497. Afterword

April 30, 2015

Cultural ideas (memes), once they become widely accepted or have even gone “viral,” develop a strong resistance to change. The idea of “artificial intelligence,” from a fanciful oxymoron (contradiction in terms because no one knows what authentic intelligence might be), has become the watchword of a burgeoning industry and is here to stay until it is replaced by the Next Big Thing that becomes culturally contagious.

I have used the word “inertia” to describe a cultural idea’s resistance to change. Once popularly accepted, it leads a life of its own. That is, once its collective memory achieves a critical mass within the human population, it becomes a contributor to our everyday system of belief.

Even after gravitational force, evolution, genetics, DNA, and both galactic and stellar evolution became fixtures of our cultural view of the universe (thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Newton, Darwin, Franklin-Watson-Crick, and tens-of-thousands of others), the anthropocentric notion that humankind is the central focus of a god-driven universe persists, as if the sun and stars were still believed to revolve about us—we who give meaning to godly creation simply because we are born to that tenacious meme from our mistaken point of view.

Cultural inertia is a disease more deadening than ebola or dengue fever. It kills off tender minds of both children and adults well before their time. That is because the basis of perception is recognition enabled by memory, not any sensory impressions formed in the instant. We see largely what we have seen before and are familiar with. We grow uncomfortable when beyond the range of our past experience. Novelty in our eyes may capture our attention, but that doesn’t mean we accept, like, or understand it.

Ideas that become part of our general culture are usually put forward by groups that stand to profit from their acceptance. Economic theory flows from those who stand to make money, not from the host of disadvantaged others. Military theory flows from those who fight wars at a distance. Theology flows from those dependent on entire flocks of believers. Penal theory is proposed by those outside prison walls. Art theory blows on the winds of change, novelty, and aesthetic outrage.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we are all heavily invested in our personal experience, existing as we do at the leading edge of our beliefs. And that edge is always pro or con, positive or negative, for or against—in a word, polarized. There it is, a double-edged sword at the heart of our beliefs. And that makes the world we live in polarized as a result of our thrusting our particular edge outward in our actions, frowns, smiles, and gestures of rejection or acceptance.

There are two sides to every truth, meme, and conviction. We’re either for-or-against it because that is how our minds work, balancing pros and cons, activations and inhibitions, two sides of every question. Yes or no. Yea or nay. Go or stop. Stay or leave. Fast or slow. Cold or hot. Sweet or sour. Brave or chicken. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. Guilty or innocent. All or nothing.

We frame our options for doing anything at all in two columns, pro and con. Then we list the reasons for taking a particular action against the reasons for not taking it. We add up the two columns. The one with the most checkmarks wins. Yes, we are that simple minded.

Our muscles either flex or relax. What signal should we send? Uncertainty or hesitation leads to disaster. Timing is of the essence; the enemy is fast approaching. Now is our chance to decide. What should we do? How do we vote? Count us in or out? Subtlety is for wimps. Real men and women know right from wrong in any situation, and always do the right thing. Or, that is the popular myth.

Choices, nothing but choices. That is precisely why we have minds that engage with events and make decisions what to do. No matter how we decide, once we go one way or the other, we face another decision, which invariably leads to a train of others after that.

What if you had turned left and not right that day you met the girl who became your girlfriend who became your wife who bore your children who now have children of their own? What if, what if, what if. But you didn’t turn left, you turned right, and that has made all the difference throughout your life.

Speaking of what ifs, picture your genealogical tree for the past five generations, from your parents to their parents to their parents to their parents to their parents. Your parents to your great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a century’s worth of your family and recent genetic heritage, 126 people, all making countless decisions every day of their lives, all those decisions contributing to you and your specific genome. Not just contributing to, but focusing on you. If any one of them had lived differently, had gotten sick at the wrong time, had gone off to war, had fallen off a horse, had run a red light, had served chicken (with hidden bones) and not roast beef for dinner—where and who would you be today?

Think about it. Without consciousness that can weigh options and make decisions, and act on those decisions by tensing one set of muscles while relaxing others—none of us would be who we are today.

Yes, consciousness makes all the difference between living as a person and living as a mushroom, or even another person in our own family-community-culture-precinct of nature. What if we’d been born on another planet circling another sun in another galaxy? Wherever we are, consciousness is our guide every millisecond of every day of our lives.

How ironic is it, then, that we barely understand our own conscious processes, our own intelligence, our own opinions, fashions, fads, annoyances, habits, routines, prejudices, and orthodox beliefs? Our schools are all aimed outward into the world of memes, ideas, and traditions, not at the minds we bring with our lunchboxes and faithfully present to our homeroom teacher when we answer “Here” when she calls out our name.

Instead of fighting wars or trying to make a killing on Wall Street, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to understand our own minds to avoid doing more harm than good in the world?

Why, in particular, do we cling to ways and beliefs we don’t understand, yet commit ourselves to out of personal and cultural inertia? As if we were automatons or robots or zombies or idiots?

I’ve said it before and will say it here one last time: Know Thyself! Why else are we here?

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.

Wayfarers all, what are we but course correctors, ever vigilant to steer ourselves clear of reefs all around? To find our way through the uncharted seas ahead?

I view emotions as signaling the relative success (positive or negative, good or bad) of our engagements in furthering the journeys we are making for ourselves. Positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and a general well-being confirm our progress, while disorders of engagement as marked by frustration, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and loneliness signal that we are lost to ourselves.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in making our rounds of engagement. We are fearful of or angry at those who thwart or interrupt us, and smile upon those who cooperate and help us on our way.

Darwin pointed to this duality of emotions at the core of our being:

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they lead to this end; as happiness is an essential part of the general good and the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1974], page 699, my italics).

Better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad—so do we wend our way every day of our lives as guided by a compass of emotion that tells us whether we are on course or not toward the great end of happiness. Darwin wrote of the greatest-happiness principle as a moral force in the context of moral instincts and behavior, but I think the principle applies to our every engagement, with our innermost selves—the intelligence situated at the core of our being—as the judge of our relative failure or success.

What I am saying in this series of posts is that we steer our way through our life’s engagements by a compass that gauges the duality of our happiness and success on an emotional scale. And further, that the space between the poles of that duality is precisely what we are conscious of as we go along.

Nowhere is that duality more evident than in our dreams, which highlight our yearnings as regarded from a perspective of helpless inactivity imposed by sleep during which we cannot connect our intentions to our actions by any means. In that sense, dreams narrate the drama of our good intentions—and inevitable failure to go where we wish to go and do what we wish to do.

Here is the verbatim report of a dream I had on December 4, 2013, that reflects the state of my mind when my loops of engagement were stymied time after time, yet I remained at the helm with my raw feelings exposed. A wayfarer without navigation skills, I couldn’t engage in a meaningful way with the situation I found myself in, so things inevitably went from bad to worse.

I am hired to operate a big electronic machine. I have two assistants to work with me, but no one has explained how the machine works, so I feel strong pressure to explain it to my helpers, but I can’t live up to that responsibility. I have the machine moved outside to be where other machines are. I wait for instructions, which don’t come. To get back in the building, we all must climb up the forty-five-degree slope of the loading dock made of slippery metal. The climb is arduous. After climbing the ramp twice and slipping back, I say I won’t do it again, so am shown an alternate route up the back wall of a dark room where my superiors are meeting around a table. I hear my name mentioned as I scale the back wall to reach a narrow (horizontal) cupboard door at ceiling level that I must crawl through. It leads to a kitchen shelf in an adjoining room where two men are preparing food. I apologize for getting in their way, but imagine the meeting’s view of my legs sticking out of the narrow opening as I barely squeeze through it. I have a strong sense of the direction I must take to get back to work along a metal-lined walkway up a steep slope and along slippery rocks. I wear boots and keep slipping back, making no headway. I wake up while slipping back once again.

To me, that is a clear portrait of a mind that is driven to act, but can’t act effectively because it can’t engage in a meaningful exchange with significant features of its surroundings. That mind is my dream mind, pursuing happiness, but being thwarted at every turn because I have no means of enacting my intentions.

It is precisely the feel or texture of such thwarted adventures that fuels the bulk of my dreams. There is no on-the-spot revision or change of course, no learning from experience. Each such dream situation depicts a series of errors without correction. My dreams are one-dimensional, relentlessly rushing on from situation to situation without any course adjustments whatever.

I find myself navigating without judgment—because as helmsman, I can’t turn the wheel, or it is broken. It is always a relief to wake up and return to my senses, to effectively engage my world once again by getting up, washing my face, and performing such a simple task as making breakfast. That, I discover again and again, is a source of true happiness in being both conscious and in control of my destiny.

 

I see comparison as the common feature of a great many of our mental operations. In fact, it looms in my mind as the essential function of the brain in leading to consciousness.

It is not any particular signal that matters so much as the difference between signals in adjacent or linked cortical columns that sparks and maintains both attention and consciousness, particularly as a comparison between present and former perceptual events. I think of such mental comparisons as producing a delta (Δ, δ) signal in proportion to the Difference, Discrepancy, Disparity, or Displacement between corresponding signals originating in different but closely related regions of the brain

I call these virtual signals because they can only be appreciated from a vantage point that looks upon the relative discrepancy as being meaningful in itself.

Such delta signals are the determining feature of three aspects of consciousness I have already mentioned: binocular vision, binaural hearing, and motion detection in semicircular canals on opposite sides of the head.

I have also provided the image of the helmsman (read helmswoman) at his/her wheel gauging the delta signal representing the discrepancy between the desired and actual heading of the vessel as told by its compass, leading to his/her compensating for that difference by turning the wheel an equal degree in the opposite direction. So do we correct our wayfaring courses every day of our lives.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin himself depicts humans as possessing a moral compass: “A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives—of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals.”

In that quote, Darwin holds the key to consciousness in his hand, but never quite inserts it into the lock, so diverting his readers to moral considerations rather than to the human mind as a whole. He continues:

I have endeavored to show that the moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and, thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals.

From my perspective, what he calls “the high activity of his mental faculties” is not merely a factor but is the essence of consciousness itself resulting from comparative judgments of past and present states of awareness. Darwin continues:

Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backward and forward and comparing past impressions. Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future—and this is conscience (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1874], page 698, my italics).

Moral considerations aside, Darwin had stumbled his way to the gateway of consciousness, but was distracted by the moral preoccupation of his Victorian days from actually discovering the true nature of the mind. Just as we helmspersons seek guidance from inner compasses, so do we learn by trial and error, adjusting our behavior to compensate for the many ways we mislead ourselves time and again.

I have frequently said that my true education has been based not on remembering what I have been taught but by going off as led by my own lights, getting lost in the Slough of Despond, then, wiser for my slogging, fighting my way back.

This is the essence of empiricism, learning the lessons, not of ideals or of theory, but of concrete sensory experience.

Which is precisely what our minds provide us via our loops of experiential engagement. Namely, our displacement as the result of a specific course of action by which we discover where our effort has taken us. We don’t look out on the world so much as on what’s right or wrong with the world, to which we direct our attention.

We are all learners by doing. If we don’t make the initial effort, we are stuck exactly where we were before, with no sense of how to correct ourselves. Mind is our means of making successive approximations in approaching the goals we hope to achieve.

If we make a foray, at least we learn whether or not that is the way we want to go. Standing still doing nothing, our learning, as always, is in direct proportion to our effort.