My contention in this blog is that I, you, we all play the same game. We are smoothers-over to suit ourselves. We can’t help it, our auxiliary loops of perceptual adjustment and refinement do the work for us in the name of clarity, good contrast, and proper emphasis. To a man, to a woman, we are biased toward our own predilections, the teachings of our personal life experience.

Far beyond Dr. Roget’s influence, the evidence is all around us in the polarities with which we apprehend the world. In the military battles, political in-fighting, religious strife, business practices, sporting contests, artistic preferences, social engagements, entertainments, literary tastes—we know what we like, like what we know, and dispense with the rest.

Our minds work in ways that are almost as pat as that. As set according to our gleanings from the survival niches we have sowed and harvested up until now. We are self-made in ways we hardly suspect because we filter our own interests out of our engagements, seeing those of our partners with far greater clarity than we do our own—almost as if our interests played no part in our dealings with the world.

As if our personal meanings were accurate, just, and true, while the unmeanings of those we engage with are no more than scrabble, scribble, scrawl, and daub.

I am certain that Dr. Roget never recognized such a state of affairs in his own mind. How could he have? He was convinced that he was writing about states of affairs in the world, not in his mind. As scientists filter out their very standpoints as trained scholars in dealing with a supposedly objective universe of pure events happening within reach of their instruments of observation. As the Pope is considered to be infallible in his judgments as referee of all proper human engagements. As politicians paint their opponents as caricatures, themselves as noble knights in armor. As Buddhists avoid human suffering by declaring the individual self to be a mere construct, so how can anyone suffer in a mind focused on nothingness?

Without our knowing, the answers we seek are contained in the questions we ask. We don’t want the truth; we want affirmation of our proprietary truth as only our loyal prejudgments can deliver it. The ones we recognize as familiar because they are already within us, safe from harm in our very own black boxes, where they are part and parcel of any effort we might make to engage the world beyond our perimeter.

Talk about self-interest, we can’t live without it, which puts everyone we interact with at a disadvantage in being respectively self-interested in their own welfare. If we weren’t self-ish to the core, without a fairy godmother, we wouldn’t survive for one day. So we tilt the playing field in our favor, and do just fine on the basis of foregone conclusions that aren’t conclusions at all but unquestionable axioms of personal faith.

Who could imagine discovering such an outrageous position backed up by no less an authority than Dr. Peter Mark Roget? I, for one. Lone wayfarer that I am in hot pursuit of any secrets my mind might be holding back. I identify with Roget in having a lifelong interest in the workings and foibles of my own mind.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of the very ideas I am talking about in this blog. I may be only one authority, but I certainly serve in that office for the only mind I have access to. As you yourself serve in that capacity in service of your own mind.

I am trying to provoke you into examining your credentials for holding that office. Are you as fair and impartial as you believe and maintain? Can any of us be that fair? Can we seriously believe we are rational beings in any sense of the word?

Rather than dissolve the constructs that bind us together as conscious beings, I truly believe our best option is to get to know ourselves without the self-support system that comes with the territory of being an earnest and well-meaning person.

I think we can work around that inherent support system by regarding ourselves as if we were total strangers, and had no power to edit the data on which our conclusions are based. Yes, we can see ourselves with new eyes, hear ourselves with new ears, correct our self-image by including the very data we’ve been suppressing for all of these years.

A priori, we are neither good nor bad. We are what we are, wayfarers on a minor planet for a brief instant in the history of the universe. Imagine going to our deaths not knowing who we are. What we have truly accomplished, and at what cost to others and to our home planet.

It is never too early to take stock, and to keep taking stock for the rest of our travels. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to get to know ourselves before we inflict unwitting harm on others, believing all the while we are blameless.

Facing into myself, that is my project in this blog. No one can do it for me. The buck stops with me. As it does with each one of us. If we don’t respectively rise to that challenge, we know that no one else ever will. We are born to that challenge. It comes with being human. If we don’t take it on, can we truly claim to have lived, or claim to have lived truly, being stuck in the darkness within our personal black boxes for the duration of our lives?

Thank you, Peter Mark Roget, for unwittingly reflecting that wisdom back onto your readers, if only we would take effort to follow the line of thinking you set before us in your work as a light shining on how our minds might be organized.

The moral being: that everything we notice from our privileged position sheds light on our minds if we will but look for that hidden message.

Mindfully play and watch baseball; mindfully pore through Roget’s Thesaurus; two down—mindfully ogle the stars yet to come, starting with my next post.

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I will conclude these posts on cultural engagements with twelve episodes illustrating a few of my personal engagements as divided among four successive posts. Here are the first three.

1. Rush Week. In 1951, I was living in a fraternity in Boston as a sophomore at MIT. Early in the term, fraternities entertained prospective pledges from among the incoming freshman class. I was particularly struck by the mental acuity and good nature of a student from India. I took him around the house, played Ping-Pong with him, sat with him at lunch, and thought he made an excellent candidate.

After lunch, the president of the fraternity took me aside and told me I was doing a great job stringing the boy along, making him feel welcome, while there wasn’t a chance in hell we would pledge a dark foreigner.

My response to that news was to find an apartment near Kenmore Square and to quit the fraternity I could no longer belong to because of its Whites-only policy, which I naively hadn’t realized was part of its deep-South traditions from post-Civil-War days. I haven’t stepped into a fraternity house for sixty-four years.

2. Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz. In a recent post I mentioned coming upon a Boston Symphony performance led by Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. That was one of the most moving experiences of my college life, which I stumbled into during a Wednesday afternoon walk when I found the door open at Symphony Hall. A sandwich-board on the sidewalk announced an open rehearsal, so, out of curiosity, I went in and sat in the back row. I knew Berlioz from WGBH broadcasts, but had never been present at a live performance. Monteux raised his baton just as I took my seat.

What caught my attention was actually witnessing the different instruments and sections playing the music that I heard with my ears. It was the simultaneous presence of hearing the music and seeing its lively performance at the same time that astonished me. My eyes and ears reinforced each other, adding to an experience I had never had until that day.

It was the seeing that sticks with me, the actual display of sounds being produced through human effort. Violins, cellos, bases, brass, woodwinds, tympani—I can see them all. The standing percussionist striking the suspended chimes with a small mallet produced sounds I had never fully appreciated until then. He is with me today as I write these words, making a guest appearance in my mind, reminding me of my discovery of what “in concert” actually means.

3. Tripping on the Long Island Railroad. In Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, I took all the physics, chemistry, and math classes that were offered. By my senior year, there were no more to take. Back in Hamilton, my ninth-grade science teacher had sent home a note telling my parents that he thought I had a knack for science, and might pursue it as a career. In Seattle, I took an aptitude test to see if that was really the case. In disbelief, I looked over the bar graph of the results: I was high in arts and humanities, low in science. Stupid test! I instantly dismissed it. As a senior I went all-or-nothing, applying to MIT and no other school. For good or ill, I got in.

The first year was made up solely of meeting core requirements, with one token humanities course. In my second year I took differential equations, heading toward a major in physics—I thought acoustics sounded nice. But I ran out of steam, and decided to quit school. My mother got on my case and convinced me to see out the year. Which I grudgingly did. I went to a counsellor, and applied to Columbia in New York as a transfer student. I was scheduled for an interview on the Columbia campus, so arranged to stay with friends of my parents on Long Island the night before, and took the bus from Boston to New York, then the LIRR to Port Washington.

A memorable trip under heavy skies. I spent most of my time staring out the rain-spattered window at heavy wires strung next to the tracks on what I still think of as telegraph poles. From my perspective looking out the window, the wires rose to the level of the crossbars on successive poles, then fell in great swoops in between, rising and falling like waves mile-after-mile, putting me into a kind of hypnotic trance. I wasn’t thinking about anything—then the truth burst upon me: There is no God! There can’t be any God because I can’t square God with those wires, which are absolutely real. I was totally engaged with the rhythm of the wires strung along the tracks; there was no room for God in that experience. He was superfluous. Irrelevant. God, I saw, was a vain conceit of ancient peoples in all their innocence. It was not a rational thought, it simply came to me as a bolt out of gray skies and those up-and-down wires.

It was one of the most powerful realizations of my life. Transformative. Everything up to then culminated in those lilting wires along the Long Island Railroad. It was like a dam had burst inside me as a declaration of undoubted truth. Farewell, creator, ruler, judge, and confessor. Banished by clarity. Blessed clarity washing over and through me. Had I been that wishy-washy all those years? I abruptly discovered I was capable of independent thought. Well, not thought, really, but profound insight. I knew I was right; my entire life until then added up to that moment. Childhood fell away; everything would be different from now on.

Reflection 165: Being There

December 17, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

At a meeting last Saturday, I divided so-called environ-mentalists into two classes: experiential and conceptual. Conceptual environmentalists know about the environment second-hand through symbolic communications (slogans, articles, e-mails, books, pictures, films, etc.), while experiential environmentalists know the environment up-close and personally through first-hand engagement. Members of the first class are environmentalists of the mind; those of the second are environmentalists of the body and its senses.

To illustrate the difference, I mentioned a presentation I once attended at a gathering of Native American environmental leaders, the show consisting largely of videos featuring talking heads speaking about the environment (with a lit candle off to the side symbolizing an attitude of reverence), the audience being Native Americans from around the U.S. who, as one woman put it, “learned all that by being outdoors on the reservation with my grandparents when I was five.”

After I had drawn the distinction between two kinds of environmentalists, the chair of the meeting glossed my remarks by saying I was talking about the issue of environmental justice, and moved on. Leaving me thinking to myself that injustice might be part of what I meant, but there was a more positive side of learning about nature through personal immersion in it—a kind of baptism or dedication to the natural world through direct exploration—leading to environmental involvement springing from the inside not the outside, driven by intuition not intellection. I was thinking particularly of the Penobscot Indians living on what we now call Indian Island in the middle of their namesake river. Penobscots are born environmentalists because their food, baskets, drumheads and drumsticks, for example, all come from nature. A Navajo greeting the dawn by sprinkling pollen into the air is celebrating solar energy in an experiential manner.

Recently, before a different audience, I had a chance to clarify what I meant. In receiving from the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment an award for “individual commitment to volunteer programs dedicated to environmental protection and sustainability of natural resources within . . . the Gulf of Maine,” I said I was moved by a very simple philosophy, “to put my body where my values are.” I held up a recent copy of the Christian Science Monitor showing cityscapes of four American cities—Houston, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston—under the banner, “The Next Boomtowns.” “Stacked in those skyscrapers,” I said, “are rows of cubicles lit by fluorescent lights with people sitting before computer screens, learning about the world second-hand through ideas relayed by people they have never met.”

That scares the pants off me because all those people in those towers believe they live in an economy, not the natural world, and can solve problems by throwing money at them—as our government has thrown money at Wall Street to get it running again. Money may be the currency we think we run on, but it is of no value to the native ecosystems that truly support us.

Conceptual environmentalists think money and techno-fixes are sufficient to solve the problem of global warming; experiential environmentalists know it will take far more than that—a radical change in human sensitivity and behavior to bring us in line with the biological processes that sustain us.

I developed my environmental philosophy by living for two-and-a-half years on a 30-acre island on the Maine coast, keeping my eyes and ears open and mouth shut. Living in the middle of an estuary as I did, it was a total immersion experi-ence. Late in life, perhaps (I was 53), but I was suffocating in the workaday world and needed a large dose of fresh air. Without inhaling nature as I did, I doubt I would be here today writing this blog. I never expected to live past Y2K.

But here I am 24 years later, a living, breathing environmental-ist because I put my body where my values were in 1986, and have made myself happen naturally, inside-out, ever since. My secret is to embrace life directly with as few intermediaries as possible standing between me and the natural world. I buy no packaged foods but cook every meal from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. I drink water, but no alcohol, coffee, cocoa, tea, or soda; take no drugs; walk instead of drive when I can; and dedicate my life to living with nature instead of on top of it. My favorite recreation is rowing my boat, a peapod made by Eric Dow in 1986. I forsook television when I lived on the island, and haven’t missed it since. Which makes it easier to resist temptations others wave in front of me in trying to shift whatever wealth I might have to their pockets. I am incapable of serving as just another cog in the workings of the American economy, refusing to be categorized as a consumer as if I were anything less than fully human, a child of planet Earth.

And being human, I am intrigued by the biological workings of my own mind—the only mind I know inside-out in intimate detail. Finding it hard to get to know or speak with others whose minds are lodged in different heads and live different lives from my own, I began searching for ways to bridge the seeming gulf between us. Which is right down my alley in wanting to get to know them as I know myself—creatures of two long and distinguished heritages, both evolutionary and cultural. Which is why I am carrying on at such length about the successes and failures of consciousness.

I see now that we live in different worlds, all focused on ourselves, surrounded by those who share values similar to ours and speak languages we can more-or-less understand in relating our experiences, so to some extent reaffirming our inner lives. It is bridging between those personal subcultures that now excites me, reaching across the chasm from both directions at once, from opposite shores—much as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge was built between Prospect and Verona Island—making it possible for us to connect midway between our respective inner worlds, to mutually reach out and engage without danger of plunging into the interpersonal chasm that separates us.

My most recent post (Reflection 163: No Middle Ground) was about the dangers of oversimplifying experience in order to be clearheaded in taking decisive action. Clarity, that is, comes at the high cost of minimizing rival alternatives. Which is the greatest danger in getting to know one another—that we reduce the other to a caricature of the complex and dynamic being she knows herself to be. Or, to be safe, we expose only a morsel of our full humanity. Relationships based on simplistic thinking can endure (think of your many casual acquaintances), but they are more serviceable than satisfying. You don’t need to befriend the checkout clerk to buy a jar of mayonnaise; being mildly pleasant or neutral will get the job done. It is in going deeper than “pleasant” that takes insight, sympathy, skill, and determination.

So here I am, the ardent environmentalist looking to connect with others who are ardent in their own lives, yet inhabit social circles emphasizing other ways of relating. Object: 1) greater understanding of what it means to be human, 2) expanded consciousness, and 3) more effective action in a world that includes us both. If we are ever going to cope effectively with overpopulation, global warming, cultural strife, human cruelty, and an economy that degrades the Earth, we need to build a network of such bridges, allowing us to fully mobilize and synchronize our personal resources toward common ends such as these.

The first step is to put our bodies where our survival values are—on planet Earth, not in some standardized cubicle deep within the economy. That is, we have to put ourselves where we truly live, not where we are told to live. Being in a place where we are fully conscious enables us to reach out to others who are as firmly grounded as we are, and to others beyond them. Contacting those others in mutual engagement, we then form a network of humanity—a new kind of tribe—worthy of meeting the challenges facing us all such as those I mentioned earlier. Apart and alone—as consumers, say, or members of different cultural tribes—we have absolutely no chance of saving either Earth or ourselves.

Being there is the secret of survival, being there where we live—no place else than on our host and irreplaceable satellite as it rounds the sun, the one inhabited planet we know of anywhere in the universe.

Next Boomtowns

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Consciousness often seems to operate by an either/or law that excludes the possibility of taking any middle position. We are either happy or sad, pro or con, well or sick, calm or stressed, bold or meek. Ironically, debate teams can flip a coin to see which side of an argument they are to present. We act out our lives more like Lear judging his daughters than Hamlet muddling through to a bad end. One after another, heads of state insist on making “one thing perfectly clear.” We avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, mixed messages, and confusion as if they were sexually transmitted diseases. Regarding judgments and opinions, we act as if there were no room for maybe—no middle ground.

Which pretty much reflects the stop/go nature of how our brains operate. Either neurons fire or they don’t, there are no halfway measures. Even at the last instant, a neuron told to fire by every one of its input signals can be stopped in its tracks by a single inhibitory signal. Cancel! Hold everything! Just say No!

Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it assures clarity of both vision and action under stressful conditions. The job of consciousness is to suggest appropriate courses of action in novel situations. Personally appropriate, that is, to the actor’s most basic biological and cultural values. We grow impatient with Hamlet because he simply can’t act on the basis of what he knows to be true, failing to revenge his father’s murder, or if he does act, skewering poor Polonius trembling behind the curtain in his mother’s chamber. In the end, all major players lie strewn about the stage, the intimate world of the hesitant one fallen in ruins.

But if hesitation proves costly on occasion, rash action in the name of clarity can come at an even steeper price. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example. The shock and awe was intended for Saddam and his troops, but stunned the whole world. Were there truly no alternatives? Indeed, there were many, all stifled by the overriding thrust of consciousness that ruled the Bush administration. When the looting began, we saw that shock and awe was no substitute for planning ahead.

Defending the selective nature of attention as the gateway to consciousness, Gerald M. Edelman addresses the evolutionary pressure to select one action as being the most appropriate among a field of alternatives:

An animal that is hungry or being threatened has to select an object or an action from many possible ones. It is obvious that the ability to choose quickly one action pattern to be carried out to the exclusion of others confers considerable selective advantage. Possessing such an ability makes it possible to achieve a goal that would otherwise be interfered with by the attempt to undertake two incompatible actions simultaneously (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, pages 141-142).

I picture Bush as an exceedingly threatened animal in seizing upon the Rumsfeldian strategy of preemptive attack in waging war on Iraq. Within a limited circle of minds, it seemed a good idea at the time. Except it extinguished all the uncertainties that a prudent commander would need to consider before making such a move, with the result that a shallow notion poorly thought through was put into effect, with egregious results.

Obama’s sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan appears to be another example that speaks to much the same point. Again, the military mind is out of its depth because there are too many imponderables in the social mix (it certainly is no nation) we call Afghanistan. Echoes of Vietnam are evident in Obama’s thinking, clouding his consciousness, spurring him to rash action as if he could picture the full consequences of such a move. This time, he tells himself, we will not retreat; we will win. But consciousness offers no guarantee of success; based entirely on past experience, it has no way of predicting with surety how things will play out. If I were the Taliban, I would lie low for a year or two, then, when American forces withdraw as advertised in 2011, step into the void supposedly defended by Afghan troops lacking the American commitment to, and fervor for, battle.

Consciousness is far more fragile than we care to admit, often tricking us into making a good show for form’s sake when, in fact, we don’t fully grasp the problem or threat we are faced with. As a result, we decide on an irreversible course of action with no option other than defeat when victory doesn’t rush from the wings on cue.

On the world stage, the loss of a man here or there (because his past experience does not prepare him to deal with prevailing events) is no tragedy. But when one individual’s consciousness is made responsible for the actions of an entire nation, leading to commitment of all its resources to a particular end, even the rigor of six million years of hominid evolution doesn’t equip us for the task of even imagining what an appropriate course of action might look like, much less recognizing it if we ever came across it. Consciousness is always experimental on the scale of one person leading a particular life. If we survive our personal errors of judgment, we have opportunity to learn where we went wrong. But on a national scale, no one mind can be made fully responsible for decisions affecting the whole. Which is why we have cabinets and advisors and staff to supplement the life experience of the so-called Commander In Chief. Who—like Lear misjudging his daughters, and Hamlet wanting absolute certainty—can aspire no higher than to a mortal level of consciousness.

Where the buck stops, that is where one individual’s consciousness makes a real difference on the national scene. That is precisely where Obama is located in the issue of America’s relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and North Korea. His is a daunting assignment, even with the most artful spies and prescient advisors on Earth. Whatever choice he makes, he is damned one way or another precisely because he cannot admit to his human limitations or the frailty of his personal consciousness.

Our form of government calls for leaders with the stature of gods—when there are no gods available to take the position. Fallible as we are, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Men and women with the gift of consciousness and speech—who are bound to make mistakes in novel situations they are ill prepared to deal with. Particularly in situations they have no chance to rehearse as stage actors have because they take place in real time, every performance playing to an opening night crowd.

In the case of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we the senders are united by the commonalities of American experience in this decade; the receivers by their shared experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is bound to be a meeting of bodies carrying weapons, but not of minds. I cannot fathom any mind but my own, as no American can an Afghan or Taliban or al Qaeda mind, and vice versa. In global affairs, it is the minds inhabiting individual bodies leading particular lives in specific places that set the courses of action which determine world events. There is no possible way we can know what will happen as the result of this surge in military commitment. We can know what we want to happen, but that has almost no bearing on what will actually take place.

What is lacking in this campaign is a sense of humility, along with a realization that concepts in the mind are not events on the ground. The best thing we could possibly do under the circumstances is for all concerned to put down their arms and engage one another as fellow humans, children of the one Earth. Yes, we should engage, but as equals, not as one dedicated to dominating (or killing) the other. Consciousness being as fallible as it is in every known instance, it is foolish to put a gun in any hand that might take the life of a total stranger for reasons that are not fully known or considered. Imagine killing someone and then wondering who he was? Was, but no longer is.

Is there no middle ground between victory and defeat? There certainly is. Between me killing you and you killing me, there is the usual middle way of muddling through by playing backgammon together and trading stories about our mishaps and adventures. Of being human together—you being fully you, me being fully me. Acknowledging our similarities, sharing our differences, balancing the two, not letting ideology come between us to distort our relationship.

No, we have not tried that approach. We are better at building walls between people than bridges. At shooting from the hip before we’re sure of the target. America is now a street gang writ large on the world scene, defending its turf at all cost—unto bankrupting the nation both financially and morally. Because that is the way we are taught to conduct ourselves in the world—by flexing our might instead of listening to the other side of the story. Maybe later, when we do hear the story, we’ll apologize for acting so rashly, lay a few wreathes and call it square.

After all, they invaded our territory on 9-11, which everyone knows is a violation of sacred ground. No matter we violated theirs first. So we send out our muscle to teach them a lesson. As long as they run their turf by our rules, everything will be OK by us.

That’s the stuff tragedies are made of because we know it’ll never happen. That’s not how people are made. Lear was Lear, Hamlet was Hamlet. Liberty means living your own life your own way, being who you are till the curtain drops. We’re scripting our own drama as we act in the world, driven by the dictates of consciousness, which are invariably self-serving as best we can picture our current situation. It’s not only a tragedy for those who fall during their mission in Afghanistan, it’s a tragedy for all of us because we’re making it happen. It’s our money that’s paying for this expedition—a million dollars a year per head. That’s the going price for pretending we can teach total strangers the lesson we want them to learn.

Shakespeare has already written a play about a black man deceived by the advice of his lieutenant, Iago. Othello fell for it, not realizing Iago had his own agenda driven by his own motives. “O fool! fool! fool!” he said of himself when disabused, realizing he had been tricked into smothering Desdemona, whom he had “lov’d not wisely but too well.” Another animal driven by fear, he acted boldly as he thought he must, but acted wrongly nonetheless.

Contrail

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Consciousness combines a great many mental processes all operating outside of awareness, its genius being to bind them as if they shared the inherent integrity of one process alone. I seem to remember Christof Koch pointing out in The Quest for Consciousness that the brain contains more than 40 separate maps of various aspects of visual consciousness (motion, color, different orientations, contrast, depth, etc.)—and that’s but one sensory modality. The neural map we seem to be conscious of has yet to be located—or does not exist in the human brain. Like Botticelli’s depiction of Venus on the half-shell rising from the waves, we are more interested in the culminating image itself than the myriad brushstrokes that went into creating that image on a flat surface.

 

In any nutshell summary of consciousness, I would have to include such components as concepts, sensory figures, and feelings blending together at a sufficient level of detail to enable purposive behavior in any relevant situation. Consciousness is not broken down into its parts in awareness but emerges full-blown as consciousness of one thing or another. Cramming the process into the confines of a gross oversimplification:

 

Consciousness funds long-term conceptual categories with immediate sensory qualities in the presence of feelings at a level of detail appropriate to guide purposive behavior within a relevant situation.

 

Which is what we leave out when we say we are conscious of anything at all. We didn’t make it, it’s just there. Which is why the world seems to lie before us (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “so various, so beautiful, so new,” when our brains work so hard to achieve that illusion from myriad bits and scraps of awareness.

 

In Reflection 40: The Meaning of Our Times (posted December 22, 2008), I quoted a letter from one of my mother’s friends narrating the following incident from her childhood:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

Here is consciousness being assembled by a six-year-old girl operating on the leading edge of her awareness. The idea of banana is coupled to the image of a crescent in the presence of awe and a sense of revelation so powerful that she runs home to apply her new learning within the most significant situation in her life, her ongoing relationship with her mother. She leaves it to us to picture her mother gently setting her straight with a sense of suppressed amusement, and the resulting disappointment and mortification that endured for eighty years.

 

In the earlier post, I treated the incident as an example of an effort to make sense of the world. But making sense of things is the job of the interpreter module in the frontal lobes of our left cerebral hemispheres, so here I offer the same episode to illustrate consciousness hoisting itself by its own bootstraps—and getting it wrong. Which is why the story was committed to memory to be retrieved after so many years. Trial-and-error learning has a powerful effect on the brain because it gives us a hint about how the building of consciousness is properly done.

 

Consciousness is something we acquire through countless experiments we conduct on ourselves. Every experiment is a constrained situation within which we can learn something new. We venture a guess what will happen, then see if that’s how it goes. Yes, we are affirmed or, no, we are disabused. Which is exactly what happened in the mysterious case of the “moon-banana.” Red lights flash, klaxons sound, mother smiles, as, disillusioned, the girl sees her error. M-o-o-n does not spell banana. Ah, I see where I went wrong; I mistook the crescent. Teacher really meant it as a new moon. M-o-o-n spells moon. Now I get it.

 

I remember when I was fifteen getting into the back seat of the car behind my father who was driving, and saying something to the effect that I took great solstice from one thing or another—being immediately aware that I had confounded solstice and solace—so being utterly undone in the presence of the Great Man. Later, I looked the two words up in the dictionary to get them straight in my mind.

 

If, as so often happens, we cannot admit our mistakes to ourselves, then consciousness runs as before and our left-brain interpreters need issue no apologies for not getting it right. We are not sadder and wiser but older and more stupid. There’s a lot of that around these days. We see it in pompous politicians, arrogant bankers, posturing experts of all sorts. Everyone has an answer to all questions, and is more than happy to share it with those who are less gifted. Asked about mistakes we have made, none come to mind. As if misjudgments were cardinal sins. As if our image before the world had to be maintained at all cost. As if making mistakes could actually make us lose face instead of demonstrating yet again the depth of our humanity.

 

The danger is not in being vulnerable to criticism but in pretending we are not because we meet the self-set standard of perfection. The height of folly is to insist the world is as we take it to be without examining our own contribution to how we reach for the world in the first place. We underestimate the gullibility of our on-board interpreters when, for example, pride, greed, or embarrassment inhibit their proper functioning and we are unable to admit our own errors even to ourselves, much less to the world.

 

Life’s hardest lesson is that the world we are conscious of is largely our own doing. Our left-brain interpreters do the best they can under the circumstances. That is, as constrained by other factors and modules in our brains. We are not constrained by the world-as-it-is so much as by that world as represented in our heads. The world we know is our version of the world; the two never amounting to the same thing. The “finite provinces of meaning,” “the fortresses of belief” within which we make sense exist in our minds, not the world. Which is equally true for scientists, philosophers, theologians as for other mortal beings.

 

Political campaigns in the U.S. have come to be theatrical productions of one big lie after another. In pretending to be all things to all voters, candidates end up hollow effigies with extended hands because what they are conscious of is wanting those votes. Nothing for them has meaning if they don’t win the race. Maintaining the charade has become so expensive that only millionaires can afford to play the game. And when they get into office, they forget the people who voted for them and have eyes and ears only for lobbyists representing interests with the highest-paid legal teams who provide wording for the laws—the legal reality—they want imposed on the nation.

 

According to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee or the National Rifle Association, m-o-o-n really does spell banana. The world must march to their drummers, no matter what Mummy says. In their eyes, AIPAC and NRA can do no wrong. The only way to run an economy is to get out of the way of the rich by cutting their taxes. It was our duty to wage war against terrorism by invading Iraq. No matter what it costs, private banks and corporations “too big to fail” must be bailed out with public funds. Guarantees of free speech must be extended to corporations so that they have a constitutional right to defend their interests as they want, no matter how private and self-serving.

 

Until we understand the complex nature of consciousness, and our role in creating the seeming reality it presents to us, we will keep running aground on ledges deep within the assumptions we make about the nature of the real and of consciousness as its proxy available to us all. The truth is, all awareness is a matter of interpretation, and interpretation is subject to pressures and influences we do not admit to or know not of.

 

Consciousness exists to clarify our view of the situations we are involved in. Such clarity is not an optical property but an effort to suppress the clamor of rival views in our mental systems, so is always political in nature as representing the interests of personal survival as it is most easily and conveniently understood. Consciousness is invariably presented to the mind as consciousness of one scenario or another in which we are invested. It is an interpretation of mental events, not an accurate depiction of reality. It all depends on what the meaning of of is. Of the mental mechanics of our situated intentionality at the time.

 

According to Merleau-Ponty, Kant referred to the hand as an outer brain of man. That outer brain is driven by consciousness of to reach into the world as if no different from the interpreted world of consciousness. Which is exactly the problem. If as conscious beings we get the world wrong, then our behavior is maladapted to the hidden world that is—and we can’t tell the difference. Until corrected by experience, our illusions R us.

 

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