Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Introspection enables us to balance three aspects of consciousness at the same time:

  1. sensory evidence for there being a world outside ourselves,
  2. the nature of that world as we entertain it in the form of a particular situation, and
  3. how we might choose to respond to that situation if we judge it necessary and appropriate.

So do we play the odds in monitoring the workings of our mind as they fit us to our surroundings in living out our lives through one episode of engagement after another. Put that way, it sounds awkward because I am trying to avoid the general assumption that we simply look upon the world and it shows us its true face and significance, so we know what to do. Not so. More often, we make the world up to suit ourselves at the moment, and often act inappropriately because our guess at a world is often a gross distortion of the world that is out there.

I advocate a rigorous program of introspection to help us from getting it wrong, wrong, wrong again as often as we do—as the media love to shove in our faces in one up-close and personal story after another, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. The world is in shambles because we act without thinking our situations and engagements through so much of the time.

Instead of asserting ourselves, we would do well to check our first impressions to see if our actions are truly appropriate to our situations, our situations to the sensory input available to us, and the input we seize upon is appropriate to the world we actually live in.

We well may live in the world, but how we engage it is our doing all the way. Our seeing, understanding, and doing are ours alone. Which is why we have to watch ourselves—because no one else can.

We may dub ourselves wise as a species, or claim to be chosen above all others as members of a particular faith or nation, but in truth we each dwell in a niche of one human animal, and how we see, think, and act is our job alone.

A strict regimen of curiosity, doubt, and humility would serve us all well. Too bad it isn’t available in a pill or bottle, on TV or the Web.

Taking hold of ourselves is up to each one of us on his or her own. It starts with a rigorous bout of introspection by which we take ourselves in hand so that slowly, slowly, we can learn to shape up the minds we all have but often subject to careless, cruel, or abusive treatment without qualm.

To change the world for the better, we must start on the inside and work our way out. As yet there is no service or technology available that can do the job for us.

That’s it for today. I’ll do my best to stay on the job. As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

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(Copyright © 2009)

Consciousness often seems to operate by an either/or law that excludes the possibility of taking any middle position. We are either happy or sad, pro or con, well or sick, calm or stressed, bold or meek. Ironically, debate teams can flip a coin to see which side of an argument they are to present. We act out our lives more like Lear judging his daughters than Hamlet muddling through to a bad end. One after another, heads of state insist on making “one thing perfectly clear.” We avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, mixed messages, and confusion as if they were sexually transmitted diseases. Regarding judgments and opinions, we act as if there were no room for maybe—no middle ground.

Which pretty much reflects the stop/go nature of how our brains operate. Either neurons fire or they don’t, there are no halfway measures. Even at the last instant, a neuron told to fire by every one of its input signals can be stopped in its tracks by a single inhibitory signal. Cancel! Hold everything! Just say No!

Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it assures clarity of both vision and action under stressful conditions. The job of consciousness is to suggest appropriate courses of action in novel situations. Personally appropriate, that is, to the actor’s most basic biological and cultural values. We grow impatient with Hamlet because he simply can’t act on the basis of what he knows to be true, failing to revenge his father’s murder, or if he does act, skewering poor Polonius trembling behind the curtain in his mother’s chamber. In the end, all major players lie strewn about the stage, the intimate world of the hesitant one fallen in ruins.

But if hesitation proves costly on occasion, rash action in the name of clarity can come at an even steeper price. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example. The shock and awe was intended for Saddam and his troops, but stunned the whole world. Were there truly no alternatives? Indeed, there were many, all stifled by the overriding thrust of consciousness that ruled the Bush administration. When the looting began, we saw that shock and awe was no substitute for planning ahead.

Defending the selective nature of attention as the gateway to consciousness, Gerald M. Edelman addresses the evolutionary pressure to select one action as being the most appropriate among a field of alternatives:

An animal that is hungry or being threatened has to select an object or an action from many possible ones. It is obvious that the ability to choose quickly one action pattern to be carried out to the exclusion of others confers considerable selective advantage. Possessing such an ability makes it possible to achieve a goal that would otherwise be interfered with by the attempt to undertake two incompatible actions simultaneously (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, pages 141-142).

I picture Bush as an exceedingly threatened animal in seizing upon the Rumsfeldian strategy of preemptive attack in waging war on Iraq. Within a limited circle of minds, it seemed a good idea at the time. Except it extinguished all the uncertainties that a prudent commander would need to consider before making such a move, with the result that a shallow notion poorly thought through was put into effect, with egregious results.

Obama’s sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan appears to be another example that speaks to much the same point. Again, the military mind is out of its depth because there are too many imponderables in the social mix (it certainly is no nation) we call Afghanistan. Echoes of Vietnam are evident in Obama’s thinking, clouding his consciousness, spurring him to rash action as if he could picture the full consequences of such a move. This time, he tells himself, we will not retreat; we will win. But consciousness offers no guarantee of success; based entirely on past experience, it has no way of predicting with surety how things will play out. If I were the Taliban, I would lie low for a year or two, then, when American forces withdraw as advertised in 2011, step into the void supposedly defended by Afghan troops lacking the American commitment to, and fervor for, battle.

Consciousness is far more fragile than we care to admit, often tricking us into making a good show for form’s sake when, in fact, we don’t fully grasp the problem or threat we are faced with. As a result, we decide on an irreversible course of action with no option other than defeat when victory doesn’t rush from the wings on cue.

On the world stage, the loss of a man here or there (because his past experience does not prepare him to deal with prevailing events) is no tragedy. But when one individual’s consciousness is made responsible for the actions of an entire nation, leading to commitment of all its resources to a particular end, even the rigor of six million years of hominid evolution doesn’t equip us for the task of even imagining what an appropriate course of action might look like, much less recognizing it if we ever came across it. Consciousness is always experimental on the scale of one person leading a particular life. If we survive our personal errors of judgment, we have opportunity to learn where we went wrong. But on a national scale, no one mind can be made fully responsible for decisions affecting the whole. Which is why we have cabinets and advisors and staff to supplement the life experience of the so-called Commander In Chief. Who—like Lear misjudging his daughters, and Hamlet wanting absolute certainty—can aspire no higher than to a mortal level of consciousness.

Where the buck stops, that is where one individual’s consciousness makes a real difference on the national scene. That is precisely where Obama is located in the issue of America’s relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and North Korea. His is a daunting assignment, even with the most artful spies and prescient advisors on Earth. Whatever choice he makes, he is damned one way or another precisely because he cannot admit to his human limitations or the frailty of his personal consciousness.

Our form of government calls for leaders with the stature of gods—when there are no gods available to take the position. Fallible as we are, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Men and women with the gift of consciousness and speech—who are bound to make mistakes in novel situations they are ill prepared to deal with. Particularly in situations they have no chance to rehearse as stage actors have because they take place in real time, every performance playing to an opening night crowd.

In the case of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we the senders are united by the commonalities of American experience in this decade; the receivers by their shared experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is bound to be a meeting of bodies carrying weapons, but not of minds. I cannot fathom any mind but my own, as no American can an Afghan or Taliban or al Qaeda mind, and vice versa. In global affairs, it is the minds inhabiting individual bodies leading particular lives in specific places that set the courses of action which determine world events. There is no possible way we can know what will happen as the result of this surge in military commitment. We can know what we want to happen, but that has almost no bearing on what will actually take place.

What is lacking in this campaign is a sense of humility, along with a realization that concepts in the mind are not events on the ground. The best thing we could possibly do under the circumstances is for all concerned to put down their arms and engage one another as fellow humans, children of the one Earth. Yes, we should engage, but as equals, not as one dedicated to dominating (or killing) the other. Consciousness being as fallible as it is in every known instance, it is foolish to put a gun in any hand that might take the life of a total stranger for reasons that are not fully known or considered. Imagine killing someone and then wondering who he was? Was, but no longer is.

Is there no middle ground between victory and defeat? There certainly is. Between me killing you and you killing me, there is the usual middle way of muddling through by playing backgammon together and trading stories about our mishaps and adventures. Of being human together—you being fully you, me being fully me. Acknowledging our similarities, sharing our differences, balancing the two, not letting ideology come between us to distort our relationship.

No, we have not tried that approach. We are better at building walls between people than bridges. At shooting from the hip before we’re sure of the target. America is now a street gang writ large on the world scene, defending its turf at all cost—unto bankrupting the nation both financially and morally. Because that is the way we are taught to conduct ourselves in the world—by flexing our might instead of listening to the other side of the story. Maybe later, when we do hear the story, we’ll apologize for acting so rashly, lay a few wreathes and call it square.

After all, they invaded our territory on 9-11, which everyone knows is a violation of sacred ground. No matter we violated theirs first. So we send out our muscle to teach them a lesson. As long as they run their turf by our rules, everything will be OK by us.

That’s the stuff tragedies are made of because we know it’ll never happen. That’s not how people are made. Lear was Lear, Hamlet was Hamlet. Liberty means living your own life your own way, being who you are till the curtain drops. We’re scripting our own drama as we act in the world, driven by the dictates of consciousness, which are invariably self-serving as best we can picture our current situation. It’s not only a tragedy for those who fall during their mission in Afghanistan, it’s a tragedy for all of us because we’re making it happen. It’s our money that’s paying for this expedition—a million dollars a year per head. That’s the going price for pretending we can teach total strangers the lesson we want them to learn.

Shakespeare has already written a play about a black man deceived by the advice of his lieutenant, Iago. Othello fell for it, not realizing Iago had his own agenda driven by his own motives. “O fool! fool! fool!” he said of himself when disabused, realizing he had been tricked into smothering Desdemona, whom he had “lov’d not wisely but too well.” Another animal driven by fear, he acted boldly as he thought he must, but acted wrongly nonetheless.

Contrail

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Mankind is beginning to realize that “under-standing” is only an illusion, that life and action are based upon illusions and lead to illusions.   Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ 1924, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method.

Cigarette smoking is a habit often acquired during adolescence as a means of coping with anxiety experienced in stressful social situations. It provides a ready ritual to create the illusion of being as calm and collected as Humphrey Bogart or the Marlboro Man. Too bad it’s addictive and can lead to lung cancer. In that sense, cigarettes are a kind of placebo, something to calm the waters of the soul when they are agitated or internally threatening.

Our word “placebo” stems from Latin placere, to please, and like “pleasant,” “placate,” and “placid,” from a more ancient root meaning to be flat—as a windless sea can be flat calm. Placebo literally means I shall please, taken from the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead. We use the word today in referring to a sugar pill or some other ruse to make us think we are receiving effective medication when in fact we are not. The mind seizes on the pill as justification for feeling better solely on the basis of wishful thinking. Ineffective in itself, a placebo gives the mind an excuse for no longer feeling sick, leading to the illusion of effective treatment and recovery based on a very real reduction of self-induced stress. Placeboes give us a chance to demonstrate the truth of the old adage, “mind over matter,” or as Luigi Pirandello said, “It’s true if you think so.”

Doesn’t apply to you? Think again. We say the sun rises and sets—which is how we see it—but it is actually the Earth rotating on its axis that creates the illusion. Our word “universe” means one turning, but it isn’t the cosmos that turns but, again, our rotating Earth that is responsible. We don’t feel ourselves on the skin of a top spinning through space, but that’s where we live nonetheless. For myself, I was racing 15 mph over the speed limit today to make an appointment, which I excused with the handy placebo, I didn’t want to be late. The obvious retort to that would be, well, don’t wait till the last minute. We excuse ourselves as a matter of habit, always defending our self-image if not our actual behavior. “Not guilty, your honor,” we plead with a straight face, when we well know we’re guilty as hell. All for the innocent pleasure of being more self-righteous than the next person.

As I am so fond of saying in regard to consciousness, strange business, indeed. Just putting on a new hat can make us feel our social image is more attractive, like putting on make-up or getting our hair “done.” There’s a new bounce in our step and we feel younger and less drab. Donning a dark, pin-stripe suit lends politicians an air of authority, much as Superman takes on superhuman powers by changing his clothes in a phone booth. We defer to people in uniforms as if underneath they weren’t people who eat junk food on the run, argue with their spouses, and yell at their kids. Owning a late-model car lifts our spirits, even though it’s no better than the trade-in we got rid of. Much of what we do depends on the trade in illusions, which every marketer knows and uses in manipulating us to his profit and advantage, along with every minister who calms the waters of his flock by making reassuring noises, and every celebrity who performs the outrageous acts his fans demand as the price of their loyalty to someone they can identify with.

When we reach above the social plane to the theological or cosmological, we outdo ourselves in grasping at illusory placeboes to make us feel good about matters far exceeding human understanding. Vaihinger quotes Immanuel Kant:

I can make possible . . . systematic unity of the manifold of the cosmic whole, by looking upon all interconnection as if they were the orderings of a supreme reason. . . . This rational entity is, of course, a mere Idea, and is not simply and in itself to be accepted as anything real but is only problematically assumed . . . in order that all the connections in the world of sense may be regarded as if they had their basis in this entity, simply and solely however with the object of building thereon a systematic unit . . . which may be indispensable to the reason and is in every way helpful to the empirical understanding. (Page 281.)

So usefulness is Kant’s criterion for calling up the idea of God as the unifying principle which human reason takes as its base. The idea of God is useful in much the same sense placeboes are useful—both reduce stress by invoking illusions that have no merit in themselves. Yet if we take them as true, then in our minds they become true for us. Creating gods of convenience because it pleases us, we are the true creators of the world we choose to inhabit. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine follows much the same procedure in establishing the idea of God as the ultimate source of the rights of man. I quote at some length from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, (Classic House Books, 2009) to preserve the gist of Paine’s argument:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied. . . . If . . . man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally? (Page 89.)

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. . . . If we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him. (Pages 89-90, italics added.)

The fact is, that portions of antiquity, by proving everything, establish nothing. It is authority against authority all the way, till we come to the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation. Here our enquiries find a resting-place, and our reason finds a home. If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation, it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and is to this same source of authority that we must now refer. (Page 90, italics added.)

Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing, that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? (Page 90, italics added.)

I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right. . . . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind. (Page 91.)

The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. “And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine authority, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record. (Page 91, italics added.)

Paine, rational man that he is, bases his argument on assumptions neither theological nor historical but mythological through and through. Make-believe is his ultimate authority for determining the origin of the rights of man. Take away God and his creation, Paine’s words fall in a meaningless heap. Yet he is so sure of himself, so relentlessly logical, so self-congratulatory, so much a victim of his prior assumptions that he is clearly peddling placeboes he earnestly feels good about and wants to pass on to us as fundamental truths. Times have not changed all that much due to human consciousness being in charge from Paine’s day to ours. Mind over matter is still our motto; if we believe something to be true, then surely it is. As long as it eases our minds and reduces stress, anxiety goes away and we feel our trusting, childhood selves once again.

Placeboes work because taking them pleases us, putting us in a different—more positive—frame of mind. We’ll settle for that over being right every time, because that’s how consciousness works. Consciousness doesn’t know anything for sure, it only claims to know. There can be no absolutes when it comes to telling truth from untruth, right from wrong. These are invariably matters of opinion and interpretation. The only way to check our beliefs is to adopt an attitude of skepticism, humility, and doubt toward every one of them, asking the ancient question: How can we know that we know what we think we know? And even that is no guarantee we’ll get it right. We must put in our ten-thousand hours if we want to come anywhere near the truth. Deep thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine didn’t reach far enough in seeking to justify their most fundamental assumptions. They merely discovered exactly what was present at the start of their respective trains of thought, and progressed not one inch beyond.

The fact is, there can be no true and fundamental basis for what we believe because the brain has no power to recognize such a basis if it ever came across it. We go with what the crowd believes, or higher authority, or our shelf of great books, or our mothers told us when bouncing us upon her knee. Much of what we earnestly take to be fundamental truth is a placebo we choose to put our faith in on no basis other than that is what suits us at the time. To a man and woman, we are self-made because each of our minds is unique in entertaining whatever enters our heads. Immanuel Kant is right for himself and wrong for everyone else, which is equally true for Thomas Paine, myself, and even the most respected authority. We choose to believe what we do because it accords with our nature and gives us pleasure.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Which is why we so often resort to sugar pills because they reduce stress and make us feel better right away.

We make ourselves happen to please ourselves. To do it any other way would displease us, which seems senseless. Our only real choice is to press on as far as we can, always paying attention to inconsistencies that might give us pause—and a chance to reconsider the course we are taking in life.

Fluke-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

OK, so we wake up in the crazy house of our minds. Trusted institutions are falling apart, making us feel like we are falling apart. The world we thought was so real and reliable turns out to be only the shaky fantasy we chose to believe in. Now we get it: the real world is the natural world, the one we have turned our backs on to make it easier to dream the American dream. We’ve never been good at checking our facts—must have been sick the day they taught that in school.

The hardest of all lessons is that minding your own store—your personal consciousness—is a job that cannot be outsourced. Personal judgment is just that, a responsibility each of us must meet for herself. The buck for directing our own outlook and behavior stops with us. Which is the reason for seeking the deepest, broadest life experience we can get, whether through hard knocks or a good education.

It is not enough to stand before the mirror peering at our exteriors. The problem lies within. Self-knowledge is the key to each of us improving our share of the world situation. But how do we get it? Amazon doesn’t stock either Self-Knowledge for Dummies or the CliffNotes study guide. Yet if we want to avoid an even worse institutional collapse in the future, we’ve all got to rip off the blinders and take a good look at ourselves—from the inside where our attitudes and actions originate, not the outside we’ve grown so accustomed to.

The good news is that gaining self-knowledge is really less daunting than it might seem. And doesn’t require going to school; it’s something you can do for yourself. My suggestion is to take the idea of a personal interpreter seriously (see Reflection 86: Interpretation, about Michael Gazzaniga’s proposed left-brain interpreter module) and go looking for it in your everyday experience.

What it takes is curiosity and persistence in pursuing details of your personal makeup no one ever told you about. First, consider how much of what you do and say is based on your own integrity as a person, and how much is based on the authority of someone else. What others advise you to do reflects their interpreter—their spin—not yours. Take a look at the advice you give yourself. That is a direct route to your personal authority—your very own left-brain interpreter. 

Yes, it may sound crazy, but no crazier than the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into by not attending to how we make meaning of our lives—as if it was just common sense.

Our respective left-brain interpreters can be in only one mind, so each functions independently. Its job description was crafted through eons of evolution to make sense of the many situations it finds itself in—suiting its actions to them as appropriately as it can.

The second stage of discovering the interpreter is to keep asking yourself, “Now, why did I do (say, or think) that?” Whatever answer you find in yourself will probably be told in the interpreter’s voice. Keep asking; keep listening for a response. If you question yourself because you truly want to know, you will eventually hit upon answers to your inquiries.

Which is not to say that there’s a resident homunculus in your head, a little imp who does your mental work for you—or an infinite regression of such imps monitoring one another. No, this is your one and only mind in action, its various facets working in concert to present the outward and visible impression that you are utterly sure of yourself in any situation (even when you’re not).

Your interpreter is the heart of the consciousness your genetic heritage has bequeathed to you. There is no airspace between you and your interpreter. It is with you always. Monitoring your interpreter is the key to self-knowledge because it is what makes you who you are. When you ask a question, your interpreter wants to know. When you answer one, it is your interpreter that comes online to promote your personal wellbeing in any given situation.

Having become acquainted with your interpreter, you can begin to watch your own consciousness in action making sense of its inner world in different situations involving different actors, issues, locations, goals, and rules of behavior. One of the clearest views of the interpreter is provided during game-playing behavior. Games are always situational, and we always (sometimes) play by the rules, rooting for our personal or home team—the one we identify with. In doing so, we adopt a certain perspective which the interpreter in us staunchly defends. If we switch teams, it makes an adjustment and just as surely defends our new perspective. You can catch yourself in the act of making sense under novel circumstances which emerge during games.

One thing you can learn by keeping tabs on your interpreter is that it doesn’t always play fair. It makes sense the best it can, which sometimes doesn’t meet a very high standard because it is subject to inhibition from other quarters of consciousness, such as the boss standing behind you, or your mother showing up. The interpreter is only human just like you. Its foibles are your foibles. It sometimes tries to make a good impression without putting its heart into it. It flatters, it tries to impress, it pretends to know more than it does.

Getting to know your interpreter is getting to know yourself. All it takes is watching yourself being yourself. That way lies hope for a better world in that you can see yourself playing games, and so watch for self-deception. Then you can be on the level with the world when you act without having to cover up your hidden motives. All this will be revealed when you get on familiar terms with the interpreter module in your brain.

You will get to know yourself in a new light, which can be endlessly entertaining (if sometimes shocking or embarrassing). Take a look at your resume, for instance, to see if your interpreter might have had a hand in it. Or watch yourself come on to a person you find attractive. Listen to yourself tell your children where babies come from, why the dog ate the cookies left for Santa, why you didn’t get the report in on time as you promised your supervisor, why Harvard has no record of your attending classes, the Army no paperwork on your service in Vietnam.

In the interests of full disclosure, I declare that almost the entirety of this blog has been whispered in my ear by my personal interpreter trying to make sense of what it can know within its own theater of activity. Mohamed gave similar credit to the Angel Gabriel, his pet name for his interpreter. Almost the whole of philosophy, psychology, and theology have been scripted by interpreters inclined to justify themselves to the world. Some clever people make a living by turning their interpreters to the writing of fiction informed by doings in the only mind they have privileged access to. There is more than ample precedence for conducting a study of your own conscious mind.

Give it a try. It’s the only route I know that might help us all contribute to making a better world. Humility comes first, then vigilance, then action within our true sphere of competence!

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