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.

Advertisements

390. Vivre la difference!

December 27, 2014

Mental judgments, the very stuff of consciousness, are based on either-or comparisons. On summing good points and bad points to see which tally is more convincing. Comparison of possibilities is one of our primary means of survival because, as I see it, it is the method that our nervous system is dedicated to.

In these posts, I have already pointed to the role of comparison in such vital functions as depth perception, directional hearing, and maintaining our balance. Simple acts such as steering a boat by a compass are acts of comparison, in this case between our charted and actual headings, the difference—the dis-parity—between them indicating the degree and direction of the course correction it is our duty to make in order to reach our destination.

The disparity between two signals is what we are aware of, not either one or the other by itself. As the French say regarding the sexes, vivre la difference! because it is precisely such relative differences that elevate us into states of awareness.

Consciousness is all about relationships, not things in themselves. About how the present stands up against expectancies grounded in bygone days. About how engagements turn out in comparison to our original intents. About how jokes defy our expectations. About how perceptions gauge the fit between our intentions and the concrete results we actually achieve.

Our primary approach to judgment is to assess how a given turn of events fits with the situation we find ourselves in. That is, fits our purposes and engagements at the moment. Trial-and-error is the gateway to consciousness. Let’s see if this works or it doesn’t.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That depends on our perspective, which further depends on our situation. If we want more to drink, it’s half gone; if we’ve drunk all we want, it’s half-full. Being situational, consciousness comes in two polarities, encouraging or discouraging, affirming or negating, good or bad, considered or rash, wise or foolish. The sharp differences heighten the clarity and emphasis of the comparisons by which we decide our course between the well- or less-traveled roads ahead.

Comparison can be a measurement to a standard, or a simple judgment of the similarity and difference between any two things or events. We quickly notice the wrongness of the wasp in the jam jar, the rightness of the cherry atop the sundae.

I remember a teacher of aesthetics once remarking that he could discourse endlessly on the comparison between a cigarette and a piece of chalk (he then having one in each hand).

Being a highly visual person, I find symmetry and other comparative relationships in the features of almost everything I see and photograph. It is the tension or balance told by such graphic relationships that I notice more than the things in themselves, which are often incidental. I remember a faculty wife whose face was so perfectly symmetrical that I found it painful to look at her because, without any disparity, I had no comfort zone within which to admire her beauty.

Standards often turn out to be what we are used to, so are rooted in personal experience and opinion. I get tired of cold days in February so think a daytime temperature above freezing is just fine; a skier would find it too warm. Men and women vary widely in their primary, secondary, and behavioral sexual characteristics and preferences, yet convention has it that men are men and women are women, period. Only recently in America do we provide a few boxes to check for those who don’t fit either stereotype.

We are often optimistic or pessimistic about world affairs, reflecting polarized judgments about how things are going from our point of view. Optimists are prone to seeing virtues where pessimists harp on faults. Pollyannas find good in everyone; fault-finders thrive on what’s wrong. Some people shift moods between extreme states of mind: euphoria and depression, bursts of creativity and bouts of despair. At New Year’s we resolve to improve ourselves, and promise to do better next year. If sins didn’t call for either penance or forgiveness, church attendance would crash overnight.

Such polar attitudes toward comparative differences shed a clear light on the nature of consciousness. Of which I will say more in my next post.

 

Questions, always questions. Setting goals is absolutely no guarantee that we will fulfill our dreams. Hopes, wishes, desires, and all the rest are states of mind that spur us to action. Achieving goals requires that we have the right stuff to stand on the three-tiered podium at the end. At the Olympics, finishing fourth puts us at ground level. Merely making the effort doesn’t count. Medals are precious because rare; they aren’t given out for sweat, good intentions, excuses—for anything less than peak performance.

Mental events, too, are won by those who have bested their rivals. Striving, competition, cooperation, and comparison are at the heart of our mental activity, conscious selves, and engagements with the world. From observations of my own mind, I find that comparison between goal and attainment, or past and present achievement, generates a signal as an urge in my brain that sets a particular engagement off on yet another round of action, which triggers another round of both perception and judgment. That urge gradually fades only to the degree it brings me closer to my goal.

Our engagements driven by perception, judgment, and action are more circular than linear or, more accurately, helical like a coiled spring or inclined plane wrapped around a drill bit in that our rounds of mental exertion never bring us back to exactly where we were when we started, but somewhat displaced; hopefully, closer to our goal.

Mental comparisons generate signals in proportion to the disparity between goals and accomplishments, between where we were and where we are now, between remembrance and current perception.

With consciousness, the gap’s the thing. The gap between images cast on the retinas of our left and right eyes, giving rise to depth perception. Between sounds as heard by our left and right ears, producing a sense of distance and direction. Between motions in opposite directions as told by sensors in our left and right semicircular canals when we turn our heads, generating a sense of a counterbalance within a gravitational field so we don’t topple over.

Consciousness—what we are aware of—is not found in neural signals themselves but in the disparity, discontinuity, or discrepancy between two signals in, say, adjacent cortical columns. Comparison between columns creates a polarity or duality that tells the difference between them, consciousness residing precisely in that gap along a scale of what might be expected for good or for ill. For bringing us closer to or farther away from our goal.

So do we achieve tier one, two, or three on the podium, our reward for the care and effort we put into our engagements, the Olympic event we call life.