(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

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(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Pen in hand, yellow pad in lap, I sit in my rocking chair at 2:35 a.m., waiting to discover what is on my mind. One at a time, concerns declare themselves, retreat, to be replaced by others. A very orderly process: nothing, then something, then nothing, then something else. Slow and easy. A kind of unthinking. As a mere spectator, I take sketchy notes. This goes on for twenty minutes.

1) Bonnie is gone. She died Friday afternoon. Hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for most of the week. Dear Bonnie, so loving, kind, fervent in her gentle way.

2) Overtaken by events, the plan to honor Ed (Bonnie’s husband of 59 years) on Sunday was put aside. I gave him the cards I had received, and announced that donations in his name came to $4,820. Most of the occasion was focused on remembering Bonnie.

3) Sent checks to FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) in Washington in Ed’s honor. I wanted the donations to be a done deed by the time he heard about them, I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel comfortable delivering a promissory note.

4) Now on to forming an LLC that will own the island, keeping members’ shares undivided so no fences will ever be put up or lots partitioned off. Only communal ownership will preserve the integrity of the place. Once subdivided, the island might as well be part of the mainland.

5) Chef Jesse, my youngest son, has moved somewhere near Boston. The job didn’t work out as he’d hoped, but he wrote that that was more or less a ruse for making the break. He’s looking for work. Hope he’s OK.

6) Son Ken and his wife Linda’s Wednesday night suppers are their way of sharing with friends. I’m such a stick-in-the-mud about food, I feel like an outsider because, bringing my own little thermos of pea soup, I don’t share in the feast. Damn celiac disease!

7) Friends of Taunton Bay seems to be on the right track, switching from an emphasis on monitoring and research to public outreach. Me, I’m a research kind of guy. I’ll still have enough to do monitoring eelgrass, oysters, bottom temperatures, erosion, sea-level rise.

8) Taunton Bay Advisory Group is hit by low energy these days. Difficult transition to new leadership. Are we on the skids? Local bay management is too good an idea to let go. Spread stewardship around so users all take part in the process. How else can we achieve sustainability?

9) Having gone 186,000 miles so far, the old Geo’s got to keep going. Get that exhaust line patched up so I can get it inspected.

10) I’ve lost momentum in reading Gerald Edelman. Too much happening. Get back in the swing. Six down, only the last two books to go. I’ve followed along as he got his legs under him; now on to his taking full strides on the topic of consciousness.

11) November is car registration month. Pay off the balance due on insurance. Find the $300.

12) Eelgrass (and sea lavender) thrive when there’s plenty of snowmelt and rain; blue mussels thrive when salinity is high from lack of rain. Eelgrass died back in 2001, year of the drought. In this year of the deluge, it’s coming back—and mussels have gone missing. Eelgrass and mussels compete for the same patch of bottom, trading off as salinity rises and falls. I’m beginning to see the big picture. What do I do with it?

13) I retrieved my two water-temperature loggers this fall, read off a year’s worth of data (24 temperature readings every day) from each, and redeployed them one last time before their batteries run out. I see future climate instability reflected in the data, sea-level rise behind that. Extrapolating from the data in hand, any prophet worth his salt can peer into the future.

14) Consciousness is driven by both internal and external awareness. Whatever words and phrases we hear spoken around us when we are young serve to label concepts we form as we grow older. We pick up the customs and habits of our elders, and the terms they use to explain their worlds to themselves. That’s where the notion of god comes from—in the beginning was the word. First the sound of the word from the mouths of others as a label for something unknown, then the evolving concept of what we think it might refer to. Sounds like there’s a blog in there some place.

Then nothing. After sitting for 20 minutes tracking my own mind, I go to bed.

Indeed, there is a blog in those rocking chair thoughts. I woke up this morning wondering how much of my consciousness is due to the culture I am embedded in, how much flows from my own inner workings. Is there any way to tell the difference? I seem to be a creature of my time and place on Earth, and, simultaneously, to be wholly my natural self. The art of living may well be in finding a balance between that pair of loyalties.

One thing for certain: consciousness mediates our looping engagement with our surroundings, directing motor signals outward into the unknown, receiving incoming signals through our senses, picking and choosing which to attend to, which to ignore. Round and round we go, ingesting the culture we are immersed in, responding though acts shaped by and expressing values uniquely our own.

Every one of the 14 night thoughts I had early this morning presents an issue or concern selected from my ongoing engagement with the world. There is a tension between my personal values and events in that world, a tension that arouses thoughts in the middle of the night. Which makes it seem that consciousness is a kind of spark bridging the gap between my current situation and how I plan to deal with it. Have I done everything I can do? Can I do better? The result is a cross-section of my being in the world from my point of view.

Our early education calibrates our animal selves according to the lore and ways of our culture. Still today I find myself counting out the strokes of my hammer, one, two, three, . . . not eins, zwei, drei, or un, deux, trois. One process, different labels. I “know” that seven times eight is fifty-six because I memorized that formula from flip-cards in grade school. I can even prove it by constructing a box with seven units on one side and eight on another, then counting all the units in the box—see, fifty-six like I told you! I also know that houses are built on rectangular foundations and have rectangular windows and doors. On the other hand, those living in rural Mongolia or Guinea in West Africa know that houses are circular with arched openings, or have flaps made of overlapping yak skins. I know what a hat is . . . and that people in other parts of the world wear headgear I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I seem to be part natural and organic, part cultural and manmade. Reviewing those night thoughts again from that perspective:

1) Bonnie’s death is wholly natural; sitting in a circle, remembering how her life has affected ours, is largely cultural.

2-3) Honoring Ed for his initiative, leadership, clear-headedness, and exemplary actions feels personal, spontaneous, and wholly natural; making donations in his name to the organization he used to work for is a gesture of cultural recognition. To honor means to bestow high respect or esteem.

4) It seems a natural urge to want to protect an island on the Maine coast as habitat for humans and wildlife alike; opting out of the commercial real estate market by forming a limited liability company to own the island in undivided shares on its members’ behalf is a cultural solution to the threat of individual owners going bankrupt, forcing partition and sale of separate parcels, thereby destroying the island’s natural integrity.

5) It strikes me as natural that Jesse’s pursuit of happiness has taken him to the Boston area where year-round work is more likely available than in Maine’s seasonal (vacationland) economy; the loss I feel at his moving away also feels natural; that he makes a living as a chef and not a carpenter or exterminator is more a cultural expression of his making his own way in the world. The issue being, I want to send him a check for his birthday, and he has yet to tell me his new address. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time now that he hasn’t responded to my email inquiry; time to follow up on that, my unconscious mind takes pains to remind me.

6) Ken and Linda celebrate their circle of friends by preparing meals for them Wednesday evenings in November, thereby taking steps to create and maintain their own culture; nothing is more essentially natural than feeding one’s own metabolism. Celiac disease is a natural response to our culture’s breeding enormous amounts of gluten into wheat, overburdening the immune systems of those unfortunate enough not to tolerate massive doses of gluten. It’s partly a matter of genetics, which is as natural as can be, and partly a matter of diet, which is largely cultural and traditional.

7) Friends of Taunton Bay is a cultural—501(c)(3)—organization set up to protect a particular Maine estuary, and through revision of its by-laws, now dedicated to informing the public about the state and workings of that bay. As a founding member of that organization, however, I have fulfilled my inherently natural interests and concerns through trying to understand the processes that give this particular coastal embayment its essential character. As my native habitat, the bay and I have an ongoing mutual interaction of long standing.

8) The Taunton Bay Advisory Group, on the other hand, is a more recent cultural creation established in 2007 to advise the Commissioner of Marine Resources on how best to implement the Comprehensive Resource Management Plan for Taunton Bay. My role is to make sure conservation concerns are voiced and considered in group discussions, a role that comes to me naturally in light of my personal values and life experience.

9) Getting around may be a natural act, but automobiles are artifacts of the culture we live in. Without wheels, I could not participate in the culture I was born to. Taking care of those wheels seems only prudent, so repairing a leaking exhaust system is as natural and vital as eating and sleeping.

10) Reading eight of the books Gerald Edelman has written on consciousness is one of my chief educational projects at this stage of my life. Not that it is either easy or fun. But I do think it is important to look at consciousness from a variety of perspectives, and Edelman has more to say about the workings of consciousness than almost anyone else. So I read him and take what I can. Which I find very exciting because he sheds light on his topic from a novel point of view—that of a man trained in molecular biology of the immune system. He is his own man; I am my own man; we get along just fine. If consciousness is natural, then trying to figure out what it is and how it works must be natural. The mental frameworks in which such understanding can arise are products of years of intense speculation and research, thereby reflecting cultural traditions as old as human curiosity and thought.

11) Oops, it’s November: time to register my car. That thought seems to come out of the blue, yet clearly surfaces now because it is alive and well in the unconscious workings of my mind. Car registration is a cultural obstacle to inner peace; recognizing that obstacle as something that needs to be dealt with is a natural aspect of living in today’s world. Cultures are shaped by rules and procedures; if survival depends on mastering such, then abiding by cultural requirements rises to the level of a natural value, and obeying legal requirements becomes yet another challenge for those attempting to live a long, happy, and hassle-free life.

12) I am happy to have lived long enough after the great eelgrass dieback of 2001 in Taunton Bay to have some inkling as to why it happened. This fall another piece of the puzzle fell into place. 2009 is the year of the deluge, the opposite of 2001, year of the drought. Eelgrass and blue mussels are often found in the same habitat areas, sometimes together, other times one replacing the other. In some way, their habitat requirements are complementary. This fall while monitoring oyster set, I got a glimpse of how that works during a search for signs that salt-water farmed oysters were reproducing in the bay. No oysters, but equally interesting, no blue mussels either—attached to boulders we’ve inspected annually since 2005 and up to this year found blue mussels. Eelgrass dieback in the year of the drought; mussel dieback in the year of the deluge. Ah ha, it must be the salinity! Eelgrass likes it low, mussels like it high. I feel I begin to understand something about the bay when pieces fit together like that. Oyster aquaculture is a cultural activity (it is daunting to realize how much human effort it takes to farm oysters); understanding has been a natural activity of the human mind since the first child pounded the first precision timekeeper with the first blunt instrument.

13) Recording temperature data is one thing, interpreting that data is something else, and convincing a stranger that the interpretation is correct is something else again. Research is a cultural enterprise; otherwise we’d just thrust our arm in the air and pronounce whether it feels warm or cold. But the imperative of wanting to know and understand is both personal and natural. We pay attention to what matters. If temperature matters, we examine it closely. In a world that runs on energy, temperature as a measure of heat energy is highly significant, and a change of a degree or two Celsius is a big deal in natural systems because it affects how life-forms in such systems cope with increasing or decreasing heat energy.

14) Cultural rules and customs shape our life situations; native drives and inclinations guide our actions. Round and round we go, our biological values urging us on, the many facets of our culture making it clear just how appropriate our actions really are. Informed and calibrated by culture, consciousness is as consciousness does in the world; affirmed or offended by our actions, culture is as culture does right back at us. If the fittest are to survive, their fitness to the prevailing culture is a big issue. But start to finish, consciousness plays by nature’s rules: culture is a product of human beings doing what comes naturally. Clearly, I am of two minds about almost everything.

Black-and-Yellow Argiope

 

Reflection 149: Blind Walk

October 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Bending down, I reach into the front-loading dryer and scoop the jumbled laundry into my basket. Back in my apartment, I place the basket on my bed and begin to sort it—underwear in this pile, T-shirts here, sheets there, socks lined up by pattern and color along the edge of the mattress. Finding a dishtowel but no dishrag, I figure it’s hiding among the sheets, which I shake out—there, snug in the corner of the fitted one. I put the piles of clothing I have sorted away and make the bed.

A routine episode from almost any Saturday morning in the past twelve years. I am a creature of habit, and of sorting things into groups having similar characteristics—pencils, tomatoes, bugs, butterflies—courtesy of distinctions I make in my conscious mind. I am a classifier, a categorizer, a sorter into piles. And so are we all, as shown by the way we use language.

‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.

‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.

What is it for?

‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.

‘What is this?’

‘A cow.’

‘What do cows give us?’

‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.

And this?

‘A house.’

‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’ 

‘It’s where people live.’

Except that teacher doesn’t heft a truck, boat, or house from the box—she is dealing strictly with miniature toys, simplified representations of familiar objects without motors, without internal organs, without windows or kitchens.  She is not teaching the class to discriminate on the basis of sensory details so much as to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience. This is more an example of cultural indoctrination than education.

Then there is the blind walk.

I get permission to take my class of seniors to the grounds of a large, unoccupied home in the neighborhood where we won’t bother anyone. I tell them the idea of the blind walk is to get to know the area, not by looking, but by feeling their way with their hands. I want them to concentrate on touch, sound, and smell—any and all senses except sight. They pair up, decide who is to go first. One is the ‘guardian’ whose job is to make sure the blind-folded ‘explorer’ doesn’t get hurt. Partners are to tactilely explore their surroundings for half an hour, then switch roles, trade the blindfold, and go at it for another half hour. My job is to keep everyone safe and active. At the end, students are to share  highlights from their experience as guardians and explorers, respectively.

For the watcher—me—the exercise turned out other than I had imagined. I presented it in terms of sensory exploration, but my students took that as a challenge to name objects they could not see. In twelve years of schooling, the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them. These were first graders grown large, but perceptually diminished. They could classify their experience, but not enjoy it. They were eager to identify whatever they came across by touch, but that was all. As soon as they said “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual. Getting the “right” answer was the only thing that mattered. Even warmth from the sun was reduced to naming the source, not savoring how it felt on a particular day in early spring. We teachers had done our job too well, creating students who could sort the world into a standard set of categories—wholly bypassing personal experience, the basis of all pleasure and true knowledge.

As a result of what passes for education these days, many of our children fit themselves to a world of concepts and ideas, not sensory exploration. They get good at sorting things into bins, which has a certain utility, but is also sad because they developed that skill to please their elders. During the course of my life, I have watched an emphasis on concept formation descend through the grades from high school to grammar school to the earliest rungs of preschool. Our children are prepared by society to think and work categorically rather than develop their personal abilities to experience the wonders of this Earth.

My point is that, in the best of all possible worlds, consciousness relies heavily on both sensory and conceptual aspects of experience. To meet the challenges of life we need extensive practice in both realms. To a man or a woman, we are all latent artists and scientists, cooks and judges, poets and talk-show hosts. Lumping things together by sorting, classifying, categorizing on the basis of broad similarities is an essential life skill—but so too is distinguishing between specific features, qualities, and subtle differences. To know a thing, a person, or a field of endeavor requires not only knowing about their general characteristics, but acquainting their specific details as well through personal experience.

Much has been written about the objectivity or intentionality of consciousness, the being aware of things as wholes in themselves rather than in terms of their separate parts, qualities, or details. Consciousness initially renders the world in terms of recognizable units; it takes deliberate effort to analyze such units in terms of their myriad sensory components (hearing individual voices in the symphony of the whole). We are immediately conscious of coherent objects or scenes as overall images or summaries, so not to be overwhelmed by the jumble that William James described in his famous cartoon of infant consciousness as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.” In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James writes:

Any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must (italics deleted).

The overall effect being to achieve the unity of a scene or an object, a wholeness that must be discriminated into its parts through deliberate effort and refinement of attention. Much has been made of perception as a process for recognizing the world in terms of its fundamental units or categories. Aristotle treated those units of oneness as “modes of being,” as if they were properties of things in themselves. Kant saw them more as phenomena created by consciousness itself in its own terms through the process of apprehending the world. Gerald Edelman presents categorization as a quality of perception dictated by values inherent in the perceiver which are necessary to acting in the world adaptively for the sake of survival.

However we account for consciousness, attention, and awareness, we must allow for two types: 1) concrete, sensory perception, and 2) a more generally applicable type that is less specific and so more abstract and conceptual. Consciousness can balance or move between the two types, from the abstract to the concrete, and back again, encompassing both example and principle, token and type, species and genus, concept and percept. How the brain achieves this remarkable dynamic is not fully understood, but there is no doubt that both types can be joined in the workings of consciousness. Except that education tends to tip the balance toward the summary judgments of conception.

It strikes me that what I was doing in sorting my laundry in the first example above, the first graders were doing in labeling the teacher’s toy truck, and my seniors did on their blind walk—was casting abstract, conceptual expectations onto the world as a kind of outline for what we thought was possible in and appropriate to our respective situations. We then confirmed those expectations as they were fulfilled on those three occasion by acting appropriately to our situations, students calling out the name (as they had been taught) that fit most closely to their expectations as a kind of easy shorthand for the full-bodied (detailed perceptual) experience, and me sorting my laundry into piles I deemed appropriate to my subsequent tasks of putting clothes away and clean sheets on the bed. 

As I have often written, expectation is destiny. We don’t live in the world so much as in our expectations of what that world should be. We make the evidence of our eyes and ears conform to what we want to happen. Our stance toward the world, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines how we act far more than the evidence of our senses. It as if we were wind-up toys that head off as soon as set on the floor. Education winds us up, life fulfills what we have been taught. That is, it is our preconceptions that drive us, not the existential facts of our lives.

This is the understanding I have been seeking since my first post to this blog in early October, 2008. Taking time off to reflect on my posted reflections, this is what I have discovered. As humans walking our diverse ways, we are condemned to find what our families, peers, teachers, and overall cultures have prepared us to find. We fit the world to whatever model of the world we have assembled over the course of our training. That is our reality. Which our experience inevitably fulfills because—contrary to public belief—perception follows and does not lead the dictates of conception.

Picture humans on their blind walks through life, judging and labeling what they find according to their acquired pre-dispositions, and that is my portrait of the human predicament of days gone by, which is identical to the one we find ourselves in today.

Cormorants

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Because each person on Earth is inherently unique, the landscapes we live in depend on where we are situated in our heads. Self-centered perspectivity is the tragic flaw we all share in common. The human predicament is to be one-of-a-kind—yet to act as if we each set the norm. Unrelentingly, we mistake our personal views for the way things are, confounding our limited personal grasp of affairs with universal truth. We are so full of ourselves, we often foist our personal brand of consciousness onto those around us, who, if we are tough enough with them, bow to our shows of conviction as signs of wisdom and power. To wit: patriarchies, chains of command, pecking orders, management and labor. Day after day, we bull our way through one situation after another, or submit and get out of the way.

Our uniqueness is not a matter of degree; it is absolute. Each of us may boast some 23 thousand genes, but they are wholly inadequate when it comes to specifying the one million billion (1 followed by 15 zeroes) synaptic connections between brain cells in our cerebral cortices. During development in the womb and through strong experience, we forge those connections on our own—or don’t if we fail to exercise them actively during infancy, childhood, and thereafter. As Gerald Edelman summarizes the underpinnings of consciousness (“Building a Picture of the Brain,” in Edelman and Changeux, The Brain, Transaction Publishers, 2001):

At the finest scale, no two brains are identical, not even those of identical twins. Furthermore, at any two moments, connections in the same brain are not likely to remain exactly the same. Some cells will have retracted their processes, others will have extended new ones, and certain other cells will have died. . . . There are no absolutely specific point-to-point connections in the brain. The microscopic variability of the brain at the finest ramifications of its neurons is enormous, making each brain unique. (Pages 38-39.)

In managing personal consciousness, each of us is on her own. Our brains are unique, our minds are unique, the worlds we create for ourselves are unique. Quite literally, reality is beyond our reach because we live in our bodies by interpreting signals from some outer world of which we can only dimly and partly be aware. Conjure that world as we may, the results bear our personal signatures for, as projections outward from our perspectives, they are largely our own doing instead of a welcoming of the world as it is. We each place ourselves at the center of our worlds, creating a multiverse of which we are but one facet among seven billion.

Yet hour by hour we rise on our soap boxes and proclaim or act out the truth as we see it—as if it were the only truth there is or could possibly be. If that isn’t a travesty, then it is a tragedy which we enact every every day without questioning whether or not we know what we do, or appreciate the impact we have on those around us or on Earth itself, the planet that has supported us up till now no matter how badly we have treated it.

Which raises an obvious question: Who am I to defy the very point I am trying to make by daring to break out of the fortress of my subjective outlook in this blog? Surely, I am no less tragic a figure than any other. All I can say is: I write for myself and you read for yourself. Perhaps our worlds overlap to some degree. In which case I could claim to be a columnist like Alexander Cockburn, say, who writes in The Nation (October 5, 2009):

Was there ever a society so saturated with lunacy as ours? One expects modulated nuttiness from the better element, particularly those inhabiting the corporate and legislative spheres. But these days insanity is pervasive, spreading through all classes and walks of life.

Or for another example, like Daniel Lyons in Newsweek (September 28, 2009):

[M]ost of what streams across Twitter is junk. One recent study concluded that 40 percent of the messages are “pointless babble.”. . . Then again look at TV: fat people dancing, talentless people singing, Glenn Beck slinging lunatic conspiracy theories. Stupid stuff sells. The genius of Twitter is that it manages to be even stupider than TV. It’s so stupid that it’s brilliant. No person with an IQ above 100 could possibly care what Ashton Kutcher or Ashlee Simpson has to say about anything. But Kutcher has 3.5 million Twitter followers, and Simpson has 1.5 million.

Insanity and stupidity are pandemic. They’re finally getting across as our preferred way of life. We are conjurors all, flaunting vanities from our secret worlds. Whatever became of modesty, humility, judgment, and respect? We’re making a killing by foisting subjective views on a public starved for outrage and comic relief. Think of those trillions of synapses going to waste, now disconnected and lost for good. And we can’t stop ourselves from putting witlessness on display any more than Republicans can stop trying to kick Obama’s chair out from under him so they can smirk when he falls.

The take-home message? If you’re not good at building a better world through discipline and hard work, trash the one you’ve got just for laughs. That’s what we’re doing with our unique set of gifts instead of contributing to the greater good. The tragedy is that in trashing the world, we’re trashing ourselves. Playing our foibles before the crowd, we appeal to the least of our possibilities instead of showing our stuff in meeting the defining challenges of our times. It is we who choose how to make ourselves happen during our brief stay on this Earth. If life turns out a tragedy, so be it: the name on the script is our own.

NASA-Earth-2

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Row, row, row your boat

    gently down the stream;

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

    life is but a dream.

My consciousness tells me it is time to go back over what I have posted since last October to get a sense of what I have covered, all with an eye to producing a summary of my findings. That will take some time. Since I can focus on only one task at a time, I plan not to post to this blog until I am able to produce a summary of where I’ve been in order to chart a course for where I want to head in the future. Too, I have a pile of seven books by Gerald Edelman on the topic of  consciousness which I want to read. So as of today I hang a sign on the door, GONE ROWING.

In the meantime, I encourage you to use the Postlinks page at the head of this blog to look for posts on topics which might be of interest to you. (Note that posts in 2008 are listed following those for 2009.) My plan is to resume posting in October or November.

I want to thank you for checking out this blog on introspection. There’s a big drive on to uncover the workings of the brain (neural substrates, so-called) that make consciousness possible, and my intent here is to offer a serial description of some of the kinds of mental activities that need to be accounted for. For example, this morning I woke up at 5:15 a.m. and lay a’bed thinking about what I might say in this post. I didn’t open my eyes until, abruptly, I realized the balance in my checking account was getting low, and the first thing I had to do was deduct two debit card payments I had made yesterday. My eyes popped open and I immediately got up. The moral being, consciousness gears us for action by prioritizing what we are to do and how we are to do it. One suggestion for the substrate seekers might be to start with motor sequence planning areas of the brain and follow their various inputs back  to their relevant sources of motivation.

Gone Rowing