Evolution’s achievement of consciousness is a collaborative effort between animal life and its Earthly environment.

Consciousness does not reside in the brain so much as it is a product of life’s engagement with its home planet. When Henry Adams walked out of Chartres Cathedral a changed man and wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the cathedral remained as it was before he arrived, undiminished, unconsumed.

Half of Adams’ engagement came from his attention, concentration, and action; the other half was the cathedral’s doing as a provocative source of engaging stimulation.

If we give ourselves to life, life gives us back in kind. Consciousness springs from just such rounds of give-and-take. It is not something we possess, or have a right to. It is something we invite to happen by opening ourselves to our environment, and trading with it as we are able.

I didn’t need cognitive neuroscience to tell me that, nor a suite of fMRIs and other a la mode research apparatus. What I needed was half of the mind that has sustained me through life, engaged with the other half of environmental stimulation that, taken together, have spurred my thinking, awareness, and experience all my days, including the writing of this blog.

As phenomenologists say, consciousness is always of one thing or another. It isn’t a thing in itself so much as a reacher-toward things. That is called intentionality. As intentional beings, we are always intent on solving this or that problem.

We all start out in life as a quickened egg—largest cell in the human body. And then in nine months run through the developmental cycle it took life itself three-and-a-half billion years to complete. We are modern-day miracles, inventing our own brand of consciousness during our brief stay in the womb.

Everyone’s consciousness is unique because the specifics of its origins are unique—DNA, grandparents, parents, immune system, etc., plus engagements in the womb from conception on. Engagements initiated by our genes, but of which we get the gist and do our part as birth approaches.

We are like an impromptu melody played in the distance, only that melody is inside us, at the core of our being on Earth. We are here not only because our parents conceived us, but because Earth has provided them with the wherewithal to produce us. We are Earthlings from our earliest beginnings, with our own ration of Earthly (perhaps universal) consciousness.

We become citizens of the cosmos that truly begat us, so are eager to show our stuff to anyone who will engage us during our brief stay in the area.

The view of consciousness I offer in this blog is very different from the version that neuroscientists are so relentlessly searching for in the brain. Consciousness is not made of matter in physical form; it is an interaction between specific lifeforms and the worlds they are born to, as Henry Adams was born to a world containing Chartres Cathedral. Scientists won’t find that magnificent structure in anyone’s brain because (as in Adam’s case) it’s at the other end of an engagement that went on for years under all sorts of weather, light, shifts in attitude, and altering comprehension.

I have tried to keep up with published writings about consciousness, but I have yet to find any that make sense to me on the topic as I personally experience it in living my own life. And introspection is so out of fashion in the twenty-first century that I am not likely to meet up with any before I die.

Am I that eccentric? That far out on the fringe? That much of a deviant? I think not. From my standpoint, others are barking up the wrong tree, looking for a physical state of some kind, when consciousness is an ongoing process of engagement between a living mind and whatever object of its notice gives a jolt sufficient to draw attention.

Loops of engagement are way more than feedback loops. Rather than stabilizers, they are disrupters, attention getters, annoyers, or announcers of success. In short, situation creators. They set the parameters of intelligence in such a configuration that arouses a meaningful response leading to a review of options and judgment of what is to be done.

As I visualize them, loops of engagement are kindlers of consciousness leading to appropriate action. They start with disturbing perceptions that create meaningful situations to which intelligence reacts with discernment in judging what plan of action to put into effect. They are mind organizers whose job is to transform perceptions into behaviors suitable to the occasion.

Essential to our humanity, none of us would get through the day without one. And probably not be likely to get through the next five seconds. I call them loops because they keep going on and on. Coming back to slightly altered situations, tweaking a little here and there, more like a helix than a circle, but running on till the job is done. Then it’s on to the next job, and the one in line after that.

Go to the store for groceries, lay out the kitchen, make dinner, serve it up, eat it, congratulate the cook, clear the table, wash the dishes, put dishes away, lay things out for breakfast. How else would we manage to get through the day? If such engagements didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

But they do exist in what William James called the stream of consciousness, the endless succession of one-thing-after-another that we dub collectively conscious life. They are our tools for building a succession of worlds about ourselves as we go through the day.

Loops of engagement are world-puzzle solvers that connect our minds to our mysterious environment, but that have to keep checking because that environment is bound to change. We can never get it just right. The world is too complex, too dynamic, too flexible, too uncertain—and our view too limited and schematic. Whatever we think it is in the instant is bound to be wrong.

So we play the game of successive approximation. Moving in the direction of certain understanding—but like the bounding hare, the world always gets away from us. The more certain we are that we understand what’s going on, the more apt we are to be wrong. Our firmest beliefs are so much foam on the waves. Life is more like splashing around in shallow water than swimming in a straight lane.

Loops of engagement are the best tool we’ve got for figuring out our situation at the moment. They never stop; they never give up; they never claim success. Like our streams of consciousness, they just keep going, until we fall into bed too tired to keep up the pursuit.

Advertisements

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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