490. It May Seem Hokey

April 22, 2015

Life is not a given or a right; it is a process of building ourselves to our own specifications. And supporting others in building themselves to their specifications, not ours.

I am thinking of the life process as an opportunity for engaging the world around us, and inviting that world to engage us as we go. That way, both self and its world meet their respective requirements by making adjustments for the situations that come up along the way.

So do we grow into ourselves, by adjusting our steps to current conditions, here leaping hummock-to-hummock, there by stepping carefully stone-to-stone, crossing rivers when we come to them by whatever means we can devise while staying in touch with our minds and surroundings, engaging them, inviting them to engage us.

All that wrapped in one mental process that guides us on our way—that’s what I mean by mindfaring. Each finding and going her own way, as driven by a life force as a personal prime mover. Creating a sort of engagement based on an attitude encompassing both equality and fairness for all who go with us in our time and place. An attitude that promotes sharing, taking turns, and striving out of respect, along with a sense of personal responsibility for everything we contribute to a particular engagement.

That’s the state of mind I’ve come to by writing this blog up to this point. I did not have plans to say what I have just written. The words have flowed from the situations I’ve worked myself into day-after-day, from the day I started out until this minute, today.

I am a creature of this very moment. A creature with a past, yes, but building toward a future that will be an extension of the journey I have made so far. That is the upshot of what I now refer to as mindfaring, the process of living life with an attitude of trust, intelligence, interest, curiosity, adventure, openness to what happens, and striving to go beyond that.

Since all learning is essentially self-learning, mindfaring comes down to learning about self while being mindful of others. Other people, other creatures, other ways, other things, other ideas, other universes unto themselves.

What I’ve just put before your eyes is an example of the thought process I’ve been going through in real time in synchrony with my fingers typing on the keyboard of my computer. It may seem hokey that the word I was searching for was based on a word (wayfaring) I’ve been using all along, but the point is that my usage was based on a nonverbal kernel of thought, not the actual word, which I was using intuitively without a definition in mind beyond the cluster of felt meanings that I have suggested.

What I’ve been doing is putting legs under that kernel to give it a particular kind of flexibility and mobility in the situation I found myself in during the process of trying to depict the state of mind that has been driving this blog all along. The process of inner discovery I’ve put before you is what I’ve been getting at in trying to describe the workings of my mind.

So there you have it, Exhibit A of my mind engaging with itself in as concise a summary of self-reflection as I can put into words.

Mindfaring, I discover, requires engaging yourself and your surroundings at the same time. It is simultaneous an opening-to and a taking-in. In that sense, it means truly connecting with the world beyond your bodily perimeter while also connecting with your inner self.

The trick to engaging is being both attentive and purposeful at the same time. Attentive to what you are perceiving and purposeful in what you are doing. That way you set up a continuous loop of engagement so that input affects output, and output affects input, your situated intelligence and judgment in the middle position maintaining an exciting and effective relationship between the incoming and outgoing parts of your mind.

By my black box metaphor, engagement is told by both input and output terminals being active together in real time, not by matching set responses to signals coming in.

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Introspection enables us to balance three aspects of consciousness at the same time:

  1. sensory evidence for there being a world outside ourselves,
  2. the nature of that world as we entertain it in the form of a particular situation, and
  3. how we might choose to respond to that situation if we judge it necessary and appropriate.

So do we play the odds in monitoring the workings of our mind as they fit us to our surroundings in living out our lives through one episode of engagement after another. Put that way, it sounds awkward because I am trying to avoid the general assumption that we simply look upon the world and it shows us its true face and significance, so we know what to do. Not so. More often, we make the world up to suit ourselves at the moment, and often act inappropriately because our guess at a world is often a gross distortion of the world that is out there.

I advocate a rigorous program of introspection to help us from getting it wrong, wrong, wrong again as often as we do—as the media love to shove in our faces in one up-close and personal story after another, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. The world is in shambles because we act without thinking our situations and engagements through so much of the time.

Instead of asserting ourselves, we would do well to check our first impressions to see if our actions are truly appropriate to our situations, our situations to the sensory input available to us, and the input we seize upon is appropriate to the world we actually live in.

We well may live in the world, but how we engage it is our doing all the way. Our seeing, understanding, and doing are ours alone. Which is why we have to watch ourselves—because no one else can.

We may dub ourselves wise as a species, or claim to be chosen above all others as members of a particular faith or nation, but in truth we each dwell in a niche of one human animal, and how we see, think, and act is our job alone.

A strict regimen of curiosity, doubt, and humility would serve us all well. Too bad it isn’t available in a pill or bottle, on TV or the Web.

Taking hold of ourselves is up to each one of us on his or her own. It starts with a rigorous bout of introspection by which we take ourselves in hand so that slowly, slowly, we can learn to shape up the minds we all have but often subject to careless, cruel, or abusive treatment without qualm.

To change the world for the better, we must start on the inside and work our way out. As yet there is no service or technology available that can do the job for us.

That’s it for today. I’ll do my best to stay on the job. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

What I was getting at in my last post was the common origin of two different urges, the urge to belief and the urge to discovery. If, then, religion and science are both born of awe before the wondrous order of the universe, how is it they so completely diverge? Indeed, one treads the path of convinced opinion and absolute authority, the other the path of doubt and experimentation. Each characterizes the same impetus from a point of view diametrically opposite the other, leading to disparate approaches to experience, incommensurate methods, and incompatible conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Yet both claim to be driven by the same urge—the urge to truth.

How can this be? What is it about the conscious mind that allows two grand institutions to pursue identical goals by such different—and mutually exclusive—routes, the route of faith-based conviction and the route of experimentation?

By singling out these two I do not mean to imply there are no other routes to truth. There is also the legal route, the political, the economic, the historical, the ethical, or the aesthetic, to name a few that spring to mind. But here I will focus on the religious and scientific aspects of consciousness as examples to suggest how differences between those other aspects might arise. In each mental system or discipline, we must look to the assumptions, methods, languages, great thinkers and practitioners, persistent issues, tools, accomplishments, among other factors bearing on it as a pathway to truth. That is more than I can take on in this post, so I will limit myself to a brief look at a few select aspects of mind in the instance of religion and science.

Overall, I would say that religion works deductively in applying general principles to specific instances, whereas science works the other way round inductively, proceeding from specific instances to whatever principles may apply. That is, religion looks upon the world with answers or foregone conclusions in mind, seeking questions to exemplify what is already known. Science on the other hand looks upon the world with true curiosity about how the world works, and attempts to derive theories that answer to commonalities detected in various concrete phenomena. Religion is instructional or doctrinal in applying prior belief to here-and-now experience; science experimental in deriving theories from actual events.

Religion looks from the familiar or recorded past to the unknown future, relying extensively on conceptual memory and sacred texts to provide a basis for prophecy. Science also looks toward the future, but from the here and now, venturing predictions, paying careful attention to whether they are borne out or not. Prophecy is used to justify prior belief; prediction is used to discover whether or not belief is justified.

Thinking is listening to yourself before you say anything out loud. Religious thought broadcasts prior conclusions onto world events as they unfold; scientific thought casts questions onto the world, then attends to the world’s response. Religion’s goal is the spread of true belief and conformity; science’s goal is independent discovery of truth to expand what is known. Religion suppresses or avoids surprises; science welcomes them. That is, the religious approach is to assimilate new experience to preexisting mental structures; the scientific approach is to expand or alter mental structures in order to accommodate new information.

I offer this heavy-handed cartoon of some of the essential differences between religion and science to illustrate two wholly divergent strategies derived from the same compelling experience of the unknown as exemplified by early peoples’ awe and wonder upon observing the pageant of wheeling stars and wandering planets in times when night skies were clearer and darker than they are in modern experience. I am saying that the urges to both science and religion stem from similar experiences of the universe, but via two different routes or strategies for dealing with the awesome and unknown. The urge to religion relies heavily on explaining or categorizing the universe as the work of one or more superhuman(s) of fearsome power and authority as projected outward from the human mind; the urge to science starts with humility before the unknown, relying more on curiosity, experiment, and  discovery in describing aspects of the universe in terms humans can grasp.

Think of Isaac Newton in his garden (as the story goes) at dusk, perhaps looking upon both an apple on a bough and the full moon rising above the horizon in the distance, apple and moon appearing roughly the same size from his point of view. Abruptly, the apple falls straight to the ground below. Which raises the thought in Newton’s mind, “Why doesn’t the moon likewise fall out of the sky?” And then the realization, “Indeed, the moon is falling! But because it is orbiting the Earth, it is propelled not in a straight line into space, but along its orbital path at the same time Earth draws it to itself, with the result that it perpetually falls both toward us and around us, thus keeping the same distance from us as it does fall.” In some such way did the theory of gravitation emerge in the human mind as a result of an inquiring attitude toward personal experience. No phenomenon was safe from such an approach as would project questions instead of answers onto the universe, in hopes the universe would reveal its secrets directly through its own lawful acts.

Or some such scenario. In contrast, consider Paul of Tarsus writing an epistle to the Romans in which, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:

After arguing that the righteous live by faith, Paul develops a strange line of reasoning designed to show that God has revealed himself to all people through the creation. Then he goes on to say that those who do not discern the truth of God through creation and thus do not worship God properly are, as their punishment, given over to lust, iniquity and the misuse of their bodies among themselves (Preface, The Letters of Paul, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, 1998, my italics).

Here we are not in any such place as Newton’s garden, but are in the mind of Paul as he writes to the faithful in Rome, a city  he never had visited, concerning the gospel of Christ:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written. The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who, knowing the judgment of god, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1: 17-20, 24, 26-32, original italics).

 Thus it is written. As others have maintained that Haiti and New Orleans have been punished by God for their evil ways, or that destroying infidels by blowing themselves up in their midst will earn Jihadis a secure place in heaven. Picture children—boys—rocking back and forth over the Qur’an in a Wahhabi school in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, memorizing the text as the ultimate authority by which they are to live—and to die. Picture children in American schools, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to a piece of striped cloth, emblem of a nation exporting chaos, greed, and death to those who do not share its worldview.

Looking to the past is not all bad, nor to the future all good. Religions pay great attention to ethics and how life is to be lived; scientists develop ever more sinister weapons of mass destruction in the name of national defense. Fear is not rational. It seems easier to ring ourselves with missiles than calm the fears of our neighbors and ourselves. Anxiety, suspicion, fear, and anger lead both theologians and scientists to think terrible thoughts and do frightful things. A latent terrorist lurks in the shadows within every human mind.

And cultural influences can so alter the realities of our lives that the individual will to survive can be overwhelmed by the will to die for any common cause perceived to be just. Over 55 million people were killed during the Second World War—each and every one of them for a cause thought at one time by one side or another to be self-evidently righteous. The siege of Stalingrad, firebombing of Dresden, gassing of Jews, nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all made tactical sense to those with power and authority to carry them out.

So I do not intend to paint every one of the faithful as a reactionary incapable of creative thought, or of the curious as a selfless servant of reason. Being human, all are driven by biological values that color every situation according to their personal palette, as well as by the artistic taste of the culture which informs their every act.

But I do intend to give the impression that religion and science create different worlds for their followers, and if those worlds complement each other to a degree, they also serve to under-mine each other more than create an atmosphere of mutual respect. We need look no farther than to the partisan roilings in Washington for a blatant example of self-righteous creationists in deadlock with curious and experimental evolutionists over who is to control the destiny of America and the world. In the Islamic sphere, the same split is evident, as it is in China, and everywhere else.

How we train our children to employ their minds is crucial to human survival on planet Earth. Whether of a religious or scientific bent, as adults every one of us needs to find eternal truths to believe in, while at the same time remaining open to new insights and discoveries as the world changes before our eyes. That is, we can’t develop one faculty for revealed truths to the exclusion of open experimentation, or vice versa. We need to explore both capacities to their fullest extent in every person. As it is now, we become caricatures of ourselves by siding with one mindset or the other, not celebrating the fact that of the nearly seven billion people on Earth, each is unique, so dismissing all but the few who are more-or-less similar to ourselves. That is the height of ignorance, foolishness, pride, and arrogance. If our upbringing—both formal and otherwise—can do no better than that, then our families, schools, social institutions, and governments are failing us utterly.

The Future Is Now

 

Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

Reflection 64: Blogosphere II

February 13, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I wrote earlier (Reflection 8: Blogosphere, October 16, 2008 ) that “blogs hold promise of creating a cooperative, synchronized interaction between individual worlds of consciousness on a scale far grander than one-way broadcasts in the mass media have ever achieved through dominance and brute force.” But added, “As it is now, blogs add up to a clamorous Babel of noise and opinion.”

 

Which is it to be, a force for order in the world, or a source of disruption and confusion? As I see it, the blogosphere feeds on itself by seizing on every crumb of information in the media and subjecting it to eternal digestion into finer and finer bits until it ends up as drivel.

 

My son recently gave me The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, in which I found a list of eight “Sources of Inspiration” on page 84. There I immediately grasped what the trouble is. On that page some of the most successful bloggers in the world tell their secret: Feed off of the media and one another! The whole enterprise is incestuous. Opinions galore, but not a sign of original thought in the bunch. Well, one sign in the eighth item: “On the street” reporting, which reads:

 

Are the teachers at your children’s school upset by student test scores? Is the cafeteria manager concerned about the quality of the produce? Maybe your local pharmacist is worried that seniors don’t understand recent changes in Medicare. all of these stories are worth covering.

 

To those who click out blogs of this sort, I salute you. You’re my kind of folks, making the most of your personal resources.

 

The other seven sources of “inspiration” are derived from existing media: 1) newspapers, 2) political publications, 3) general interest publications, 4) TV news and news websites, 5) radio, 6) large new-media sites (HuffPost, Politico, BoingBoing, Daily Kos, etc.), and 7) blogs on your blogroll.

 

In a word, many or most blogs are derivative. They chew on themselves and other media. Feeding on the same cud, they grind away until nothing is left but drool from the chops. Then onto the next bite, then the next.

 

Whatever happened to investigative reporting? To actually being on the scene, doing original interviews, getting hard facts down on paper? Standing for the truth by putting your body where the news is? The blogsphere is getting to be little more than a roll of toilet paper, every sheet the same. That doesn’t sound like the best use of human consciousness to me.

 

What gets chewed over already exists in digital form on the Web, while most of life is organic, fleeting, and vulnerable every moment—and definitely cannot be reduced to binary code. Blogs don’t deal with living material—with people, animals, trees, flowers, birds. They deal instead with digitized cast-offs of cast-offs of cast-offs. The scheme seems to be, get noticed by reworking the printed words of the movers and shakers. To get famous, rehash the verbal orts of the outrageous, rich, and notorious.

 

Here’s a painful truth. Much of the blogosphere is staffed by an army of hacks. Clever, sometimes, but hacks nonetheless. Like so many army ants coursing through the jungle tearing at every stem, leaf, or leg in their path.

 

Where, I ask, is consciousness in this feeding frenzy? Where are original thought, judgment, curiosity, doubt, passion, and all those other facets of human consciousness we know so well because they make us who we are?

 

On the other hand, maybe I miss the whole point. Maybe chewing the cud is the next stage of human evolution. Maybe the grazing animal in each of us is finally slobbering her way out of the closet. Maybe squatting in our cubicles and taking it easy by doing as little real work as possible is the coming thing. Just maybe. But I don’t believe it. A blog is as valuable as the life equivalent that goes into it. Which to me takes three things: conscious effort, passion, and judgment. Without one of the three, a blog might as well be plopped from the stern of a cow.

 

Like high-colonic enemas, rants (including this one) are good for the soul. They scrub the kidneys, liver, pancreas of all the waste they’ve been storing for months. I highly recommend them. But if you launch your rant into the blogosphere, please let it be your original and not a variation on somebody else’s complaint. Look into your consciousness and see what gems you can find, then fling them forth. Maybe that’ll unclog your system and open the gates to consciousness and original thought.

 

¦

 

 

Reflection 12: Doubt

October 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Doubt is a state of mind that brackets or holds in suspension an item of belief. [Is that so?] [Do you expect me to believe that?] [Really?] By decoupling the flow of sensory images from the flow of concepts or ideas that accompany them, doubt disrupts the normal cohesiveness of consciousness. This either baulks consciousness, or perhaps draws attention to the coupling itself, which is usually accomplished out of awareness. Understanding is interrupted, creating a state of either not knowing or curiosity. If the latter, consciousness can then shift into overdrive.

 

The drive to understand what sensory phenomena mean is one of the most basic motivators of consciousness, learning, memory, and behavior. When I wrote a book* about hiking the trails of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island (where I live), I always wanted to find out what lay beyond the next bend or over the rise after that. Not merely what was there, but what it meant in relation to what I already knew. I kept transcending the known world—the landscape I was familiar with—in order to incorporate the unknown into the big picture I was sketching out in my mind. For three years in the 1990s, that was my fundamental mode of existence. Pushing ahead. Exploring. Expanding my awareness. Going beyond my current understanding.

 

Essentially, I lived in a state of eternal curiosity, doubt, and questioning. For me it was a great adventure. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always lived like that. I was born with a question on my lips: What next? I will die the same way: What next? In between, I have always questioned my own experience, doubting that I could take it at face value but had to delve behind the obvious, sensory presentation to discover what it might mean. I studied science, the humanities, the arts, education, trying to stand under and support my sensory experience with what it all meant. Here is a paragraph—one long sentence, really—from my essay on hiking the trails of Beech Mountain in Acadia:

 

Picture the hulking naturalist on an Acadian mountain ridge, hunkered down, peering back and forth through bifocals between wildflower guide and puzzling bloom on its midget stem, unable to describe what he thinks he sees in terms the guide will accept, guide holding back the sought-after name until the description is more precise, blackflies looking on at first, then mobbing, then going in for the kill, the naturalist hitting back between swings of attention between book and bloom, bloom and book, blackflies persisting, book resisting, bloom bobbing in the wind, naturalist sticking it out for twenty minutes, then, no wiser than before, fleeing for his life.

 

My effort at making the blossom meaningful was frustrated by my failure to find the proper category to place it in. Now I conceive of that bloom as an example of pale corydalis (C. sempervirens, a member of the poppy family). That is its meaning, its place in the taxonomy of world flowers. But then I knew only its visual aspects of size, shape, color, so could not fit it into my conceptual understanding. Without the name of that concept, it was anonymous as far as I was concerned, and didn’t have a place in my edition of the known world.

 

We generate concepts in our minds through repeated presentations in our experience such that the unique details of any one presentation fall away, leaving only the common features to persist in memory as an abstract remnant. That summary is then given a label or name and filed away for future reference. When I come across the bloom again as a concrete phenomenon in my sensory experience, the concept is there waiting for it, so I am apt to see the concept and not the richly detailed flower itself. This is a kind of shorthand the brain uses to get the most from memory at minimal cost of effort and storage space. The result is we tend to see conceptually or categorically while glossing over the infinitely varied details of what is in front of us.

 

Matching current sensory images to categories stored in memory is one of the fundamental features of consciousness. Doubt, curiosity, and questioning indicate we are having trouble fitting a sensory event to the proper bin in memory and need help with our sorting, as I did in the example above of trying to identify a flower.

 

When scientists think they have fit a class of sensory phenomena to an appropriate category in their understanding, they invite other scientists to duplicate the journey that led them to that conclusion, so to see if both projects produce the same results. If they do, that suggests that they are dealing with a stable representation of a state of affairs in the world and not merely a figment in personal consciousness. Scientists pursue understanding of repeatable phenomena, not one-time events. This leads to concise explanations for, or descriptions of, phenomena in their collective experience, which then are taken as meaningful when viewed from a scientific perspective.

 

The scientific method is one way of dealing with uncertainty. My footloose explorations in Acadia are another. Finding out what others think, asking questions, inquiring of a reference librarian—these are other ways. Or, we can opt to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, and a host of unanswered questions. Once, as a Cub Scout, I was getting ready to enter my chickens in a pet show when my big brother banged my head against the floor and knocked me out. When I came to, I asked, “What am I doing in this uniform?” I have since wondered if members of the military have ever had occasion to clear that up for themselves.

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* Acadia: The Soul of a National Park, formerly distributed by North Atlantic Books, now out of print.

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