How do I know if any of this is right, this probing of my own mind? Many would say that introspection is untrustworthy. Yet here I am asking you to trust me.

Am I to be believed, or am I spinning a yarn? What can I say? No one could be more sincere, earnest, well-meaning than I am. Where have you heard that one before? Probably from someone who wanted to get something from you.

How can I transcend my innocence in order to claim competence in this field—the study of my own mind—in which I am the world’s leading expert solely because I am the only one who is studying this particular subject, namely me?

No points are awarded for effort. It’s the results that matter—the very topic I am trying to report in this blog.

What I can offer without any proof to back it up is that every incident of experience that I cite did actually happen just as I say it did. I pay attention to, and am a close observer of, the passing scene in my own mind. I didn’t make any of this up, the substance of the experience on which I base my case.

And taking those founding incidents together, I offer the coherence of the entire set as evidence that I am onto something real. That is my claim to truth.

Here, let me remind you of a few samples of the kind of subjective incident I am referring to. The kind in which I catch my mind in the act of deceiving me, thereby revealing its inner workings.

  • About to cross Brattle Street, which is one-way, I look toward oncoming traffic and see nothing coming, so I step into the road—and am promptly felled by a bicyclist coming the wrong way. A truck turns the corner and comes down upon me lying in the road, but manages to stop just a few feet from my head.
  • At dusk in a light rain, out of the corner of my eye I see two black-and-white cows on the shoulder, which, as I pass, I recognize as two motorcyclists donning black raingear, the flicking motion of putting an arm into a sleeve looking much like the flicking of a cow’s tail.
  • Almost to Bar Harbor, I see a dead crow just ahead by the side of the road. It feebly lifts a wing and lets it fall. Not a dead crow but a dying crow! Should I stop and wring its neck to end its suffering? I begin to slow, then recognize that black clump as a trash bag blowing in the wake of passing cars.
  • Walking to the post office in late afternoon, I glance to my left and see a jetliner angled down beyond the rooftops about over Bar Island. I look ahead to steady myself and look back: there stands a TV antenna atop the motel, swept-back elements gleaming in sunlight.
  • Heading out for a walk, I ask my partner to wait while I run upstairs to get my camera. Which I do in a rush, coming back camera bag in hand. “How do you like the sunflowers at the head of the stairs?” she asks. “What sunflowers?” I’d passed within six inches of them, both coming and going, and never saw them.

These are such everyday incidents, they are scarcely remarkable, but they are precisely the kind of thing I pick up on in observing the routine operation of my own mind. I turn them into thought experiments after-the-fact, taking conditions at the moment into account.

Clearly, under stress, poor lighting conditions, or inattention, my brain does the best it can to keep me posted about what’s happening around me, but my judgment isn’t always up to the situation I am actually in, so in the moment I warp or distort the pattern that I’m seeing into something else that seems to come out of nowhere, or, if I don’t actively look, I see nothing at all.

  • Walking up Fifth Avenue, I see a familiar figure a short distance ahead of me. Fred! My old friend from school in Seattle. He’d moved to New York, then away; I didn’t know he’d come back. I ran to catch up with him, keeping the fast-moving figure in sight: telltale raglan overcoat, heavy cordovan shoes, long woolen scarf. It had to be Fred, who always moved at a brisk pace. Coming abreast of him, I was about to clap him on the shoulder, when I caught a glimpse of his profile—which was all wrong. Not Fred after all. An imposter. I stood still in the stream of pedestrians to let my high spirits settle down.
  • Laboring up Holland Avenue on winter ice, I lift my eyes and look ahead. Astounding! A man scraping paint from the side of his house in this weather! I look down to steady myself and look up again: a trimmed cedar tree stands in place of the man, its bulk blowing side-to-side in the wind, looking for all the world like a man backing up his scraping motion with the heft of his hips.
  • When I drove with my family from Hamilton, New York, to Seattle in August, 1947, I couldn’t wait to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Driving across eastern Colorado, I was seated in back between two brothers and two dogs, leaning over the front seat, peering through the windshield for my first glimpse of the Rockies. All I could see was a line of white clouds that hid the mountains behind them. I wouldn’t budge until I saw them, so stayed in that position for half-an-hour as the clouds grew closer and larger, and I finally began to see trees among them in the sky. Click! They weren’t clouds, they were the Rockies covered in snow. I’d been looking at them all along, but hadn’t seen them for what they were. Snow in August! I was caught off-guard; snow didn’t fall in Hamilton until November.

More misjudged situations. Fred morphs into a stranger. A paint-scraping man morphs into a tree. Clouds morph into snow. My perception dishes up what I want or expect to see; and closer inspection disabuses me. Successive approximation is what it takes to build familiarity and instant recognition. Nobody told me I had to learn to see. I thought I could just open my eyes and gaze on the world as it is. No, that’s not how it works. Perception proposes; judgment disposes. I have to grow into even my everyday self.

  • Then there was the incident when the skull I so carefully cleaned with a toothbrush while a volunteer on an archaeological dig morphed into the shell of a long-dead turtle, not a Neolithic burial. And the voice late at night crying out a horse “Fa! Fa!” while I was trying to sleep was not calling his cat or his father, or practicing a musical scale, but was shouting “Fire! Fire” with a Boston accent in the loudest voice he could muster. Expectations unmet in both cases, teaching me yet again I had to become more discriminating in determining the exact nature of the situation I thought I was in.

The clip-art cat takes the cake among all the incidents I have examined and reexamined over time in studying my mind.

  • There I was, putting dishes from the drainer next to the sink away so I could wash another round of dishes. The drainer was on my left, the cupboard on the far side of the sink to my right. The cupboard door was open, so I had to step back to get around it in putting dishes on the shelves. Back-and-forth I went, drainer to cupboard, and back. On one return trip, brushing my elbow against the cupboard door, I stepped back right onto the tail of a cat that shrieked at the insult, and I instantly lifted my foot in a kind of hop to remove the pressure, seeing in my mind’s eye an image of a little gray cat looking up at me from the floor, calmly, with not a trace of pain or anger in its eyes. I saw that image for several hours, and can see it now when I want to recall it. The problem being, there was no cat, and hadn’t been one for more than twenty years. The bottom hinge on the cupboard door had squeaked—for the first and last time—when I happened to brush it on that occasion, and I responded with a reflex I had developed years ago when I had owned several cats and stepped on several tails. That image of a guileless gray cat stayed with me all night, and I saw it every time I woke up.

Motion, sight, and sound all came together in forging that incident in my mind. To me it was absolutely real. Yet it didn’t happen. I hallucinated it to fit the occasion of my stepping back to the accompaniment of that squeak. Who would have thought that response could lie quietly inside me all those years? But there it was, with a hair trigger, ready to fire on signal.

I could carry on with more such incidents, but their service has been done. I am just trying to put before you the sort of evidence I have used in the course of studying my own mind. These incidents are part-and-parcel with my study; I cannot separate the two. I know what I know, and don’t what I don’t.

To me, the benefit of introspection is in the accumulation of data such as I have reviewed in this post over a long-enough term to be useful in shedding light on the nature of one person’s mind. Having to meet other people’s standards of evidence is irrelevant, an imposition that destroys the very thing it is meant to preserve. I offer these incidents with the backing of my own observational skills, earnestness, and attention to detail.

I really am trying to understand what happens when I see or hear something, gauge the situation that such sensory impressions create, judge the options available to me in responding to that situation, and set a train of events moving toward making a physical response appropriate to just that series of events in my mind so that I can engage in an effective manner with that aspect of the world puzzle that aroused those original sensory impressions in the first place.

World puzzle, indeed! Given the mistakes I am capable of making, and the complexity of even the simplest act of perception, when going to bed I take stock of what I have learned during the day, and give thanks that things didn’t go any worse than they did. Sometimes I surprise myself in finding that things have been going even better than I thought they would.

Such is life. I believe my self-observing, reporting, and writing-up to be an honest effort at presenting the findings of my inner research. I honestly believe I can hang my hat on that peg.

But that is for you to judge for yourself.

Advertisements

Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.

 

Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.

 

Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.

 

The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.

 

Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.

 

The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.

 

Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.

 

Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).

 

Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?

 

Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?

 

Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.

 

How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.

 

How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?

 

Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.

 

Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.

 

Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.

 

¦