Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

Advertisements

390. Vivre la difference!

December 27, 2014

Mental judgments, the very stuff of consciousness, are based on either-or comparisons. On summing good points and bad points to see which tally is more convincing. Comparison of possibilities is one of our primary means of survival because, as I see it, it is the method that our nervous system is dedicated to.

In these posts, I have already pointed to the role of comparison in such vital functions as depth perception, directional hearing, and maintaining our balance. Simple acts such as steering a boat by a compass are acts of comparison, in this case between our charted and actual headings, the difference—the dis-parity—between them indicating the degree and direction of the course correction it is our duty to make in order to reach our destination.

The disparity between two signals is what we are aware of, not either one or the other by itself. As the French say regarding the sexes, vivre la difference! because it is precisely such relative differences that elevate us into states of awareness.

Consciousness is all about relationships, not things in themselves. About how the present stands up against expectancies grounded in bygone days. About how engagements turn out in comparison to our original intents. About how jokes defy our expectations. About how perceptions gauge the fit between our intentions and the concrete results we actually achieve.

Our primary approach to judgment is to assess how a given turn of events fits with the situation we find ourselves in. That is, fits our purposes and engagements at the moment. Trial-and-error is the gateway to consciousness. Let’s see if this works or it doesn’t.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That depends on our perspective, which further depends on our situation. If we want more to drink, it’s half gone; if we’ve drunk all we want, it’s half-full. Being situational, consciousness comes in two polarities, encouraging or discouraging, affirming or negating, good or bad, considered or rash, wise or foolish. The sharp differences heighten the clarity and emphasis of the comparisons by which we decide our course between the well- or less-traveled roads ahead.

Comparison can be a measurement to a standard, or a simple judgment of the similarity and difference between any two things or events. We quickly notice the wrongness of the wasp in the jam jar, the rightness of the cherry atop the sundae.

I remember a teacher of aesthetics once remarking that he could discourse endlessly on the comparison between a cigarette and a piece of chalk (he then having one in each hand).

Being a highly visual person, I find symmetry and other comparative relationships in the features of almost everything I see and photograph. It is the tension or balance told by such graphic relationships that I notice more than the things in themselves, which are often incidental. I remember a faculty wife whose face was so perfectly symmetrical that I found it painful to look at her because, without any disparity, I had no comfort zone within which to admire her beauty.

Standards often turn out to be what we are used to, so are rooted in personal experience and opinion. I get tired of cold days in February so think a daytime temperature above freezing is just fine; a skier would find it too warm. Men and women vary widely in their primary, secondary, and behavioral sexual characteristics and preferences, yet convention has it that men are men and women are women, period. Only recently in America do we provide a few boxes to check for those who don’t fit either stereotype.

We are often optimistic or pessimistic about world affairs, reflecting polarized judgments about how things are going from our point of view. Optimists are prone to seeing virtues where pessimists harp on faults. Pollyannas find good in everyone; fault-finders thrive on what’s wrong. Some people shift moods between extreme states of mind: euphoria and depression, bursts of creativity and bouts of despair. At New Year’s we resolve to improve ourselves, and promise to do better next year. If sins didn’t call for either penance or forgiveness, church attendance would crash overnight.

Such polar attitudes toward comparative differences shed a clear light on the nature of consciousness. Of which I will say more in my next post.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Overwhelmed by life? That’s a sure sign that your consciousness is on overload. Too many issues are calling for immediate attention. You can’t do everything at once, so you turn in on yourself and do nothing at all. We’ve all been in that place, hoping the storm will pass, but when we stick our heads up and look around, we find our situation more calamitous than it was before. We’re stuck. Can’t do anything, can’t get away. The tension is unbearable.

But not hopeless. There are things we can do. Like face into the storm. Jot down every complaint screaming for attention, every job requiring immediate response. Which ones are most urgent? Which can wait? Prioritize, making sure to put first things at the head of the list. Then gird for action, start at the top and work our way down. Prioritize other claims as they crop up. Being sure to take care of ourselves so we don’t lose it. Eat, sleep, take a lot of deep breaths. . . .

Sound like an advice column in a newspaper? They all say the same thing a thousand different ways. Collect yourself. Keep calm. Walk, don’t run to the nearest exit. Take one thing at a time. Concentrate. Do what you can, then move on. You can’t be all things to all people. Stay centered. Be yourself.

Moderate stress keeps you going, but high stress can unravel you. If you want to meet other peoples’ needs, you really have to put meeting your own need to reduce stress at the top of your list. Delaying or denying only create more stress. What can you do for yourself right now that really helps you get yourself together—your consciousness all in one piece so you don’t feel so frazzled?

Voice from above: “Simplify.” Who said that? You did. You felt it all along. To simplify your life, there are two obvious but opposite approaches you can take: 1) move to a higher plane of consciousness by concentrating on generalities, not nagging details, or 2) narrow your focus to fit the amount of energy and attention you can spare for emergencies. That is, act locally not globally, personally not universally.

On the higher plane, you can afford to enjoy a sense of ironic humor by dealing with such empty generalities as peace, hope, love, kindness, generosity, and happiness. What me worry? If people would only be nice to one another. Love is the answer to all questions. Flower power! Everything is simple when you view it from a distance. Throw your cares to the four winds. See how tiny they look scattered around the horizon like that. Stress begone! It’s all in your mind. Let the universe take control while you read your book. Think cosmic thoughts. Grand thoughts. Huge, momentous, significant, meaningful, eternal thoughts. There, you see, nothing to it. You can make it happen by rising above the plane of woe to attain the plane of conceptual indifference.

On the other hand, you can zoom in close to the details of what really counts in your life. A hobby, say, your pet, or maybe your collection of baseball cards. That way, you screen everything else out—all those troubles that stir up so much stress. Zoom in really, really close. Go to the hairdresser. Watch the game on TV. Do today’s sudoku puzzle. Trim your fingernails. Eat a bowl of Rice Krispies. Walk the dog. Find a fault. Sharpen a pencil. Empty the trash. Wash dishes. Sort your penny collection. The main thing is to clear you head of all but the simplest, most basic thoughts—the ones you neglect in the busyness of everyday life. Go for it. Tend to trivial affairs. Be petty through-and-through. Think inconsequential thoughts. Pay close attention to minute, detailed, insignificant affairs. Simplify, simplify, simplify down to almost nothing, and then some. Let go of everything but the whim of the moment. Forget duty and responsibility and caring and work. Play. Have fun. Life is not a sack of coal; see, you had it wrong. It’s a bowl of cherries. Here, have another. Make the big, bad world go away. We’re all just motes of dust anyway. Be your mote to the hilt!

When stress hits, you have the option of filling your consciousness with thoughts big or small. That’s as simple as I can make the problem of coping with life’s stressful complexities. Live on the highest level of generality you can attain, and watch all problems morph into the few universal concepts you most prefer. Or reach for the deepest level of sensory detail you can achieve, and watch your problems disappear, never to distract you again. Choosing to live at one extreme of consciousness or the other is guaranteed to lower your stress level and make your problems shrink if not vanish.

Which sounds absurd, but that’s how a great many people choose to live—on the top or bottom edge of the awareness consciousness makes possible. Philosophers and holy men tend to inhabit the rarefied atmosphere at the upper limit of conceptual consciousness, while trash sorters seek the steaming piles of detritus at the lower limit, eyes peeled for unsuspected treasures. Either way, life seems simpler and more meaningful than riding out the tumult in the middle.

Having set up the foregoing framework, let me now come to the point of this exercise.  Whether we live with our heads in clouds of deep abstraction, or feet on the trash heap of what’s concretely possible in real life, how we choose to manage our personal consciousness is not a given but is up to us to decide. The more we explore the possibilities our minds offer,  the easier we can shape consciousness to our liking. If we wait too long, it becomes almost impossible.

High-enders tend to be those striving to see the big picture—people drawn to conceptual schools of thought, to religion, politics, and the like where abstractions are king and values are whispering advisors. Low-enders are those caught up in the details they encounter in leading a life—trades and crafts persons, accountants, bureaucrats, medical professionals, farmers, and other of a practical bent preferring to deal with nitty-gritty particulars. Here the senses rule the mind and the big issue is doing the job right.

Then there’s the vast middle ground I haven’t mentioned of simplifying consciousness by drawing support judiciously from both extremes. In my own case, I strive to connect my feet on the trash heap of particular details to my head in the mists of abstract ideas by bridging back and forth through the body of my personal consciousness in its fullness of both concrete experience and encompassing thought. My method in this blog has been to have each end respectively inform the other, linking rarefied concepts to particular details in each post—or at least as often as I can. That way, my feet are placed in line with my head, providing as much support as they can. Such is my goal. Which reduces stress internally through opposites seeking engagement with each other, not externally by one pole deliberately avoiding its opposite, as I have caricatured such a situation in setting up the framework I established at the start of this post.

What I’m saying is that consciousness offers more ways of being in the world than many of us witness during our formative years, and if we rely unduly on one mode or another because that’s what we see our teachers and role models doing, we sell ourselves—and what our minds are capable of—short of full realization. The danger lies in getting accustomed to using our minds in limited ways, which effectively solders the wiring of our brains to favor those ways, making exploration of alternative mental strategies unlikely if not almost impossible. Set in our ways, we come to believe consciousness offers no alternatives, so it ossifies in our case, restricting the breadth and variety of our mental powers. Thinking there’s no other way, we turn into simpleminded ideologues defending our views to the end. The longer we carry on, the worse our condition becomes. To get out of our ruts, we must radically retool our minds, a job that gets more difficult with age. In the end, we have little choice but to settle for the limits we impose on ourselves.

Those who follow these posts know that I have often drawn a distinction between two activities within consciousness, concrete sensory perception and abstract concept formation. I visualize concepts as being built up over time through exposure to a series of similar but not identical percepts, so retaining the similarities but excluding the differences. The result is a categorical envelope (mammal, airplane, person, tool) that serves as an idea lacking sensible content. When a percept is matched to an appropriate concept, form and content combine in a meaningful perception (a particular mammal such as that porcupine in that tree, a photo of a Ford Trimotor airplane, the actor John Wayne, the needle-nosed pliers I thought I’d lost but found in my pocket).

Between the limits of concrete and sensory consciousness lies the vast playing field of perception where the two terminal extremes combine in episodes of meaningful experience. That is where our personal reality is played out, sometimes closer to the conceptual end of the field, other times the sensory end, weighting consciousness toward one extreme or the other. Consciousness, then, is seldom a matter of strictly conceptual or sensory experience as I have parodied it here, but a combination of both kinds of experience as suited to the phenomenal situations in which they occur. There are occasions when concepts are called for, others when percepts are required to illustrate concepts. Some of us tend to lurk near one end of the field or the other, seldom venturing out to the midline where a balance between the two is called for. That is, we develop a mental style favoring either sensory images or abstract ideas, and don’t realize the full potential of the consciousness we are endowed with.

My goal in writing this post is to encourage others to explore and utilize the full run of the middle ground of their consciousness where percepts and concepts meet on equal terms to form a reality favoring neither one extreme nor the other. When the going gets tough, we don’t have to hide in our minds, we can deal effectively by employing the full range of our mental capabilities. In times of crisis such as the one we live in today, it is essential to review both the ideas and facts—policies and deeds—that got us into this situation. In the great game of consciousness, the aim is not to score more goals than the other guy, but to achieve the most balanced play of reality possible under current conditions. That is the true art of consciousness, combining two simple views to form a convincing and serviceable reality as a basis for appropriate action. When that happens, the crowd springs to its feet with a jubilant roar of approval.

Right on!