(Copyright © 2010)

This blog is an extension of a project I started in July, 2006 in a summer research seminar led by the Quaker Institute for the Future at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Each member worked for a month on a project in an atmosphere of communal discernment, making several presentations to the group, offering comments and suggestions in an atmosphere of mutual trust. My project was a Power-Point promoting resolution of conflicts over marine issues on the Maine coast. How, I asked, could people come to mutual agreement on issues they approached from divergent points of view? My conclusion was that human consciousness is such a personal matter, there is no way fully to appreciate another’s perspective. Mapping our life experiences onto our respective worlds as we do, we effectively live in parallel universes ruled by different assumptions, customs, rules, and desires, making agreement about anything extremely difficult.

Which didn’t advance my project idea very far, if at all. Following the seminar, I put together several more detailed presentations, each falling short of my ambitions. It struck me I might be working in the wrong medium, so took to blogging about consciousness as an alternative route to the same goal. After 199 posts, am I any further along than I was? Yes and no. I have developed several new ways of looking at the problem, and broadened my respect for the difficulty of what I am trying to do, which I see now, comes with the territory of being human. Consciousness is a very flexible tool for overcoming short-term difficulties, but it is less helpful in the long term because rooted in the practical here and now, not the necessarily conceptual then of the future.

In effect, at the same time they are the bases we stand on, our past ways often prevent us from taking new positions in unfamiliar situations. And every new day is an unfamiliar situation (if it’s not, it’s not a new day). Changing our ways requires we give up old habits of making ourselves happen in the universe. If we can’t slough the skin we present to the world, then it’s bound to become dry and disfiguring. Is that what we want—to cling to what we’ve already become? Or can we keep up with changing times by incorporating new factors into our makeup?

On that note, I went back to Reflection 1: Dying Crow, to see where I was when I began this series of posts. Here’s the “snippet” of consciousness I dealt with in October 2008:

I am driving along a country road and see a dead crow ahead. No, not dead, a dying crow—its wing feebly flapping the air. A shadow on the edge of the shoulder showing signs of life. What should I do? For me, this is a worst-case scenario. I can’t just drive by and leave it to suffer. I am aware of strong feelings welling within me. I don’t want to stop and wring its neck, but what else can I do? I’d rather keep going. I am conflicted. Then, as I approach the dying crow, I see it differently—a trash bag blowing in the wind. Yes, definitely, a black plastic bag agitated by the wash from passing cars. Relieved, I drive on.

Categorization, that’s what I was dealing with. Mapping my values, attitudes, and experience onto the world—and getting it wrong. I caught myself in the act of falsely projecting my fears and assumptions onto an innocent phenomenon—a dark, shifting shape by the side of the road. In that instant, I confront not a dying crow but my own consciousness remaking the world to suit itself.

In Reflection 4: Crash, I did exactly the same thing in seeing a swept-back, metal TV antenna gleaming in sunlight as a crashing airplane. In Reflection 6, I saw a complete stranger ahead of me on the sidewalk as my friend, Fred, because he was dressed as Fred would have dressed and walked with a similar gait. Erroneously mapping concepts onto my immediate surroundings, that’s where I began this blog. I didn’t use the word “categorization” because it wasn’t in my working vocabulary, but I see now that’s what I was dealing with.

In Reflection 3: Mia Culpa, I tell of looking for a jar of mustard—and not finding it anywhere—even though I looked right at it several times in my search. What could happen to a jar of mustard, a fixture in my very idea of kitchen and refrigerator? What did happen was that it was lying on its side, presenting a round, red top, not the half-full, bent-sided jar I had in mind. Wrong gestalt. I had the wrong image of what I was looking for. The pattern I was seeking didn’t exist because it had morphed into an unconventional view I didn’t associate with mustard. One of life’s minor situations, and an occasion for learning about my habitual search strategies. Categorization, again, gone sour. Casting trite expectations onto my little world, I came up empty-handed and still hungry. 

In Reflection 5: Sunflowers, I told of going upstairs to get something, and not seeing a bunch of huge sunflowers in a vase that I passed within six inches of while both coming and going. I was so fixated on whatever I’d come after as to be functionally blind. “Do you like the sunflowers?” asks Carole. “What sunflowers?” says I. Again, a void in my personal space because, for me, sunflowers weren’t the issue, so I wasn’t looking for them. And I don’t seem to see what I’m not looking for. Expectancy, attention, and categorization are key in how I map my mind onto the world, making the world I construe for myself absolutely my personal world. Anyone coming right behind me would construct a different world based on her expectations, attention, and habitual modes of categorization.

All of which have consequences. In Reflection 10: Diagnosis, I told of going to an eminent doctor who, thinking I had cystic fibrosis, put me in hospital for a week of tests intended to confirm his hunch. Except they didn’t. He released me, not having a clue what I had (which, as it turned out thirty years later, was celiac disease all along). Diagnosis is how we decide between our options for categorizing particular patterns that interest us. It is a way of getting hold of the pattern so we’re sure it’s this one and not that one. Putting a name to a pattern of symptoms, we then apply the standard remedy or customary course of treatment. Who are we? Diagnosticians, every one. Or cartographers, bent on mapping our expectancies onto phenomena that matter to us. Then acting (rightly or wrongly) on the basis of the diagnosis we have mapped out.

In Reflection 37: Terms of Endearment, I blogged about giving names to persons or things that change our lives. In hindsight, I see I was dealing with an aspect of categorization by relying on prior experience in becoming conscious of something new:

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.

Naming is applied intentionality, a defining characteristic of consciousness:

Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.

Scary, to think that how we name our children and our pets reveals who we are. But there it is: consciousness projecting itself onto patterns in our heads, and those named patterns becoming features of the world we wrap ourselves in. Other cultures, other people—other quilts for consciousness.

Throughout this blog, I have tried to deal with metaphor as a variant form of intentionality, also deliberately applied. Intentionality is habitual categorization, representing a personal style of mapping concepts derived from prior experiences onto patterns that emerge in everyday life. Which is exactly what categorization does for us in giving meaning to sensory patterns and relationships. When personal meanings are an issue, metaphor tells the world emphatically how we see it in light of our experience.

Humor, too, reveals categorizations by setting up a conceptual framework or situation that is fulfilled by a specific punch line, resolving a tense situation (because of frustrated or confounded expectancy) in an apt yet novel manner, eliciting laughter—our stock response to nonthreatening surprises.

Categorization is a basic feature of consciousness that surfaces in almost everything we do. Human understanding is a form of categorization—of lending character to the world based on how we choose to depict it from our point of view. The bulk of this blog, it turns out in hindsight, deals with aspects of categorizing as a key aspect of mind. Dying crows, crashing planes, missing mustard jars, strangers mistaken for friends, sunflowers not seen, naming, metaphors, humor—here in each case is meaning-making in action, the human mind at work trying to find sense in its relevant universe by mapping abstract concepts from the past onto sensory patterns in the here and the now.

It was Gerald M. Edelman who gave me the word “categorization,” which he distinguishes from the philosophical sort by calling “perceptual categorization.” In the Glossary to Wider than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness (Yale, 2004), he lists perceptual categorization as, “The process by which the brain ‘carves the world up’ to yield adaptive categories. The most fundamental of early cognitive functions.” Reading his works this past winter, I realized he and I were talking about similar aspects of mind using different words. In addition, Edelman suggests not only a neural substrate, but an evolutionary or adaptive origin as well, both of which lie beyond my limited experience. Seeing categorization as the central core of consciousness, I switched to Edelman’s way of thinking, trying to work my way into the concept, which keeps growing larger and more encompassing in my understanding. It provides a fitting culmination to this blog, letting me tie much of what I have written together—a major categorizational shift in my way of thinking.

I call this next-to-last post (I am retiring for now) “Letting Go” because one part of categorization I haven’t dealt with is how we grow to become more discriminating categorizers by letting go of, or transcending, the limits imposed on our seeing-the-world by the narrowness of our lived experience. If conflict resolution between those who see the world differently is an issue, then I believe the best solution might be to let go of our conflictive selves in order to grow into larger persons with broader abilities to find meaning in the patterns we see in the world. It’s OK for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims, atheists to be atheists, people to be who they are because they cannot reinvent themselves as someone else. Clearly, this requires self-transcendence of us all. If our categorizations become hardened because written in stone for all time, we are incapable of waking up to a new day. When, in fact, every day is given us as a new challenge because the past no longer exists. It is up to us to keep up with the sun and the seasons by renewing ourselves to meet the challenge of today, not those of yesterday, or thousands of years before that.

I say we need to discover more humor in our rigid categorizations by rising above ourselves and looking down, seeing ourselves as characters in a story (or is it a joke?). That is, of letting go the chains we wrap round our minds as if we were creatures, not of the instant, but of all time, ever the same because we are trapped in our minds and cannot get out.

Did Moses know it all? Did Jesus? Mohammed? Shaping ourselves in their image by repeating words ascribed to them, we become cardboard cutouts of so many smiling waiters or waitresses bringing trays filled with mugs of beer to assure our satisfaction and happiness. As if a particular brand of beer—or religion—held the answer to all questions. As if loyal or even orthodox adherence to the past was the way to the future. As if we knew now what the future will bring, and it will be as we describe it, without fail. As if each day was not new, but only an opportunity for us to cram it into the mold of the past to fit concepts we have in mind because that is the only way we can reliably know who we are. As if we were not flesh-and-blood humans but creatures of stone, much like the terracotta warriors of China.

In truth, consciousness has the power to reinvent itself in response to the situation each of us finds him-or-herself in today. We may not be able to beam ourselves into new bodies, but we can transcend the limits we put on ourselves yesterday and the day before. Indeed, it is we who bind our minds with steel bands lest we think a new thought or dream of casting-off our old, worn-out personalities and tired ideas. They are already dead; all we need do is let go and shed them as our former selves. It is not written anywhere that who we were is who we are for all time. That is a trap laid by unsupple minds to catch themselves changing and growing into new selves more suited to the new day. It’s as if people were holding their breath, stopping their blood from flowing, not thinking new thoughts. Not daring to live.

One thing is certain: rigidity of consciousness is a catatonic state of mind that locks the living world into a dead cartoon of the world as it might be if we but opened our eyes. What are we to do? Release the past from the chains we’ve put round it and let it go. I am not—and cannot be—the child I was, or the man I hoped to become. I am wholly other because I have given myself to my environment as it flows through my senses. I am none other than a creature of my time and place on this planet. I turn with the Earth so that I can be fully what it makes of me. That way, I evolve. That is the only way I can enjoy the ride—which is the trip of a lifetime. My lifetime. My days as a conscious son of the Earth.

No, they don’t teach that in school. Everyone is too anxious to leave young minds up to chance. We invent curriculums and standardized tests, which are mental chains in themselves. Think of the irony of a gang of unique kids being herded into one end of the education system and cranked out as a uniform standard product at the other end. What has been lost in the process is the quality of individual uniqueness, sole fount of imagination, invention, and ultimately, survival under ever-changing yet unique circumstances and conditions. That is, our humanity has been stripped away because, by biological definition, each of us is unlike any other.

What a difference it makes to conceive of yourself as a unique being instead of a replica of everyone else. That way, you can reinvent yourself as you choose and don’t have to live up to the identity laid upon you by the expectations of your peers. Are you living for them? Is that how it is? They are your guides and masters, your controllers? Your life is an extension of theirs? If so, that is because you have already surrendered and are dead but don’t know it.

Let go of all that. Open yourself to discovery. Let the world in through your senses, not those of celebrities, columnists, loud talkers, or pundits. Activate your own mapping skills so that you live in your own personal territory, not the cell assigned to you. That territory is in your head and belongs solely to you. Never trade it away for any reason. Live by your own wits, not the dictates of others. Open yourself to the sensory patterns flowing around you; immerse yourself in them. Deal with the patterns of your time and your place on this Earth. Then lay meaning on those patterns as best you can account for them. And act on those meanings to see if they are accurate or not. If not, try again—something different this time. Not always the same as if you were a stone warrior, a true believer in the single, true faith.

That’s what I mean by “letting go.” Really, becoming yourself and fulfilling the potential you were born to. Is there any other way to live? Evidently there is—many of us dragging in chains our whole lives, thinking thoughts approved by others in advance. And consorting only with those who categorize their sensory worlds as we do, because it is much too dangerous to stake out individual territories for ourselves.

With the result that we are not truly alive, or truly ourselves, but are some kind of zooid living out a life sentence, hoping it will end soon, without pain or mishap. Which means not taking the risk of making ourselves happen in the world as if each of us were an individual capable of independent action, thought, and responsibility. Trapped by outdated ideas, we live in the old days, as we have been taught. Discovering freedom requires us to let go of all that. We have the mental equipment to do it. And a methodology for knowing ourselves as categorizers and sensory pattern detectors (go back and read this blog if you missed that part) who make their own worlds. Mental chains are a challenge meant to be mastered—as Alexander undid the Gordian Knot.

Gordian Knot Pattern

 

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(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

(Copyright © 2010)

I am ever the hero of my own little drama as I act it out in my head. It can’t be otherwise because I am the author and sole interpreter of the script as it is revealed to me (that is, as I make it up minute by minute). My life is a performance of my story, first concocted in my head, then performed on the virtual (from my point of view) stage of the unknowable world. Picture me behind the door of my mind—the one with the star—posing in my dressing gown before a full-length mirror, mouthing the words I am rehearsing for the grand performance I’m to give in a few moments. If you were lucky, you’d be in the audience. Too bad you can’t make the show because you are rehearsing your own performance before your own full-length mirror in a different dressing room, also with a star on the door.

We are heroes to ourselves because we can do no wrong. Even when we commit stupid or cruel acts, we are automatically off the hook because, no matter how others see us, we appear blameless to ourselves. Self-interest is our only motive, so by definition we have to be right because we can always justify what we do. It is they, those others, who are at fault—they just don’t understand.

Each a hero in her own eyes; what a wonderful system. Perfection itself on two legs, facing the world, looking about for yet more heroic labors worthy of our talents and strengths. Whatever feats others may perform, we can do better. Why waste time pretending to be modest if in all honesty we’re the greatest? I mean, what-is-the-point? Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If corporations ever got on to the power of categorization so they were able to set the terms in which we all see the world, there’d be hell to pay.

If we manage to do no harm by living our span to the fullest, then a self-assertive life such as I have described in those first three paragraphs amounts to a comedy. But despite our good intentions, we are never as innocent as we claim. Others do without basic necessities so that we may live higher on the hog than they can imagine. Eyes straight ahead, we are only dimly aware of the ruin in our wake. With an automobile, I have killed pheasants, dogs, cats, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, and thousands of others. I have been trained as a killer by the U.S. Army; I don’t doubt that my training was successful on occasion, even well after the fact. But there I go again, blaming my training, while the true killer is the self that I am whose hungers demand to be fed.

Our myopic perspectives and insatiable appetites render life more tragic than comic. Think of the innocents slaughtered in our name (beef cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and thousands of plants, many of which bear genes similar to our own). We live at far greater expense than we know or choose to bother ourselves about.

All because we categorize and sort the world for personal gain as we imagine it, without consulting others in advance. Selfish and glib, that’s what we are. I know, I am one who has shaped the world to his advantage as long as he can remember. Not deliberately or knowingly, perhaps, but effectively that is how I have lived my life. Following my nose, which means following the dictates of self-interest and personal advantage. The difference between me following my nose and Bernie Madoff following his is he’s in prison and I’m not. Or if I am in fact behind bars, those bars are the steely cage around my consciousness, armoring the very wits by which I survive.

I use such imagery to describe the categorizing aspect of consciousness because we cannot avoid casting our most self-serving concepts upon sensory patterns representing what we can know of the world. With the exception of messages from great corporations, those phenomenal patterns do not come to us presorted and pre-categorized; it is we who bend them to our purposes by seeing them from our unique points of view as recorded in our personal histories of concept formation, cleaned and gutted of telling details, hollowed-out for general utility later on, leaving only husks, not the essence. Categorization—recognizing the “true” nature of things—is not an impartial act; we are invested in what uses we can make of a thing for our personal advancement, so bestow categories on it that will serve us well later on. A spade is not just a spade nor a rose simply a rose; in each case they are functionally what we make them out to be. A spade can kill, a rose ingratiate us with others who will owe future favors.

Machiavelli didn’t come out of the blue; he was the product of his own urge to survive. So, too, de Sade. And Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” I say all survival is based on deception, particularly of the self. To us, our miscategorizations always appear fair and just. The self is in full command of its resources and does not submit to casual scrutiny. You have to infer its self-deceptions from its actual deeds. That makes it all the easier to confound its dictates with truth or reality, subject of my last post (Reflection 197: Backing Off).

Our entire neural apparatus intercedes between the self and its grasp of the world. Our senses don’t deliver the world-as-it-is to our doorstep, they bring us images transduced and reformulated by our sensory system—the world being at least once removed as translated into the neural language of action potentials and flowing neurotransmitters. Which memory scans for familiar patterns in order to categorize what we hear (see, touch, taste, smell) in terms of concepts made meaningful by prior experience. At every step of our life journey we reinvent ourselves and the situation we’re faced with based on patterns we’ve encountered before and the concepts we’ve derived from them. The world as-it-is-in-itself never enters our minds.

No matter how subtle, most categorizations are heroic distortions for personal gain in being consistent with biological values inherent in the self—namely you and me. Our meanings lie ready, waiting to seize on familiar neural signals. The perceptual side of consciousness is concerned with sensory patterns and relationships, and so is more cordial in being ruled by curiosity about, and interest in, what’s out there than by survival at any cost. Categorization answers questions raised by curiosity about the world, but personal aesthetics first decide what’s relevant and what isn’t. I don’t mean aesthetics focused solely on beauty; I mean picking up on sensory patterns and relationships apart from any meaning they may have for us. That is, sensory signals as not yet—but soon to be—recognized and categorized. Such as the tonal makeup and rhythms of a familiar voice or piece of music; the shape, size, color, and motion of a familiar bird; the feel of our fingers wrapping around the steering wheel of our family car; the scent of Spanish rice as Mother used to make it.

The mapping of categories onto sensory patterns, and vice versa, are two of the major achievements of consciousness. Experience and awareness meet in constituting a current moment of engagement with our world. The salience or relevance of the signal can be in attention or memory, but categorizing a sensory episode as a meaningful experience is our doing in either case. We are fulfilled in being simultaneous pattern detectors and categorizers in that moment. When our personal histories coincide with the sensory now, we are on familiar ground and know our options for making an appropriate response to the situation we’re in. The past claims the now, moving our heroic-aesthetic self one notch toward the future.

We are so quick to draw categories from our quiver, we come to think sensory patterns come to us with meanings attached to them, as if they were meaningful in and of themselves. But even if we are in our everyday mode of categorization, we are the ones responsible for bringing sensory inputs and conceptual meanings together. The meaning isn’t in the music or the image, it is in us. Always in us. If the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pour out of the radio and there’s no one to hear it, then the sounds go unrecognized, and the radio may be turned on, but Beethoven’s Fifth is not playing. If the sensory-pattern recognizer and categorizer is absent, then for all practical purposes the moment is lost. Think of a car skidding off the road, hitting a tree, killing the driver, with the radio playing relentlessly to his unhearing ears and lifeless body. Is the radio still playing? To one discovering the scene, perhaps, but not to the late driver.

Categorization takes time—on the order of a few tenths of a second. It is possible to live in the gap between pattern reception and the act of recognition that fits it to a category. We can prolong that gap as long as we please by focusing solely on sensory patterns and their internal relationships, dispensing with conceptual meanings as irrelevant—as we often do in listening to music without words, scanning the surface of a painting, savoring scents on a damp day in fall, and walking in woods or along the shore—giving ourselves to our surroundings instead of claiming to know them in advance.

As a photographer for the Information Service at Iowa State University in 1960, I used to photograph boxing matches and basketball games, giving my total attention to the action in the ring or under the basket. I was so engaged in my personal zone, I lived to anticipate what was about to happen because if I waited to find out, it was too late to click the shutter. Peering at the scene through the viewfinder of my camera, living in that space, when the match or game was over, I had to ask to find out who’d won.

Yes, sounds dumb, and it was because I had no use for speech and meaning. Just as when I visit galleries and avoid reading what the artist says about a painting or photograph, or even the label of what I am looking at. I don’t want titles or grand ideas, I want the visual experience, which the title or blurb takes away from me so that I know about the image without experiencing it for myself. In such a case, words are not the issue. They are someone else’s categorizations, and I have no interest in them. Later, perhaps, but not now. Not till I’ve pushed the experience as far as I can take it, exploring the image, noting the colors and their relationships, textures, shapes, angles, brushstrokes, making the image live in me so that I have a personal acquaintance with it. That way, I still see the world through my own eyes. Maybe later, I’ll bother to read what someone else has to say about it.

I still recall being disappointed when I led a group of eleventh graders on an excursion through woods where I wanted them to learn about their natural surroundings by touch, smell, sound—any way but sight (see Reflection 149: Blind Walk). Pairing up, one partner was to assure the safety of the other who, blindfolded, explored her surroundings by hand, ear, and nose. But despite my instructions, everyone made a guessing game of the exercise, the presumed object being to shout out the name of each object encountered. For them, the name said it all; sensory experience was beside the point. Which, I realized sadly, was the result of the schooling we run our children through in making them dutiful inductees into our culture. The label—the right answer—is of the essence; personal experience is not part of the curriculum. I was trying to awaken my students to sensory details they could use to enliven their writing, but had to work harder than I planned to get that message across.

Listening to music without words is one of the best ways I know of to experience the pre-categorical, sensory aspect of consciousness. Jazz and classical music work equally well; ballads less well because the words steal the show. The trick is to give yourself to the notes themselves as they rise and fall in time, noticing their duration, their tonal relationships, the quality of the different notes, the interacting voices of the instruments, echoes and repetitions, larger or smaller leaps than you expect, comparing where you think the music is going to where it actually leads, and so on. That way, you make each piece your own because you have lived inside it in your own consciousness, not merely followed along at a distance.

Abstract painting is a great medium for exploring visual relationships between different shapes, hues, values, textures,  sizes, and orientations of patches of color. It is such Thank you, Franz Klinerelationships that turn different patches into patterns of visual stimulation, elevating discrete sensory differences into an overall design which holds together because its internal workings add to something larger than themselves. Faced with an abstract by Franz Kline, for instance, seen from the right distance, the eye never stops ricocheting around the surface, darting to every corner in search of the next salient feature, knitting the parts into a stimulating and satisfying whole. Don’t take my word for it, words are irrelevant. Just give of yourself in free exploration and see what you find.

If we don’t explore sensory patterns before we categorize them as this or that, we may lose the opportunity because habit is apt to take over and short-circuit fresh perception altogether. I have mentioned in an earlier post the distinguished historian of science who put a print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk—and never saw it again. We have to make a deliberate effort to notice sensory patterns when we have the chance, or they may well disappear as so much cultural wallpaper. I remember staying home from school as a kid because I was sick, and getting so tired of hearing the same old chestnuts favored by radio stations in Syracuse—in those days The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rhapsody in Blue—that I still associate them with canned chicken soup and ginger ale. Try to really listen to Ravel’s Bolero and see how long you last.

No frill to me, aesthetics is the high art of noticing. Of really paying attention to sensory details wherever I find them. Of giving myself to life in order that life will give itself to me. When I don’t make the effort, life glides right past me like so many telephone poles by the side of the road. This is what I mean by “being there,” putting my values where my body is so that I engage what is truly going on from my personal perspective. Sensory exploration is essential to getting the most out of life instead of glossing it prematurely with a dismissive categorization. Seen one, seen ‘em all. No, each individual being or event is unique in the world, and must be experienced to be appreciated. If we are bored with life, we are bored with ourselves for not taking the initiative to first give of ourselves to our surroundings in order to elicit their response.

At the dentist’s office in Bangor yesterday, I read in Time Magazine the news that great things were coming to the so-called third world in the form of first-world TV shows finally getting the global audience they so richly deserve. I put the magazine down and though about the benefits of pre-packaged experiences going by so fast that they amount to missed opportunities for doing something personally significant on the local scene. 

Mass media are the enemy of human consciousness because they are meant to overwhelm us, not engage us. We can’t ask questions or say how we feel. Try writing a letter to Time or Newsweek about their opinionated coverage of world events and you’ll get back a form letter much like the one you get from your Representative or Senator saying how much your letters mean to them. As if words and categorizations were reality itself. In truth, the corporate mass media are dumbing down the world, separating persons from their individual opportunities to have local experiences.

It’s not that, as the voice of corporate America, the media pre-package experience so much as that they pre-digest it for us, too, so there’s nothing else for us to do but sit and watch flat screens the evening through after working all day in a cubicle watching other flat screens. We should be out raising flowers and vegetables; watching birds, spiders, and insects; milking cows; hiking or swimming in the wilds with our kids; using our minds to make something of ourselves instead of letting the corporate media remake us to suit their agendas. For-profit corporate personhood is an assault on the Earth and all forms of life. Corporations are not alive, and know nothing about living beings. Their sole purpose is to make money for their owners, which they do at the expense of not only their owners themselves, but of all living beings.

Heroic conceptual categorizations laid on us by corporations doing our thinking for us, coupled to lazy sensory-pattern detection on our part, is leading us all down the primrose path to global catastrophe. The solution is to reclaim personhood for those who are still individuals among us, destroying the very idea of mass media in the process. The only media that work are intended for individuals, not the masses. We will never do better than face-to-face conversations, personal letters, or phone conversations. That way, we reserve categorization to ourselves as called forth by the aesthetic patterns we discover in daily experience. Once we forget how to do that, the end is not only near, it is behind us, leaving nobody to listen as the pretty music plays on.

Squash blossom soon to unfurl

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air

 

Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

The upshot of consciousness is a course of action appropriate to various life situations as characterized by one individual or another. Put more briefly, the point of consciousness is effective interaction with the world. Which makes it possible to track the workings of consciousness by following the trace it leaves in the works we strew across the landscape of our lives. Dante’s Divine Comedy presents one such landscape. The plays of Shakespeare portray another. The consciousness of Pablo Picasso is clearly evident in his collected paintings, drawings, sculptures, and studies. In the musical idioms of their times, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have annotated their respective streams of consciousness in forms we can still respond to today. Frank Lloyd Wright lives on in his buildings: to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York is to enter his mind.

I am not speaking in fanciful metaphors here. Just as deer can be tracked by following their prints in the snow, the pellets and stains they deposit, the branches they chew off, the hollows they leave when they sleep—so can the structure and workings of the human mind be pursued by paying close attention to the spoor it leaves in interacting with its world. There for all to see are the doings of consciousness. Whatever form they take, here are traces generated by the human brain as both enabler  and substrate of extended, conscious behavior.

Personal libraries speak volumes of the minds that have collected—and actually read—them. My thirteen bookcases hold a record of my engagement with Hancock County, Maine, since 1986. Photographs, maps, notes, books, magazines—collectively, they tell what I have concerned myself with for the past twenty-four years. If they were put in chronological order (rather than the hodgepodge they are now), there would be a diary of my consciousness. Somewhere in my travels I picked up a copy of Thesaurus of Book Digests: Digests of the World’s Permanent Writings from the Ancient Classics to Current Literature, edited by Hiram Haydn & Edmund Fuller (Crown Publishers, 1949). I have dipped into it only once or twice, but this will be the first time I have put it to use by quoting the following paragraph excerpted from the entry under “WALDEN (1854), by Henry David Thoreau”:

This is the spiritual autobiography of a rebel wearied by the machine age, but too much of a practical Yankee to escape into the fog of mysticism. Thoreau gave up his trade of pencil maker and set up house at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. He hoped to prove to the world that the tyranny of many things is necessary, that man can live with very little and find contentment. At Walden the author lived in elegant simplicity. He was wonderfully able with his hands—an excellent carpenter, mason, surveyor and mechanic. For two years he stayed at his hermitage. His book is a record (in the form of eighteen essays) of his life, his painstaking observations of nature, and his reflections about the world’s troubles.

What strikes me about that capsule description is how little it captures the style of Thoreau’s mind as it makes its rounds through the days he actually lived on the shore of Walden Pond. That is, how little it invites me to engage such a mind by reading this particular text. I don’t generally seek out “painstaking observations of nature” and “reflections about the world’s troubles.” I want personal challenge and adventure told in readable English, and I certainly find them in Walden, but not even hinted at in this categorization of the book. The best parts—the meat of Thoreau—are left out. A direct quote of Thoreau’s own words—say, the paragraph depicting his digging his cellar hole—would make a better advertisement.

I have another book, though, that is a perfect digest of a man’s living consciousness in being a nineteenth-century site map of his mind at work on a particular project. Peter Mark Roget could be characterized many ways, such as living in England from 1779 to 1869, being a scholar and perennial student, physician, lecturer, founding member of many institutions, and so on. But the work I call a site map of his mind is his masterwork,

Thesaurus of English Words & Phrases

classified and arranged so as to

facilitate the expression of Ideas and

assist in Literary Composition

issued in 1852 when he was 73 years old, and, updated, is still in print 158 years later in 2010. In his twenties, Roget had worked out a system of verbal classification to aid his own speaking and writing. Well into his retirement, he expanded that system for broader use by the public.

The system is based on the classification of ideas divided into or embedded within four distinct levels of analysis. The broadest level is that of six classes somewhat similar to Aristotle’s categories (in two cases split into divisions):

I—ABSTRACT RELATIONS

II—SPACE

III—MATTER

IV—INTELLECT, including Division (I) Formation of Ideas, and Division (II) Communication of Ideas

V—VOLITION, including Division (I) Individual Volition, and Division (II) Intersocial Volition, and

VI—AFFECTIONS.

Each class is further divided into sections, and each section into headings which include the individual words and phrases Roget intends us to distinguish between and choose among to suit our individual projects.

To take one example, Class III MATTER is broken into three sections: 1) Matter in General, 2) Inorganic Matter, and 3) Organic Matter. Section 3) Organic Matter is further subdivided into 1—Vitality, and 2—Sensation. Subsection 1—Vitality contains 16 headings:

358 Organization

359 Mineral

360 Life

361 Death

362 Killing

363 Corpse

364 Interment

365 Animality

366 Vegetability

367 Zoology

368 Botany

369 Animal Husbandry

370 Agriculture

371 Mankind

372 Male

373 Female

Here we begin to see Roget’s genius in distinguishing polar, intermediate, and related aspects of meaning (life-death-killing-corpse-interment-animality) as reflected in his systematized associations between concepts and words. Heading 371 Mankind includes, among 155 other terms under six other subheadings:

person, individual, human being, everyman, everywoman; creature, fellow creature, mortal, body; a being, soul, living soul; God’s image; one, somebody, someone, so and so, such a one; party, customer, character, type, element; chap, guy, bloke, fellow, cove, johnny 372n. male; personage, figure, person of note, VIP 638n. bigwig; star  890n. favorite; dramatis personae, all those concerned  686n. personnel; unit, head, hand, nose.

And that is only a small part of one heading out of the 990 in my edition. In keeping with the then current rage for reason, Roget’s original scheme contained an even 1000 headings. Clearly, Peter Mark Roget was a systematic thinker, a quality of mind credited to his mother (his father died when he was a child). At over 770 pages, the index of words and phrases in my 1966 Dell edition takes up over half the entire book (I can’t tell the exact length of the index because the back cover came off years ago, and with it an unknown number of pages).

In his introduction to the original 1852 edition, Roget wrote:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, . . . a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express. The purpose of an ordinary dictionary is simply to explain the meaning of the words; and the problem of which it professes to furnish the solution may be stated thus:—The word being given, to find its signification, or the idea it is intended to convey. The object aimed at in the present undertaking is exactly the converse of this: namely,—The idea being given, to find the word, or words, by which that idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed. For this purpose, the words and phrases of the language are here classed, not according to their sound or their orthography [spelling], but strictly according to their signification.

Imagine having the mind and discipline to create such a work. Roget’s Thesaurus is aimed at improving expressive language, not language as received by eye or ear. It facilitates converting concepts and feelings into meaningful sounds—one of the basic requirements of speaking or writing in English. When the right word for a particular audience does not spring readily to mind, the word search becomes conscious, and one word or phrase from a number of options must be chosen as the most appropriate. The Thesaurus, then, is a tool for converting conscious intentions into overt speech acts suitable to the writer-speaker’s specific situation at the time.

The challenge of such situations is to achieve order among the many elements that bear on a speaker in a given situation so that her vocabulary, categorizations, meanings, and intended emphases are fulfilled by an utterance whose word choice, syntax, and intonation are all of a piece in keeping with the situation she is engaged with insofar as she can anticipate the role she is about to play in the lives of her audience. Which is a tall order because the only way to learn to do that is through trial and error, alternating with self-correction, study, and further rehearsal.

After taking a writing workshop in 2001, I was consumed by the question, Where do words come from? They seem to be just there on the tip of our tongues when we need them, but how do they get there? It is now clear to me that meanings and categorizations are primary, and the words used to express them arise from a sense of the situation and the urge to make a fitting verbal response. I see that now as being essentially an aesthetic (rather than a strictly rational) problem. In getting our speech acts together, we have to be clear which valence we mean to express—positive, negative, or neutral—and where on the gradients of emphasis, clarity, and detail we wish to position ourselves. Will easy, broad, general terms suffice, or do we have to exert ourselves to become more discriminating than that? How specific must we be? How experientially detailed or conceptually inclusive? These complex decisions are rooted in the sense we have of our own experience in relation to the situation we are engaged with—that is, with what we are asking of ourselves on that occasion under those particular circumstances as we construe them.

This is essentially the problem Peter Roget faced when he compiled his original system for putting meanings into words. And that compels us today to take his Thesaurus off the shelf when we’re not sure what to say because the words aren’t there on our tongues where we need them to be. I would hazard that Roget’s drive to systematic thinking originated from just such uncertainty during his formative years as a speaker of English (his father was born in Geneva and was not a native speaker). Fortunately for us, young Roget faced into the problem and produced a masterly system for turning incipient categorizations into speech acts through word choices appropriate to various situations as he understood them. He was exceptionally well-schooled by his mother and early teachers.

Having a site map of Roget’s mind at our elbows, we are direct beneficiaries of his nineteenth-century consciousness. Bloggers and twitterers probably don’t devote that much time to diagnosing their situations or choices of words—which is why they are bloggers and twitterers. They prefer to speak from the hip, as it were. But spontaneity isn’t everything, particularly in touchy situations or when dealing with complex issues. Which is when having wide ranges of both meanings and terms to select from is a definite advantage in achieving an appropriate subtlety of expression. If the world is seen in black and white, then perhaps bold or brazen speech might be deemed appropriate—as in war or clashes between street gangs. But there’s usually more to a situation than is readily apparent, and a simplistic approach is apt to stir up more trouble than it can deal with. I truly believe that suiting our behavior to the various situations we find or place ourselves in calls for aesthetic judgments unimagined in the OK Corral. Aesthetics is a matter of putting every aspect of consciousness into play, attending to the subtleties as well as the overall landscape, acknowledging the role of every part in creating the whole, the integrity and dignity of the whole in relation to every part—and acting only when the full dynamic richness and complexity of the experience have been savored. Then the appropriate words appear on the tongue as called up by the fullness of the experience, and the speaker effectively matches outward words to the inner occasion.

Roget's Thesaurus

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I posted Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness to set my mind straight before attending the Feb. 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine. I also made up a handout on species utilizing rockweed as habitat one way or another, the different perspectives I thought might be represented at the symposium, and, yes, a list of terms I thought attendees might use in categorizing rockweed from their different perspectives. Forty-five people showed up, representing harvesters and industrial processors, resource managers, teachers and researchers, and interested members of the public.

No one spoke of rockweed as a commodity, but the other 14 terms I expected to hear all came up at one time or another: rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, seaweed, seawrack, wrack, marine resource, public-trust resource, marine or estuarine habitat, primary producer, fishery, property, private property, alga or algae, and biomass. The first talk was called “Biomass Assessment,” the second “Ecology and Habitat” (my italics).

The biomass speaker added a few broad terms I hadn’t anticipated: weed, beds, stock. The habitat man made a great many distinctions, including energy production; carbon sequestration; refuge, feeding, foraging, and nursery areas; predation; structural terms including architecture, assemblages, and communities; and specifically pointed to spatial and temporal scales of observation, as well as particular species utilizing rockweed one way or another.

The biomass man effectively lumped all organic matter into one one pot of gunk or goo, ignoring structural and functional considerations entirely. I didn’t hear the word “ecosystem” ever crossing his lips. The habitat man refined that matter into specific regions providing a wide variety of functions within a living estuarine community and the larger ecosystem beyond. He asked “How much habitat loss is too much?” (turning the biomass perspective on its head by seeing it in terms of habitat reduction), raising the issue of habitat restoration after harvesting reduces habitat to so many tons of biomass. 

The two speakers were both educators, one from a marine resource perspective, the other from an ecological perspective. What you learn as a student depends on where you go to school, the classes you take, the teachers you engage. Very likely, it is the attitude you have toward the subject that decides which path you follow. And that attitude goes back to the orthodox perspective you acquired during childhood as connections between nerve cells were either strengthened or weakened in response to the behaviors, speech patterns, and attitudes of your formative caregivers.

The after-lunch talk was on “Effects of Harvesting.” Following a brief detour to ecologyland, we were home again in the realm of biomass. But from a more nuanced perspective that combined aspects of both earlier talks. This was the issue many of us had come to consider—not where the rubber meets the road, but cutting blades meet lively habitats. The harvesting metaphor led to talk of rockweed as a “standing crop,” which was acceptable to many as a variant form of agriculture—sea farming without plowing furrows or planting seeds. Nowhere is consciousness more evident than in categorizing one thing as something else entirely for the sake of effect—to make a new recipe, idea, or practice “palatable” as an acquired taste (or unpalatable, as when Rush Limbaugh characterizes President Obama as a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist).

If compromise is to be reached, the issue must be framed in terms equally acceptable to both sides. In this case, the biomass people and the habitat people have to agree to categorize or conceptualize the issue in such a way that both retain their integrity on a playing field they see as level. The people who perform this service are called educators. They are the ones who train us to direct our expectations in such a way to be mutually agreeable to as large a population as possible by selecting an appropriate level of discourse. That is, society at large is invested in minimizing its internal differences to enable a wide a range of social needs to be met on an everyday basis. Since each person is unique, this can only be done by convincing a majority of people to adopt a common perspective for looking at things in such a way that their differences become invisible.

Framing the rockweed symposium as biomass people vs. habitat people would lead to open conflict. The art of compromise demands the conversation be conducted on a higher level of discourse to avoid concrete disagreements between the parties affected. The more familiar and acceptable the level, the better to restore order. Which is precisely what the harvesting metaphor provides. We all have to make a living, we all have to eat, we all want to go about our business without criticism, undue regulation, and harassment. The farmer and cowman can be friends if they look at each other the right way. Arranged marriages throughout history have turned competing tribes and kingdoms into extended families, transforming warring states into good neighbors through vows of eternal fidelity.

Sports, money, law, and religion are a few common currencies of social compromise, enabling many to live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony. Any Red Sox fan is a friend of mine; My vote goes to the highest bidder; I present the image of a law-abiding citizen; Jihad in the name of God is man’s highest calling. No wonder sports is the most prominent section in the paper; the economy is always newsworthy; law, order, and military might are esteemed virtues; religions offer comfort to all who humble themselves before a supreme being. Social  orthodoxy is a means of compromise that requires individuals to surrender their particular take on events by subscribing to a higher order (or even absolute) level of generality. Toeing the company or party line replaces personal consciousness with a particular brand of cultural consciousness for the sake of taking unified action on an issue.

The rockweed symposium did not end on a wholly orthodox note. Rather, it asked attenders to identify gaps in our scientific grasp of the issue. The idea being to stimulate research aimed at filling those gaps. This is the stage before orthodoxy can be achieved. Science is another currency of social compromise. It is conducted at such a high level of certainty as to be almost divorced from personal experience, statistical-derived concepts wholly substituting for immediate engagement with the world. The very methods of science are methods of high-level, peer-reviewed compromise, enabled by statistical analysis if not immediate personal knowledge.

The current industry standard governing how much weed can be cut in a given bed is a target of 17% of extant rockweed biomass. The idea is that cutting too low on the axis diminishes regrowth, so cutting should be restricted to the upper 50% of the “plant” (really an alga). And cutting too broad a swath also diminishes regrowth, so harvesters allow themselves to cut only a third as much—33% of the upper 50%—or 17% of the “standing crop.”

The question is, what are the ecological implications of that 17% loss of estuarine habitat? As for natural mortality aside from any harvest, to cite a study conducted in Cobscook Bay, Maine,* “The proportion of Ascophyllum standing biomass lost annually and expressed as turnover rates, ranged from 29 to 71%,” with a mean turnover of roughly 51%. This is no standing crop, it is a fleeing crop, its so-called biomass turning over every two years. It strikes me that if the 17% is removed from the 50% likely to survive the normal turnover to detritus, it makes the harvest more like 34% of the surviving crop rather than the guideline of 17% of the standing crop might suggest. This would appear to double the impact on habitat over what the industry now claims is the case. Until we grapple with percentages seemingly plucked from a hat, and come to agreement on whether, say, 5% harvest might be more reasonable from a scientifically-grounded perspective, then natural-resource managers in Maine won’t be able to adopt a statewide (that is, orthodox) standard for allowable cutting of rockweed.

Where else in the blogosphere can you find such practical considerations to emerge from the study of human consciousness? Track these posts for updates on how mind affects the varied facets of the material universe.

__________

* Robert L. Vadas, et al., “Biomass and Productivity of Intertidal Biomass,” in Peter F. Larsen, Ed., Ecosystem Modeling in Cobscook Bay, Maine, (Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Special Issue 2, 2004, page 136).

Seal mother & nursing pup on rockweed

 

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.

 

Reflection 149: Blind Walk

October 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Bending down, I reach into the front-loading dryer and scoop the jumbled laundry into my basket. Back in my apartment, I place the basket on my bed and begin to sort it—underwear in this pile, T-shirts here, sheets there, socks lined up by pattern and color along the edge of the mattress. Finding a dishtowel but no dishrag, I figure it’s hiding among the sheets, which I shake out—there, snug in the corner of the fitted one. I put the piles of clothing I have sorted away and make the bed.

A routine episode from almost any Saturday morning in the past twelve years. I am a creature of habit, and of sorting things into groups having similar characteristics—pencils, tomatoes, bugs, butterflies—courtesy of distinctions I make in my conscious mind. I am a classifier, a categorizer, a sorter into piles. And so are we all, as shown by the way we use language.

‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.

‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.

What is it for?

‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.

‘What is this?’

‘A cow.’

‘What do cows give us?’

‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.

And this?

‘A house.’

‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’ 

‘It’s where people live.’

Except that teacher doesn’t heft a truck, boat, or house from the box—she is dealing strictly with miniature toys, simplified representations of familiar objects without motors, without internal organs, without windows or kitchens.  She is not teaching the class to discriminate on the basis of sensory details so much as to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience. This is more an example of cultural indoctrination than education.

Then there is the blind walk.

I get permission to take my class of seniors to the grounds of a large, unoccupied home in the neighborhood where we won’t bother anyone. I tell them the idea of the blind walk is to get to know the area, not by looking, but by feeling their way with their hands. I want them to concentrate on touch, sound, and smell—any and all senses except sight. They pair up, decide who is to go first. One is the ‘guardian’ whose job is to make sure the blind-folded ‘explorer’ doesn’t get hurt. Partners are to tactilely explore their surroundings for half an hour, then switch roles, trade the blindfold, and go at it for another half hour. My job is to keep everyone safe and active. At the end, students are to share  highlights from their experience as guardians and explorers, respectively.

For the watcher—me—the exercise turned out other than I had imagined. I presented it in terms of sensory exploration, but my students took that as a challenge to name objects they could not see. In twelve years of schooling, the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them. These were first graders grown large, but perceptually diminished. They could classify their experience, but not enjoy it. They were eager to identify whatever they came across by touch, but that was all. As soon as they said “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual. Getting the “right” answer was the only thing that mattered. Even warmth from the sun was reduced to naming the source, not savoring how it felt on a particular day in early spring. We teachers had done our job too well, creating students who could sort the world into a standard set of categories—wholly bypassing personal experience, the basis of all pleasure and true knowledge.

As a result of what passes for education these days, many of our children fit themselves to a world of concepts and ideas, not sensory exploration. They get good at sorting things into bins, which has a certain utility, but is also sad because they developed that skill to please their elders. During the course of my life, I have watched an emphasis on concept formation descend through the grades from high school to grammar school to the earliest rungs of preschool. Our children are prepared by society to think and work categorically rather than develop their personal abilities to experience the wonders of this Earth.

My point is that, in the best of all possible worlds, consciousness relies heavily on both sensory and conceptual aspects of experience. To meet the challenges of life we need extensive practice in both realms. To a man or a woman, we are all latent artists and scientists, cooks and judges, poets and talk-show hosts. Lumping things together by sorting, classifying, categorizing on the basis of broad similarities is an essential life skill—but so too is distinguishing between specific features, qualities, and subtle differences. To know a thing, a person, or a field of endeavor requires not only knowing about their general characteristics, but acquainting their specific details as well through personal experience.

Much has been written about the objectivity or intentionality of consciousness, the being aware of things as wholes in themselves rather than in terms of their separate parts, qualities, or details. Consciousness initially renders the world in terms of recognizable units; it takes deliberate effort to analyze such units in terms of their myriad sensory components (hearing individual voices in the symphony of the whole). We are immediately conscious of coherent objects or scenes as overall images or summaries, so not to be overwhelmed by the jumble that William James described in his famous cartoon of infant consciousness as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.” In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James writes:

Any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must (italics deleted).

The overall effect being to achieve the unity of a scene or an object, a wholeness that must be discriminated into its parts through deliberate effort and refinement of attention. Much has been made of perception as a process for recognizing the world in terms of its fundamental units or categories. Aristotle treated those units of oneness as “modes of being,” as if they were properties of things in themselves. Kant saw them more as phenomena created by consciousness itself in its own terms through the process of apprehending the world. Gerald Edelman presents categorization as a quality of perception dictated by values inherent in the perceiver which are necessary to acting in the world adaptively for the sake of survival.

However we account for consciousness, attention, and awareness, we must allow for two types: 1) concrete, sensory perception, and 2) a more generally applicable type that is less specific and so more abstract and conceptual. Consciousness can balance or move between the two types, from the abstract to the concrete, and back again, encompassing both example and principle, token and type, species and genus, concept and percept. How the brain achieves this remarkable dynamic is not fully understood, but there is no doubt that both types can be joined in the workings of consciousness. Except that education tends to tip the balance toward the summary judgments of conception.

It strikes me that what I was doing in sorting my laundry in the first example above, the first graders were doing in labeling the teacher’s toy truck, and my seniors did on their blind walk—was casting abstract, conceptual expectations onto the world as a kind of outline for what we thought was possible in and appropriate to our respective situations. We then confirmed those expectations as they were fulfilled on those three occasion by acting appropriately to our situations, students calling out the name (as they had been taught) that fit most closely to their expectations as a kind of easy shorthand for the full-bodied (detailed perceptual) experience, and me sorting my laundry into piles I deemed appropriate to my subsequent tasks of putting clothes away and clean sheets on the bed. 

As I have often written, expectation is destiny. We don’t live in the world so much as in our expectations of what that world should be. We make the evidence of our eyes and ears conform to what we want to happen. Our stance toward the world, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines how we act far more than the evidence of our senses. It as if we were wind-up toys that head off as soon as set on the floor. Education winds us up, life fulfills what we have been taught. That is, it is our preconceptions that drive us, not the existential facts of our lives.

This is the understanding I have been seeking since my first post to this blog in early October, 2008. Taking time off to reflect on my posted reflections, this is what I have discovered. As humans walking our diverse ways, we are condemned to find what our families, peers, teachers, and overall cultures have prepared us to find. We fit the world to whatever model of the world we have assembled over the course of our training. That is our reality. Which our experience inevitably fulfills because—contrary to public belief—perception follows and does not lead the dictates of conception.

Picture humans on their blind walks through life, judging and labeling what they find according to their acquired pre-dispositions, and that is my portrait of the human predicament of days gone by, which is identical to the one we find ourselves in today.

Cormorants