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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another way of looking at consciousness is to think of it as a result of the comparison between mental possibilities and actualities. Possibilities, that is, offered by the many routes through the neural network making up our potential memory system, in comparison with the actuality of specific sensory traffic as it threads a particular route in and among those almost limitless possibilities.

Sometimes the electrochemical sensory traffic flows by a familiar route and is quickly recognizable. At other times it takes a novel route never traveled before, so must be accompanied by strong emotion if it is to be remembered and made recognizable upon recurrence.

As I visualize it, the routing determines the general type of pattern being engaged, the actual neural traffic determines the experience of the perceiver in dealing with a detailed sensory example of that pattern. The difference between potential route and actual traffic resulting in what we are conscious of.

The duality exhibited by many pairs of concepts is no accident. Good/bad, happy/sad, gravity/levity, win/lose, love/hate, near/far, up/down, easy/hard, and so on and on. In each pair of opposites, one is desirable in a given life situation, the other less so. Such terms are the gleanings of felt and heightened comparisons we make every moment of every day, the waypoints by which we navigate through life.

The space created by these daily comparisons defines us as conscious beings doing our best to correct the errors of judgment and engagement we make in leading our everyday lives. Without such discrepancies and polarities, we’d have nothing to arouse our attention, no need to adjust our heading in life, so we’d lose our way in a fog of raw awareness in the instant, the next instant, and the next after that.

A helmsman relies on his compass in gauging the difference between his actual heading and his intended course; he makes a corresponding correction again and again. His action in turning the wheel is aimed at correcting his heading to align more closely with the course he has charted beforehand. He is conscious of the disparity between heading and course; his consciousness lives in the mental space defined by that difference.

A helmsman is a nautical wayfarer steering his way through a sea of alternative routes from one port to another. We are born to be helmsmen (helmswomen) and wayfarers in our own minds, earning our consciousness by facing into the possibility of being off-course at any moment in any situation. It is the difference between being on or off course in all sorts of weather that determines whether or not we arrive at our port of choice.

In our conscious minds, evolution has endowed each of us with an internal compass to navigate by. Developing the navigational skills to make good use of that compass is up to us individually.