The past 136 posts to my blog, “Consciousness, the inside story,” make up the body of what I call:

SITUATED INTELLIGENCE

An Introspective, Experiential Approach

To Consciousness.

Abstract of posts 362-498.

Conscious human experience is an emergent property of the engagement between inner worlds of awareness (minds enabled by brains) and outer worlds of objects and ambient patterns of stimulation.

That engagement flows in a loop from intentional action through the several levels of nature, culture, community, and family, back to the initiating self by way of patterns of ambient energy rendered by the process of perception as sensory impressions.

Perception is enabled by memory of patterns formerly experienced, expectancy, arousal, interest and curiosity, attention, recognition, and a sense of novelty or familiarity, collectively forming a flow of sensory impressions.

Sensory impressions are understood (given meaning) by human intelligence situated within a particular configuration of what I call dimensions of experience, intelligence, or consciousness.

Those dimensions include memory, sensory patterns, biological values, life force (metabolic energy), emotions and motivations, feelings, discrepancies, comparisons leading to polarized preferences, beliefs, dreams, thoughts, ideas, imaginings, attitudes, aesthetic relationships, balance of concreteness and abstraction, and other such items (parameters) of inner awareness as constitute the situation determining the specific makeup of conscious intelligence at any given moment.

Situations are mental renditions or estimations that represent, but are not identical to, the current state of affairs in the outer world as witnessed from the perspective of a particular person’s situated intelligence. Situations are that person’s operative reality, and are always subject to refinement through further investigation.

Situated intelligence can feed directly into the action module of mind in such forms as reflexes, mimicry, routines, habits, prejudices, or orthodox beliefs, bypassing the scrutiny of full awareness as a basis for conscious judgment. These shortcuts promote stereotyped responses to given situations, saving mental energy perhaps, but not allowing for further consideration.

Judgment, on the other hand, relies on situated intelligence as a basis for further assessment and comparison of options for evaluating what is to be done in a given situation. In this case, options are acknowledged, interrelated, evaluated, and prioritized, making selection from among diverse choices possible as candidates for considered and appropriate action. Judgment is a time-consuming stage of consciousness, so entails a trade-off between facility and due consideration.

Judgment leads to the setting of goals, timelines, implementation of projects, development of skills, assembly of tools and materials, and finally implementation and fulfillment of a plan of action.

Action in the world launches the loop of engagement from mind into its surroundings in an effort to solve the world puzzle as proposed by the situation that perception presents to intelligence in terms of a constellation of mental parameters.

Perception, understanding, situation, intelligence, judgment, and considered action make up the mind’s portion of the loop of engagement. The out-of-body reaches of that loop include a variety of routes through nature, culture, community, and family, routes external to the mind’s jurisdiction, so constituting an independent component of consciousness that is not confined to the mind’s brain.

In effect, perception asks the question, “What’s happening now?” Situated intelligence asks, “What does that mean to me?” Judgment asks, “What are my options, and which one should I choose?” Action asks, “How should I turn that goal into behavior appropriate to my current situation?

It is up to the world (as composed of nature, culture, community, and family) to provide a link between action and the next round of perception-situation-intelligence-judgment-action, so providing the living context for the mind’s efforts to navigate by means of its wayfaring questions.

Engagement, then, is like a helix in which each round of engagement is slightly displaced from its predecessor, leading to a gap between the mind’s input and output, a discrepancy that elicits another round of consciousness as either having to deal with success or failure of what it is trying to do, leading to a sense of advancement or setback, victory or defeat, which serves to motivate the next round of engagement, leading to the one after that.

So does individual consciousness progress from one loop to the next, leading to the stream of consciousness composing one person’s lifetime of striving to bring inner reality into alignment with its external setting as evolution’s hands-off solution to individual survival under conditions it cannot gauge in advance.

Evolution, that is, provides no set or easy answers to the challenge it puts to all living beings. All we get, within limits, is one more chance, with perhaps another after that. Navigating between those chances is up to each of us individually. Consciousness is the tiller we are given for steering our way from inside-out.

Introspection is the best tool we have for mastering the use of that tiller.

The metaphor of the black-box problem is used throughout to illustrate the problem of solving the world puzzle from inside the black box of the mind, the converse problem being to solve the workings of the mind from a standpoint in the outside world.

Extensive examples are given of the author’s personal engagements with nature, culture, community, and family. Popular engagements are illustrated in the case of baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and humans’ historical fascination with the stars.

S.P., 03-30-2015, posted 05-04-2015

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Some migratory birds may use the stars to navigate by. And we humans have long relied on the stars to guide our travels at night. We are born to them, after all, to the sky at night as well as the day. Once we escape the glare of city lights, what else is there to see at night than the moon, planets, and stars?

We may not be taken by individual stars so much as the luminous array stretching across a dark sky. Who (in the northern hemisphere) has not oohed and aahed at the sight of Orion in winter months or the Milky Way spread overhead in summer?

Our primal relation to the stars is demonstrably preverbal. We utter appreciative noises that hint at the awe within us as we lift our eyes to them, but words generally fail us, as they fail astronauts gazing down on Earth from their capsules, shuttles, and stations in near space.

It’s not so much that stars have no meaning as that we aren’t accustomed to grandeur on so vast a scale. There’s nothing else like them. The stars may be remote, but the feelings they engender in us are at the core of our being aware. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Navigators, of course, have long steered by the stars. And along with clouds, winds, currents, and waves, have used them to populate remote Pacific islands. Astronomers make a living trying to understand the stars, along with astrophysicists and cosmologists. Tell an astrologer your time and place of birth, and he or she will plot the positions of sun, moon, and planets against the twelve houses of the zodiac, producing a horoscope that is yours alone.

Imagine modern life without images provided by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, or many orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope. I have to admit to being star-struck as a kid, ogling meteor showers, passing comets, and, lower down, displays of green and sometimes red auroras borealis.

I am struck by fireflies, too, and glints off the water, but anything to do with lights in the sky at night commands my attention, including airplane lights and sun-glinting satellites. The cosmic aesthetic may be ethereal, but it is compelling nonetheless.

Too, we are all born to the lore of the constellations that guided early explorers on their far travels across deserts, snowfields, and oceans alike. When we peer at the stars, we subjectively group them into familiar patterns, whose names we then cast onto the heavens. The constellations are in our minds more than in the stars, but we use them nonetheless to map the skies at night as seen from our respective locations on Earth.

From my perspective in midsummer Maine, Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre are high overhead amid the sweep of the Milky Way. Whether seen as bear or dipper, Ursa Major and Minor round the (north) pole star through the course of a year. Sagittarius the archer (or teapot) is more to the south in summer. On maps of stars of the Southern Hemisphere, I find Horologium the clock, Sextans the sextant, Musca the fly, Telescopium the telescope.

Constellations are a cooperative venture between meaningless stars and the pattern-seeking minds of humans on the lookout for meaning by projecting recognizable shapes onto the heavens. Even the patterns are illusions in being made up of stars distributed in three-dimensional space (not spread thinly across the supposed “dome” we make of the celestial regions). In that we do violence to the stars for the sake of making them conveniently familiar and comprehensible.

Seeing a parade of godlike figures along the zodiac is no different. All of astrology is in human heads, along with the naming of planets after ancient gods, envisioning the stars as circling the Earth in twenty-four hours, and the sun as gliding through the twelve constellations of the zodiac in a year’s time.

Such doings illustrate our human yen to engage the stars to discover their meaning. If we don’t find it there, then, well, we make it up to suit our needs at the time. We’ve been doing just that—and then painfully trying to undo it—throughout the course of recorded history. It is one thing to see what we see; something else again to take responsibility for our part in the process of putting mind and night image together as if they were one and the same.

That is a profound lesson the stars have to teach us because we now know there are no actual groupings of stars such as the houses and constellations we chart on our maps of the heavens. As I personally know that the figures I project onto the wavering filaments of the northern lights are a result of my mind doing its best to find familiar shapes where no such disciplined forms actually exist.

It might seem like our home planet is at the precise center of universal goings-on, but that is a story told by our Neolithic perspective, which gives no account of galaxies, arms of galaxies, minor suns in the arms of galaxies, or of minor planets circling such stars—of which we now know there must be billions.

It only strikes us that we occupy the center of the Great All because our minds are trapped in their black boxes in our heads, and that’s what we make of the puzzle of the outside world in a kind of grand guess about what may be out there in clear view above the horizon of what our naïve minds have any chance to understand.

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.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

386. Our Inner Helmsman

December 23, 2014

Our situated intelligence is the helmsman who steers future behavior in keeping with judgments we make upon the state of affairs signaled by current perception, emotion, and understanding. We all live at the core of our engagements, adjusting our course according to where we want to go in relation to where we have been and where we find ourselves now.

The essence of mind is in the sense of mental integrity and intelligence that our navigational skills represent. My inner helmsman is as close as I can come to the sense of spiritual guidance I feel when trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling flowing through my mind as integrated into a particular judgment and commitment to action.

Such guidance is ever-present in my mind as I write this essay on self-reflection and understanding. The crux of that guidance is its integrity as a sign that all dimensions of mind are in active relationship one with another, creating an intelligent whole from its contributing parts.

That sense of mental integrity is very much like what we mean by physical health as a sign that all our bodily systems are in good order and functioning together, the result being nothing less than life itself. Mental integrity (health, wholeness) is my sense of, and guide to, my inner life. It is the presence in myself that I recognize as my personal stream of consciousness.

In familiar situations, we often relax our scrutiny by relying on less demanding procedures than full judgment of how we are handling ourselves. Easing off, we can link perception to action via unconscious reflexes, mimicry, rote learning, habitual performance, prejudice, the comforting practice of ideology, and other such shortcuts that bypass our full intelligence.

In moving on from perception to action, we can fall back on our reflexes and act wholly without thinking. We can mimic how others respond in similar situations. We can rely on rote behaviors we have internalized from how others have taught us to act in such circumstances.

Too, we can replay habits and routines we have fallen into over the years through frequent repetition. We can surrender to the prejudices that come to the surface from deep inside our histories of experience that we have never truly dealt with or given much thought to. We can fall back on the ideology we have been steeped in for much of our lives, the ways of our tribe, or our kind of people.

And always, we have the option of acting imaginatively and creatively to solve particular problems or otherwise meet our needs at the moment by taking the risk of doing something we have never done before as called for by our sense of self in a novel predicament. That is, by trusting our inner helmsman to see us through.

Imagination depends on reshuffling our standard schemes of meaning at different levels of discernment so that we mix and match our schemes and orders of understanding to come up with a new version of what might be fitting and possible, and give that new order a try to see what will happen.

 

With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.

Without apology, I can truly state that I am the world’s leading expert on the mental goings-on within my personal black box according to the perspectives provided by my own mind from inside that box. You can make the same claim for yourself.

Other than by my personal understanding as based on my reading in psychology and neuroscience, I have no authority to speak about events taking place on a neurochemical level in any brain whatsoever.

Brain is implicit in mind at every stage of engagement. So too is the perceptual energy flowing through pathways within the brain, energy that reflects its spatial and temporal organization upon being translated into neural terms by our body’s sensory receptors.

Though my view of these processes has been formed during a long course of self-reflection, I generalize here by writing variously in reference to “I,” “you,” and “we” as if I were intimately acquainted with mental events in everyone’s brain (including yours). I do this to encourage readers to take part in the mental exercise I am performing on myself, so to offer other wayfarers an opportunity for self-discovery in light of their own experience. Feel free to modify my offer as you see fit so that your findings are your own.

Personal memory plays in the background of every engagement as called for by the different situations and patterns of stimulation we encounter. This provides a backstory that helps us translate what is happening into the familiar terms of our mental understanding.

The plot runs like this: starting with arousal so that memory is poised to entertain signals stirred by our readiness to pay attention, an inner sense of the current situation we are dealing with focuses expectancy on what is likely to happen.

What we notice in particular is deviations from, or exceptions to, our expectancies. Novel features catch our attention because they have much to tell us in relation to the pattern of what we expected to find, which instantly becomes background to what actually strikes our senses.

Looking up from a hospital bed (where I was having stitches put in my hand after a recent fall on slippery shoreline rocks), I noticed, not the pattern of white netting that attached the curtain around my bed to a track in the ceiling, but the one-inch hole in that netting that formed a black exception to the white regularity of that grid of fibers.

Attention is drawn to the buzzing fly that is a conspicuous exception to the silence around us, to the lightning striking out of dark clouds, to the silhouette of the sole sandpiper running along the tideline, to the stain on the white tablecloth, the cough arising from a rapt audience, the new rattle in our car, and so on.

Expectancy establishes the pattern of what we are used to seeing; attention rushes in to focus on particular details that stand out against the background of those expectations.

 

No getting around it, we learn by sensing and doing. This requires liberal doses of time, frustration, variation, imagination, refinement, experimentation, curiosity, and practice, practice, practice. If leeway for such a program is not built into our schools, then we fall back on rote learning to be fed back on the test.

Better, we let students pose their own answers, and wrestle with working them through, making a great many errors along the way. Those errors will be their own errors, which they will learn to correct in short order.

Education based on trial and error is far better than learning to mimic a paradigm from the outset. How would you go about solving this problem? How do you see this situation? What options can you think of for ways to move ahead? Which option is the fastest? Cheapest? Most enjoyable? Easiest? Hardest? In the long/short run, best?

The role of education is to unleash the promise with which each child is born to this and future worlds, not to shape that promise to the desires of a select group of strangers driven by self-serving interests.

 

My understanding of my own mind rests on committing my mental resources to working through the run of situations that arise and evolve in daily life. That commitment is what I mean by engaging the world beyond the limits of my bodily envelope.

Baseball offers one such medium of engagement based on the commitment to engage another team by playing a certain role both offensively as a batter and defensively as pitcher, catcher, infielder, or outfielder in a manner that conforms to the rules of the game.

Jazz offers another medium of engagement for playing a particular instrument in rehearsing and performing in a certain traditional style or idiom of music. Ballet is a third medium, and so on through a host of others including poetry, literature, theater, film, art, gardening, politics, religion, finance, science, technology, education, and so on. All opening me to various ways of performing in my daily engagement with the world, and so surviving the best I can as the sort of person I am.

All media are disciplined ways of being conscious in the world, and of engaging accordingly, perceiving in certain ways, judging in certain ways, performing in certain ways. What all such media of being conscious share in common is the commitment to and expression of mental situations as they arise and evolve. Those situations themselves are largely shaped by the medium chosen for their apt expression. Some situations are appropriate to ballet, jazz, or baseball, respectively. Others require treatment in media offering other disciplined ways of being oneself.

Fueled by a range of emotion, memories, biological values, understandings, imaginings, impressions, beliefs, and other dimensions of personal experience, our situated intelligence—what we gloss as our inner selves—guides and coordinates our judgments, actions, and perception in engaging the world in a manner we find personally appropriate, meaningful, and satisfying (or to some degree not).

We are as we engage, and engage as we discover ourselves situated within the dimensions of our lifelong intelligence, training, and experience. That’s life. The adventure, journey, odyssey we commit ourselves to for precisely one lifetime.

348. Situated Intelligence

October 29, 2014

Situated intelligence refers to the makeup of the mind in any particular situation. It is the structure of the mind as assembled from the collective dimensions of consciousness active at that moment. Those dimensions include some mix of sensory impressions, understanding, imagination, emotion, values, drives, humor, judgment, memory, and so on.

Whatever its composition, situated intelligence drives and regulates the loop of engagement coursing from perception through meaning and judgment to action in the world, and back to the next round of engagement beginning with expectancy, attention, and sensory impressions.

Situated intelligence is what we refer to as the self, I, ego, and so on. There is no homunculus keeping an eye on the world; there is only the assembly of particular dimensions of mind as briefly constituted in a given situation. In a few milliseconds that structure will evolve as the situation develops, our judgments will shift, and we will act more or less appropriately to the next stage of awareness. William James referred to this progression as the stream of consciousness.