(Copyright © 2009)

 

Consciousness combines a great many mental processes all operating outside of awareness, its genius being to bind them as if they shared the inherent integrity of one process alone. I seem to remember Christof Koch pointing out in The Quest for Consciousness that the brain contains more than 40 separate maps of various aspects of visual consciousness (motion, color, different orientations, contrast, depth, etc.)—and that’s but one sensory modality. The neural map we seem to be conscious of has yet to be located—or does not exist in the human brain. Like Botticelli’s depiction of Venus on the half-shell rising from the waves, we are more interested in the culminating image itself than the myriad brushstrokes that went into creating that image on a flat surface.

 

In any nutshell summary of consciousness, I would have to include such components as concepts, sensory figures, and feelings blending together at a sufficient level of detail to enable purposive behavior in any relevant situation. Consciousness is not broken down into its parts in awareness but emerges full-blown as consciousness of one thing or another. Cramming the process into the confines of a gross oversimplification:

 

Consciousness funds long-term conceptual categories with immediate sensory qualities in the presence of feelings at a level of detail appropriate to guide purposive behavior within a relevant situation.

 

Which is what we leave out when we say we are conscious of anything at all. We didn’t make it, it’s just there. Which is why the world seems to lie before us (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “so various, so beautiful, so new,” when our brains work so hard to achieve that illusion from myriad bits and scraps of awareness.

 

In Reflection 40: The Meaning of Our Times (posted December 22, 2008), I quoted a letter from one of my mother’s friends narrating the following incident from her childhood:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

Here is consciousness being assembled by a six-year-old girl operating on the leading edge of her awareness. The idea of banana is coupled to the image of a crescent in the presence of awe and a sense of revelation so powerful that she runs home to apply her new learning within the most significant situation in her life, her ongoing relationship with her mother. She leaves it to us to picture her mother gently setting her straight with a sense of suppressed amusement, and the resulting disappointment and mortification that endured for eighty years.

 

In the earlier post, I treated the incident as an example of an effort to make sense of the world. But making sense of things is the job of the interpreter module in the frontal lobes of our left cerebral hemispheres, so here I offer the same episode to illustrate consciousness hoisting itself by its own bootstraps—and getting it wrong. Which is why the story was committed to memory to be retrieved after so many years. Trial-and-error learning has a powerful effect on the brain because it gives us a hint about how the building of consciousness is properly done.

 

Consciousness is something we acquire through countless experiments we conduct on ourselves. Every experiment is a constrained situation within which we can learn something new. We venture a guess what will happen, then see if that’s how it goes. Yes, we are affirmed or, no, we are disabused. Which is exactly what happened in the mysterious case of the “moon-banana.” Red lights flash, klaxons sound, mother smiles, as, disillusioned, the girl sees her error. M-o-o-n does not spell banana. Ah, I see where I went wrong; I mistook the crescent. Teacher really meant it as a new moon. M-o-o-n spells moon. Now I get it.

 

I remember when I was fifteen getting into the back seat of the car behind my father who was driving, and saying something to the effect that I took great solstice from one thing or another—being immediately aware that I had confounded solstice and solace—so being utterly undone in the presence of the Great Man. Later, I looked the two words up in the dictionary to get them straight in my mind.

 

If, as so often happens, we cannot admit our mistakes to ourselves, then consciousness runs as before and our left-brain interpreters need issue no apologies for not getting it right. We are not sadder and wiser but older and more stupid. There’s a lot of that around these days. We see it in pompous politicians, arrogant bankers, posturing experts of all sorts. Everyone has an answer to all questions, and is more than happy to share it with those who are less gifted. Asked about mistakes we have made, none come to mind. As if misjudgments were cardinal sins. As if our image before the world had to be maintained at all cost. As if making mistakes could actually make us lose face instead of demonstrating yet again the depth of our humanity.

 

The danger is not in being vulnerable to criticism but in pretending we are not because we meet the self-set standard of perfection. The height of folly is to insist the world is as we take it to be without examining our own contribution to how we reach for the world in the first place. We underestimate the gullibility of our on-board interpreters when, for example, pride, greed, or embarrassment inhibit their proper functioning and we are unable to admit our own errors even to ourselves, much less to the world.

 

Life’s hardest lesson is that the world we are conscious of is largely our own doing. Our left-brain interpreters do the best they can under the circumstances. That is, as constrained by other factors and modules in our brains. We are not constrained by the world-as-it-is so much as by that world as represented in our heads. The world we know is our version of the world; the two never amounting to the same thing. The “finite provinces of meaning,” “the fortresses of belief” within which we make sense exist in our minds, not the world. Which is equally true for scientists, philosophers, theologians as for other mortal beings.

 

Political campaigns in the U.S. have come to be theatrical productions of one big lie after another. In pretending to be all things to all voters, candidates end up hollow effigies with extended hands because what they are conscious of is wanting those votes. Nothing for them has meaning if they don’t win the race. Maintaining the charade has become so expensive that only millionaires can afford to play the game. And when they get into office, they forget the people who voted for them and have eyes and ears only for lobbyists representing interests with the highest-paid legal teams who provide wording for the laws—the legal reality—they want imposed on the nation.

 

According to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee or the National Rifle Association, m-o-o-n really does spell banana. The world must march to their drummers, no matter what Mummy says. In their eyes, AIPAC and NRA can do no wrong. The only way to run an economy is to get out of the way of the rich by cutting their taxes. It was our duty to wage war against terrorism by invading Iraq. No matter what it costs, private banks and corporations “too big to fail” must be bailed out with public funds. Guarantees of free speech must be extended to corporations so that they have a constitutional right to defend their interests as they want, no matter how private and self-serving.

 

Until we understand the complex nature of consciousness, and our role in creating the seeming reality it presents to us, we will keep running aground on ledges deep within the assumptions we make about the nature of the real and of consciousness as its proxy available to us all. The truth is, all awareness is a matter of interpretation, and interpretation is subject to pressures and influences we do not admit to or know not of.

 

Consciousness exists to clarify our view of the situations we are involved in. Such clarity is not an optical property but an effort to suppress the clamor of rival views in our mental systems, so is always political in nature as representing the interests of personal survival as it is most easily and conveniently understood. Consciousness is invariably presented to the mind as consciousness of one scenario or another in which we are invested. It is an interpretation of mental events, not an accurate depiction of reality. It all depends on what the meaning of of is. Of the mental mechanics of our situated intentionality at the time.

 

According to Merleau-Ponty, Kant referred to the hand as an outer brain of man. That outer brain is driven by consciousness of to reach into the world as if no different from the interpreted world of consciousness. Which is exactly the problem. If as conscious beings we get the world wrong, then our behavior is maladapted to the hidden world that is—and we can’t tell the difference. Until corrected by experience, our illusions R us.

 

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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.

 

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