who said (in French) “I am not a mammal” had it backwards. Because she worked for a company that made baby formula, she imagined herself as a superior being independent of her animal roots. In deep denial, she was being absurd. It is that fatuous quality that now defines us and sets us against who we truly are.

This year’s Republican presidential primary race pitted one candidate against all others, each making preposterous statements based on his or her personal life experience as if it was the basis of universal law. Personal conceit (which I see as a form of ignorance) mixed with a hunger for money ignites the absurdity I see all around us. A pandemic of absurdity, where no one has his feet on the ground but is issuing nonsense out of his mouth as if it came from the Delphic Oracle—from the Priestess herself. Or from Fox News, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, some infallible Pope or Ayatollah—from ideologues to the Tenth Degree.

We have become the laughing stock of all species, or would be if we didn’t wreak so much waste, havoc, chaos, and misery in our wake. This is what the 13-billion-year history of the universe has brought us to? This has been our destiny all along?

Don’t you believe it! This current pandemic of absurdity is an anomaly, a product of personal avarice and lust for power, a temporary state of affairs brought on by a lapse of judgment in choosing our way in the world based on how we wish to engage one another, seeing others as dupes and fools, not our equals, not our Earthly brothers and sisters.

We are suffering through a breakdown in human engagement, a parody of personal virtue gone musty and rotten. We are using one another as personal property to be used, gutted, and discarded. This is the new slavery, the purchase and abuse of those thought to be lesser beings because of their relative poverty and weakness. Imagine the bundling of mortgages imposed on people who cannot afford the homes they buy because that intentionally unbearable debt adds up to big money to be claimed by those who see the total amount but not the people who owe it as if it were only money, not bundled human lives.

Where, oh where is civility? We are not here to be at our neighbors’ throats, or to do our worst, not our best. We are at the forefront of the history of the universe, ready to engage those who have come with us on the basis of our equality as living beings, not as dispensable victims. If I did not believe in civility, I would be embarrassed to be an American. Instead, I think we have only lost our way because of the worm of self-serving power and profit that has bored into our heads—and we can be healed and set right again in a New Age based on civil engagements that encourage decency, courtesy, and respect.

As it is, we are allowing ourselves and the Earth to be sold short of what we are truly worth—the only seat of consciousness that we have yet discovered—or are ever likely to discover—in the universe. If we keep on as we are going, where will we find the worthy examples to lead us back to our senses? Civility is fragile, the product of eons of collective respect, striving, and cooperation. Are we going to sit by and watch it be taken from us by a vain and wealthy elite that wants to run the world solely on its own terms? We deserve a better fate than that.

As I see it, the only alternative is for us to achieve the civility I am talking about by building it into the heart of our own lives and engagements, thereby refusing to go meekly along with the self-appointed elite, who are really the most forlorn, desperate, and pitiable caricatures of what humanity can be. What choice do we have but to remain staunchly ourselves?

Respectfully, y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I am a creature of the territory I inhabit that provides me with what I need to be me—that is, to be familiar to myself as a particular character walking the world stage. The furnishings of my apartment include three computers, 170 notebooks containing the remnants of projects I have worked on, five books I have written, the food I eat three times a day, a bed to sleep on, clothes to wear, and so on. Without the territory I truck around with me everywhere I go, I would not be me. I am master of all I survey; without that survey—without my special props—I would cease to exist as myself.

When I think of the options I have for becoming someone other than my current self, I am overwhelmed by the possible identities I could take on if I wore different clothes, worked on different projects, had different files on my computers, spoke a different language, listened to different music, read different books than those I have read in the past thirty years. I could make myself anew by stepping outside my conventional, habit-driven life so ruled by the possessions I have accrued over those years of living precisely as I have lived for so long.

I am a self-made man because I have built up this specific collection of stuff I carry on my back. Because I have done what I’ve done and dreamed what I’ve dreamed. Do dreams make the man, or does man make the dreams? Looking in the mirror, I find that I resemble a sort of great ape. How do great apes get to be great apes and live the lives that they do?

My thoughts about great apes stem from a film I saw years back among those shown at the Banff Film Festival when it circulated to the Grand Theater in Ellsworth, Maine. Clever photographers and ethologists had gained access to a band of mountain gorillas in Eastern Congo by acting submissively so not to threaten the alpha male who dominated one particular harem with its females, children, and fringe of restless adolescents. I still count that film as one of the most telling documentaries I have seen in my life because it told not only about one band of gorillas, but because it spoke to me in a language I could recognize as being about humans as great apes.

The silverback ruled his band through domination and threat of violent retribution for wayward behavior. As the alpha male, he surrounded himself with lesser (weaker) beings—females and children. His job was to make sure that those children were his children. Domestic bliss lasted as long as the band was subservient to his wishes.

When adolescent males were old enough to be potential rivals to the old silverback, he drove them into the surrounding bush, where they hung around, torn between a yen for freedom and the prospect of immediate comfort and sexual gratification within the home band. Growing up within the band, they knew the rules. So they grew cagey, figuring how they might beat the old man at his game through playful deception and submission. Their tricks seldom worked, so in the end they wandered deeper into the forest on the chance they might affiliate with a band ruled by a weaker patriarch where they might have a chance at alphadom themselves.

The alpha male gorilla ruled not only by sexual domination but by leading his harem to food. A well-fed harem is a happy harem, and a happy harem is a complacent harem. I can’t recall what happened to adolescent female gorillas, but I believe they were absorbed into the existing social structure maintained by their male parent and tolerated by their respective female parents in exchange for domestic tranquility.

In practical terms, old alpha saw his wives as his “possessions” in that he could engage with them and not with females in other bands of gorillas. The food he provided was also “his” in that he found it and did what he wanted to with it—that is, keep his band groomed, well-fed, and happy. Which made him happy. Shooing his own male children away also made him happy because he no longer had to deal with them as potential rivals to his comfortable alphadom.

The mountain gorilla film made clear that alpha had his place, his wives had their places, his children theirs, and his male descendents theirs—which was to go away. Everything was clear and aboveboard, even the shenanigans of the youthful males, which were essential to their making the transition from sexual immaturity to learning how to take responsibility for supporting a band of their own. Owner-ship is the essence of a well-run social order, that is, being clear on who engages with whom, and how they are to manage their interactions.

Our nation was founded by young innovators who were kept down in their homelands because theirs was not the tradition of their elders. Like so many adolescent apes, they escaped into the hinterlands with hopes of becoming themselves by joining bands of like-minded individuals where they could find peace in a new brand of conformity. That is what my Huguenot ancestors sought in moving from France, to Holland, to England, then to colonies on this side of the Atlantic.

The Banff Festival film provided a glimpse into the history of our own culture where that same dynamic is still evident. Who were Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos but young males feeling the bite of competition with their elders entrenched in the status quo? Instead of going off into the woods in search of their fortune, they went into their garages where they built systems that would leapfrog over the existing order, giving them a shot at an alphadom never dreamt of. What is Facebook but a non-threatening way of hooking up with desirable mates and companions? Bezos single-handedly destroyed the august publishing industry that held budding authors at bay. What is the Occupy Movement but unwelcome youth becoming a force in the world by confronting those who have locked down the positions they want to occupy on their own?

Alphadom, not cash, is the issue. Money merely stands for whatever possessions and territory we desire. It is a wherewithal, not the end in itself. Money is a new home, a trip abroad, a girlfriend, eating out, having a bed to sleep in. Money is influence, position, and security. Money is the power to survive in today’s world as who you want to be within your chosen mythology.

From an adolescent’s point of view, what is growing up but a figment from mythology? It is something you dream and scheme about, but nothing you can own. It is always beyond reach, in the clutches of others who are older than you. As you grow older, they grow older, always maintaining their lead. So adolescence is the time to develop new ideas where you can be alpha on your own terms, and force your elders to approach you for favors or grant grudging praise. That tremendously forceful realization is the impetus behind revolution, innovation, and social change. Beware the power of those you render helpless because they need dignity and self-respect as much as you do to survive and get ahead. That is, to become alphas in their own right.

Which is as true for alpha females as it is for alpha males. Alphadom means you can make it on your own terms, taking your family and friends along with you. Every political, industrial, corporate, or religious leader is an alpha amid his or her alpha cohort whom he or she serves. Alphadom is a way of life based on being king or queen of the mountain. The dignity of being a judge on the Supreme Court or a single mom stems from being on top, whether you want to be there or not, and facing into that challenge where everything depends on you.

Alphadom is the hidden flaw in democracy, because we all strive to become our own boss, putting down others in the process of creating a system based on inequality—as gorilla wives and children are not the equal of alpha. To achieve alphadom, Jeff Bezos eliminates bookstores, publishers, agents, and anyone who might rival or impede his personal mythology of being the alpha of all alphas. Not just in publishing but in selling any goods the public desires.

As long as there are sellers and buyers, owners and workers, inequality will rule. Democracy is a mass myth clung to by underlings as they work their way into positions of power. Our “representatives” in Congress are Exhibit A of what happens when they attain positions of absolute power, discover what those positions actually cost, and switch their allegiance from the power of the people to the power of me and those who fund and support me.

The formula was worked out by great apes long ago. If they didn’t discover it, they put their energy into perfecting it. We have evolved to believe that survival depends on being selected by our environments, but there is no doubt that we use the system to make sure we have a good chance of surviving in light of our personal mythology. Alphadom and democracy go together as complementary strategies of survival. Yes, we are born equal, but I’m going to make sure I’m more equal than the next guy. Look around and tell me that’s not what you see.

Great ape power is not the power of the people. It is a balance between individual lusts for power and security against a tolerance for not fulfilling that lust as of yet. Hence our talk about growth, of being in the pipeline, as adolescents are engaged in the process of becoming grand silverbacks in their own right. We forget that society is a process at our peril. Everything is up for grabs all the time. What you count on today will be gone tomorrow. All you can do is heed your personal values at each moment, and do your best to achieve them, in the process seeing yourself getting worn down.

At least that way you stand for something, even though you know you’ll never achieve it in this or any other life. Or if you do bring your myth into being, you know it will be only temporary, and others’ myths will succeed yours.

So it goes, this life of us great apes. We make ourselves happen as best we can, as everyone around us is doing in their own way. The resulting amalgam is what we call civilization, to which there exists no solution. The wise among us work hard and enjoy the fray.

That’s it for today. I remain y’r fellow great ape, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

What do these men all have in common?

  • Slobodan Milosevic
  • Muammar Gaddafi
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Saddam Hussein
  • Mao Zedong
  • Kim Jung Il
  • Augusto Pinochet
  • Pol Pot

Yes, all tyrannical personalities. And all dead.  In the annals of life on Earth, each of us—including those men I have listed—stands as a distinct human personality unlike any other. Our childhood rearing is unique, our education is unique, our job histories, our aspirations, accomplishments, memories, feelings, values, sex lives—all unique. Because our loops of engagement are singular in each case.

What we share is our individuality. Some have been applauded in their time, others feared, condemned, or despised. Many have died violent deaths or been judged harshly by those they abused. But my point here is that none of them is inherently good or evil. Each is the product of the life that he lived, the outcome of a unique loop of engagement that made him turn out as he did. If any other genetically different person had experienced such a life, he would likely have turned out much the same.

Goodness or badness is a judgment by others, not an inherent attribute or personality trait. In putting such people to death for whatever reason, we are killing them for being what their life experiences have made them—as our own unique experiences have made us.

Taking the life of anyone for being who they are at a time of weakness is a form of absolute tyranny in itself, often stemming from personal animosity or hatred toward someone whose actions are shaped by his or her lifelong experience in particular places with particular people in particular eras. Taking violent action against people we don’t agree with is a crude form of asserting our supposed superiority over others, when in truth our diversity is founded in each case on our living under conditions specific to ourselves.

No one is conceived or born under the influence of evil stars such as Shakespeare may have drawn Caliban, Richard III, or Iago. We may become evil by living under evil circumstances—by being abused as children, for instance, or by being denied basic needs in our formative years, or serving a battle-stressed life in the military. In the list above, no one is inherently evil without having lived a life of cruelty, need, or abuse. We know that suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder does not make a veteran evil, though he may commit acts perceived and judged as such. Yet when it comes to tyrants, we make them pay for their crimes rather than lead them through a bout of truth and reconciliation as we saw in South Africa at the end of apartheid.

Instead of doing violence to such persons, we would do better to help them in viewing the results of their actions as others see them. Which is far easier to say than to do. We do not readily take responsibility for our engagements because each of us believes that he or she knows what life is about, and lives it as it is meant to be lived. It is difficult to imagine that we make ourselves happen as we do because of a loop of engagement set in motion by our being who we are, where we are. Or that we are so accustomed to living such a loop that we do not see that we ourselves are the figure behind the curtain pulling the levers that control us.

But in fact we make ourselves happen every second of our lives according to lessons learned through earlier experience. We mindlessly cling to ways that are familiar, believing we have no alternative available to us. It’s back to the future in every case, our fate being a foregone conclusion over which we assume we have little control. 

Rather than condemn tyrannical personalities to death or solitary confinement, I think it would be better to have them confront their atrocities so that they may ultimately come to transcend them. Rage has never brought about a good end. I offer both the felling of the Twin Towers and the American invasion of Iraq in retaliation as classic examples. Suicide by jihadis precludes truth and reconciliation, so their earthly salvation is moot.

Rather than punish those who offend us, we do better to help them see that their loops of engagement will lead to a bad end. By taking responsibility for what they have done, they can distance themselves from the habit of violence they picked up when young and go beyond it in seeking a life of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Sorry to sermonize, but I see so much needless violence in the world, I wanted to say something because violence breeds only violence, and we never break out of the loop. Y’r friend, –Steve