497. Afterword

April 30, 2015

Cultural ideas (memes), once they become widely accepted or have even gone “viral,” develop a strong resistance to change. The idea of “artificial intelligence,” from a fanciful oxymoron (contradiction in terms because no one knows what authentic intelligence might be), has become the watchword of a burgeoning industry and is here to stay until it is replaced by the Next Big Thing that becomes culturally contagious.

I have used the word “inertia” to describe a cultural idea’s resistance to change. Once popularly accepted, it leads a life of its own. That is, once its collective memory achieves a critical mass within the human population, it becomes a contributor to our everyday system of belief.

Even after gravitational force, evolution, genetics, DNA, and both galactic and stellar evolution became fixtures of our cultural view of the universe (thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Newton, Darwin, Franklin-Watson-Crick, and tens-of-thousands of others), the anthropocentric notion that humankind is the central focus of a god-driven universe persists, as if the sun and stars were still believed to revolve about us—we who give meaning to godly creation simply because we are born to that tenacious meme from our mistaken point of view.

Cultural inertia is a disease more deadening than ebola or dengue fever. It kills off tender minds of both children and adults well before their time. That is because the basis of perception is recognition enabled by memory, not any sensory impressions formed in the instant. We see largely what we have seen before and are familiar with. We grow uncomfortable when beyond the range of our past experience. Novelty in our eyes may capture our attention, but that doesn’t mean we accept, like, or understand it.

Ideas that become part of our general culture are usually put forward by groups that stand to profit from their acceptance. Economic theory flows from those who stand to make money, not from the host of disadvantaged others. Military theory flows from those who fight wars at a distance. Theology flows from those dependent on entire flocks of believers. Penal theory is proposed by those outside prison walls. Art theory blows on the winds of change, novelty, and aesthetic outrage.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we are all heavily invested in our personal experience, existing as we do at the leading edge of our beliefs. And that edge is always pro or con, positive or negative, for or against—in a word, polarized. There it is, a double-edged sword at the heart of our beliefs. And that makes the world we live in polarized as a result of our thrusting our particular edge outward in our actions, frowns, smiles, and gestures of rejection or acceptance.

There are two sides to every truth, meme, and conviction. We’re either for-or-against it because that is how our minds work, balancing pros and cons, activations and inhibitions, two sides of every question. Yes or no. Yea or nay. Go or stop. Stay or leave. Fast or slow. Cold or hot. Sweet or sour. Brave or chicken. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. Guilty or innocent. All or nothing.

We frame our options for doing anything at all in two columns, pro and con. Then we list the reasons for taking a particular action against the reasons for not taking it. We add up the two columns. The one with the most checkmarks wins. Yes, we are that simple minded.

Our muscles either flex or relax. What signal should we send? Uncertainty or hesitation leads to disaster. Timing is of the essence; the enemy is fast approaching. Now is our chance to decide. What should we do? How do we vote? Count us in or out? Subtlety is for wimps. Real men and women know right from wrong in any situation, and always do the right thing. Or, that is the popular myth.

Choices, nothing but choices. That is precisely why we have minds that engage with events and make decisions what to do. No matter how we decide, once we go one way or the other, we face another decision, which invariably leads to a train of others after that.

What if you had turned left and not right that day you met the girl who became your girlfriend who became your wife who bore your children who now have children of their own? What if, what if, what if. But you didn’t turn left, you turned right, and that has made all the difference throughout your life.

Speaking of what ifs, picture your genealogical tree for the past five generations, from your parents to their parents to their parents to their parents to their parents. Your parents to your great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a century’s worth of your family and recent genetic heritage, 126 people, all making countless decisions every day of their lives, all those decisions contributing to you and your specific genome. Not just contributing to, but focusing on you. If any one of them had lived differently, had gotten sick at the wrong time, had gone off to war, had fallen off a horse, had run a red light, had served chicken (with hidden bones) and not roast beef for dinner—where and who would you be today?

Think about it. Without consciousness that can weigh options and make decisions, and act on those decisions by tensing one set of muscles while relaxing others—none of us would be who we are today.

Yes, consciousness makes all the difference between living as a person and living as a mushroom, or even another person in our own family-community-culture-precinct of nature. What if we’d been born on another planet circling another sun in another galaxy? Wherever we are, consciousness is our guide every millisecond of every day of our lives.

How ironic is it, then, that we barely understand our own conscious processes, our own intelligence, our own opinions, fashions, fads, annoyances, habits, routines, prejudices, and orthodox beliefs? Our schools are all aimed outward into the world of memes, ideas, and traditions, not at the minds we bring with our lunchboxes and faithfully present to our homeroom teacher when we answer “Here” when she calls out our name.

Instead of fighting wars or trying to make a killing on Wall Street, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to understand our own minds to avoid doing more harm than good in the world?

Why, in particular, do we cling to ways and beliefs we don’t understand, yet commit ourselves to out of personal and cultural inertia? As if we were automatons or robots or zombies or idiots?

I’ve said it before and will say it here one last time: Know Thyself! Why else are we here?

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The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

(Copyright © 2010)

My daily routine includes going to the post office to get my mail. At some point along the way I anticipate what might be waiting behind the window of box 585. I expect some kind of assortment made up of bills, appeals for money, fliers, catalogs, magazines, announcements, and maybe an actual letter. Since I can’t know for sure what I will find, or even if I’ll find anything, my expectations tend to be vague and low key—that is, not very exciting.

Entering the door of the post office, I see my box straight ahead. Immediately I can tell if something’s in it or not. Sometimes it’s so crammed I can’t see through to the canvas carts. That means magazines or catalogs. Most days I can’t tell if it’s The New Yorker waiting for me or The Nation. More often a few envelopes slant at an angle upper left corner to lower right, probably bills. Maybe FairPoint bill or notice from the New England Fisheries Management Council. I dial my combination—then all is revealed. Today’s mail: One letter—oops! overdrawn at the bank; “Registered Documents Enclosed,” another dunning from the DNC; Christian Science Monitor—Send No Money subscription offer; 2009 Maine Resident Individual Income Tax Booklet; Ben Meadows field research catalog thicker than the phone book. That’s how today’s cautious expectations are fulfilled. My mailbox is a placeholder for such transactions.

This non-drama is fully funded by my personal consciousness. Expectancy is the key. To get me out the door, consciousness has to move me to set a goal and act decisively. It tells me my survival and contentment depend on making a trip to the post office. Anticipation just above the subliminal level keeps me going. Things pick up when I can tell something’s in my box. Then abstract motivation switches to concrete fulfillment as I shuffle through the pile. Sort, sort; toss, toss, stuff in pocket. This is how my loop of engagement works, me casting my abstract expectations on the world, the world giving me back today’s mail to riffle through at the post office. The trick is that my expectations are a kind of summary of such experiences in the past, so are necessarily conceptual more than sensory. But that changes when I open the little door to get my mail. Then hands-on sensory experience takes over, and my expectations are fulfilled more or less in the here and now of the post office lobby.

I think of myself as living in real time, but I seldom am. Often past experience takes over and I dwell in the twilight zone of memory. Or I extrapolate from that zone in trying to visualize what the future will bring. And briefly, as in the lobby, I match past concepts to sensory percepts in the present, categorizing the sensory now in terms of the conceptual past. Conscious-ness is the time machine that lets me do that—switch back and forth. And it is consciousness that fools me into thinking I’m aware of the world around me all the time when, in fact, I keep moving between abstract memories, concrete sensory traffic, and abstract projections into what I think of as the future but is really the state of my mind at the moment. The switching is done so fast—on a scale of milliseconds rather than minutes or hours—I don’t even notice the abrupt seams in what I believe to be my uninterrupted stream of consciousness.

Everyday consciousness is far more complicated than we often think. It is a herky-jerky paste-up job, a montage, not an even flow. In Reflection 159: Stop the Press!, I tried to show how an instant recollection of an empty milk bottle changed my life, or at least that one trip to the trash room. Characteristically, I move in and out of focus in relation to my immediate environment. It comes and it goes. Remembering some little thing puts my immediate plans in the shadows. And an overdose of sameness promotes a hunger for stimulation; I come, I see, I move on. And what surprises me is not so much the time travel as the ever-shifting level of attention to detail as it drifts between concrete sensory perception, abstracts from memory, and vague plans for some kind of future. The three time zones are rendered with varying degrees of detail—and I generally don’t even notice the difference.

When we switch too fast under stress, or rely too heavily on preconceived notions, we are apt to make category errors that misrepresent our pasts in the now, or distort current percep-tions in relation to what we can recall in the instant. The clip-art kitty I “saw” when a hinge squeaked and I jumped up to avoid stepping on the tail of a nonexistent cat (Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat) is an example of my confounding a hinge squeak in the present with an imaginary concept of a yeowling feline from the past—in a pastiche that seemed real at the time. This is an out-and-out category error, accounting for a sound by dredging up a preposterous fantasy. I was there and that’s exactly what I did.

When early scientists did not understand the nature of fire, they concocted the concept of phlogiston to account for the source of a flame. It was thought to be the (fictional) impurity phlogiston that burned when released. People didn’t know any better, so a mythical conceptual category had to be custom fitted to the sensory facts. A concept is a placeholder for the sorts of sensory experiences having relevance to our particular outlooks, motives, and values. In a given situation, concepts guide and shape our expectancy until they are fulfilled by specific details provided by the occasion. Concepts are what we look for; percepts are what we actually get. We no longer look for signs of phlogiston. We’ve learned to look for rapid oxidation instead.

Humor operates on a similar plan: it sets up a pregnant situation, creating a kind of expectant tension, which is fulfilled by a punch line that sidesteps our anticipation. Humor depends on category errors or misconceptions leading us astray, only to be set right by the surprising but non-threatening solution to a situation or riddle—like the magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The punch line of a joke fulfills the humorous situation with a novel flourish. We didn’t see it coming, so laugh with glee, a sure sign of relaxed tension. When we take matters seriously, surprise endings are heresy, so are not allowed.

It is written: God created the universe.

The universe currently exists.

Therefore, God must also exist,

Making whatever happens, happen.

That is basically Osama bin Laden’s point regarding Allah in his “Letter to America” I referred to in my last post. True believers will win against the infidels because they are agents of Allah, who will see that it happen. If you don’t see the humor or irony in the initial assumption’s cropping up in the conclusion as if derived from the evidence, this blog probably isn’t for you. That’s the kind of trouble consciousness gets us into by not distinguishing between the level of detail in concepts and percepts. As my mailbox stands ready to receive its contents on any given day, concepts are mental boxes waiting to be filled by specific sensory details, fleshed-out or embodied, as it were, mythically if not factually. However you put it, concepts are empty containers until given sensory content to substantiate or fulfill them on particular occasions. To mismatch the two is to create category errors, which we mortals are prone to doing all the time.

To take such convenient fictions as entropy, inertia, gravity, evil, sin, Satan, phlogiston, probability, or God herself as explanations for specific events is to switch from one level of consciousness to another midstream without knowing. Resident in the human mind, God is a category error waiting to happen again and again. We have the word; it must label something out there in the world, or so we believe. When concepts in set minds forcefully drive experience, the world is remade according to ideology, as if personal belief could be mapped onto the outer world of sensory events, taming it, cutting it down to the size of the mind rather than allowing the mind to grow by accommodating to actual experience. Creationism and theocracies are ample proof that we are prone to forcing ourselves on the Earth rather than attending to what the master teacher has to show us.

Consciousness is given us so we can learn from experience and act appropriately in a world full of pitfalls and dangers. But we have increasingly come to put that process in reverse, using consciousness to adjust the world to our preferences. If the world doesn’t conform to our idea of what it should be, we whip it into shape by changing the world to our liking, rearranging it so incoming percepts conform to conceptual expectations we already have in mind. Instead of immersing our wild bodies in the flow of wild events—instead of learning the ways of the world—we domesticate the world by breaking it to our beliefs, forcing it to live up to our expectations and specifications. Beyond hubris, that leads to the end of the world as our ancestors once knew it. In the instance of my post office box, it leads to junk mail and endless solicitations for money.

Concepts and percepts can only complement or complete one another; they are not causally related. They arise from different sources of experience, much as my mailbox cannot account for the mail it contains. It gives that mail a place where I can get at it, but there is no causal agency or relationship between them. Such mental slight of hand would be a category error, no matter how much I might want it to explain why things happen as they do. But I can’t blame my mailbox for the bills it contains. The causal agent is the hand of the postal employee who sorts the mail and inserts it into my box, and behind her, those who pay postage to have access to my mind and bank account.

In the realm of the conscious mind, expectation, wishful thinking, and knowing about things share a similar low level of specificity, that is, abstraction. Which is very different from the level on which sensory events actually happen, the level of immediate sensory experience. Even the concept of the color red is colorless until exemplified. Just as my having a mailbox does not imply there is any mail in it, the concept “red” is a kind of code that acknowledges that red exists without providing an example or explaining how the eye sees it. It is more a particular wavelength or energy level, an idea in the mind. The concept of a circle is not a circle; it is more the recipe for generating a circle if you have a compass or a stake in the ground and piece of string. The concept of an automobile is neither Honda nor Chevrolet, though such brands may exemplify the concept. The concept honey cannot elicit the taste—that takes molecules on the tongue. The concept peace cannot calm a battlefield. Ideas are built from concepts in memory; things are built from sensory phenomena in perception. Joined together, related, or balanced as a conscious proposition, memorial concept with existential percept, we can eat strawberry shortcake (sensory fulfillment) for dessert (anticipatory concept), or design a mousetrap perhaps better than the ones we are familiar with. I can even reach into my mailbox and get my mail. But uncoupled and apart, one remains an empty idea, the other an uncategorized percept about which almost nothing is known.

Jokes come in categories: men, women, sex, lawyers, sports, animals, religion, ethnic/national, elevators, etc., or simple challenges such as who?, what?, when?, where?, how?, why? A conceptual situation is set up, creating tension, which the punch line resolves in a specific yet surprising sensory payoff, the release of tension eliciting a smile or laugh, usually from an audience of a particular age or level of experience:

Who was that gentleman I saw you with last night? That was no gentleman, that was my husband.

What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Snowflakes.

Where do snowmen keep their money? In a snow bank.

You know you’re from New York when you think the major food groups are Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Indian.

How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.

Why do hummingbirds hum? They don’t know the words.

Real life situation: Yesterday I came across a group of eight people in a knot trying to figure out how to move a woman in a wheelchair from an icy sidewalk into the passenger seat of a car at the curb. A voice apologized for blocking the sidewalk. Stepping into the street to get around, I asked: “How many people does it take . . . ?” Everybody laughed, the tension eased. They saw I wasn’t put out.

The only mailbox joke I know is from a ten-year-old, so I’ll leave you with that: What do you call a man who sits in your mailbox? Bill.

PO Box 96

 

  

(Copyright © 2009)

Before I explain the title of this post, I have to provide enough background to make it meaningful.

 

The two most important words in the English language are the articles “a” (or “an”) and “the.” These little words distinguish between general categories of conscious experience (concepts such as a word, an apple, a dragonfly) and sensory phenomena or percepts specifically representing one category or another (the word “word” itself, the apple I ate for lunch, the dragonfly zipping back and forth over the still pond). The indefinite article “a” directs attention toward a class of things known for their shared resemblance within consciousness; the definite article “the” directs attention toward a unique member worthy of consideration apart from other members of any such class.

 

Put that way, the distinction between individual things and things that are members of a class of things seems merely a way of talking about things that are significant in themselves and things that are significant because they share characteristics common to a group of things. Which may seem a trivial distinction. What difference does it make whether I say, “I ate an apple for lunch,” or “I ate the apple on my plate”? An apple could be big or small, red or yellow, ripe or unripe, sweet or sour, whole or cut into pieces, tangy or bland, and so on. The apple is not a matter of serial either/or distinctions but is what it is and nothing else. We may not know all of the details, but we know its character derives from its exhibiting one specific combination of sensible details which are mere possibilities within the overall category.

 

The question is, why draw the distinction? And the answer must be, because it makes a significant difference to me, and if you will only listen to my story as it unfolds, you will come to understand the difference been an apple as a vague category of experience and the role this one apple plays on a particular occasion in my life.

 

The apple on my plate was put before me. I didn’t select it, it was presented to me. In my family we had to eat what we were given—the specific servings. We couldn’t pick and choose. If the starving children in China couldn’t pick and choose, neither could we. If the apple turned out to be wormy, sour, or bitter, we ate it nonetheless. An apple is an abstract idea; we didn’t deal with abstractions. We ate our dinners. Without hesitation, without question, without complaint. Abstractions don’t nourish the body, only specific apples on specific plates at specific times in specific places can do that. I am made of such apples. Without them I wouldn’t be here today. I am living proof of the distinction between an apple as an idea or category of experience and the apple on my plate. Both are apples in my mind, but in wholly different ways. One is both in my mind and my stomach; the other remains a dim phantom. Viva la [Burp.] difference!

 

All of which goes to explain the title of this post: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Take note: the cloud; a dog. Cloud as sensory phenomenon, dog as concept or idea—both in consciousness, but playing different roles. The distinction is crucial. If it was, The Cloud That Is a Dog, that would be a metaphor, not a simile. But the principle is exactly the same: a concrete aspect of experience bears on and informs an abstract or ideational aspect of consciousness, the two together building an edifice in the mind much larger than either structure taken by itself.

 

What set me off on this rather tortuous journey was a quote from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (Houghton Mifflin, Mariner Books, 2000, first published 1977). The second chapter ends with this thought:

 

For if consciousness is based on language, then it follows that it is of a much more recent origin than has heretofore been supposed. Consciousness come after language! The implications of such a position are extremely serious (page 66).

 

Consciousness based on language requires language to come first, as the foundation must precede the house. In my mind, given the rate at which life has evolved, that’s a mighty big “if.” From my perspective, consciousness must embrace both the concrete and abstract aspects of language such as I have taken pains to illustrate in this post so far—if language and metaphor are to be possible. Language is only one aspect of consciousness. I have looked at humor, how we name things, metaphor, seeing one thing as another, not seeing what is in front of us, pain—all involving various combinations of concrete and abstract ramifications within consciousness. If I can point to a single example of consciousness without words, then Jaynes’ contention, no matter how erudite, is open to question. Think sight gags, Picasso’s Guernica, the concluding movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the championship-deciding game in the World Series, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (sung in German), the ballet Swan Lake.

 

But no, I will offer only The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Not in so many words, but as a photograph of the actual event when it happened. Before I get to the drum roll, first think what that might imply: seeing a cloud as a dog. It is an act of perception and an act of cognition engaging each other, not in the world, but in the mind. My mind. Wholly without words. The mental representation of a cloud becoming mutually engaged with the idea—the very essence—of doggishness. This is not an example of language itself but of what makes language possible: the coupling of sensory phenomena with conceptual ideas so that words—whether spoken, heard, written, read, signed, or seen—take on meanings and convey them to other minds.

 

Drum roll. Expectant hush. A flash of brilliance. I give you, preverbally: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. 

 

DogCloud, 7-2008

 

In his Afterword, Jaynes allows, “Consciousness is not all language, but it is generated by it and accessed by it. . . . Consciousness then becomes embedded in language and so is learned easily by children. The general rule is: there is no operation in consciousness that did not occur in behavior first” (page 449). Which to me sounds like he’s hedging or preparing way for a cop-out. He claims solving problems, like driving, requires no consciousness—but to me solving novel problems is the essence of goal-directed consciousness which we must do on our own, in our own minds, in light of our own skills and judgment. Even driving, I skillfully access my progress through brief glimpses between and during cogitations. Bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back safely to Earth is Exhibit A of the conscious mind’s deliberate, informed, hands-on, preverbal, problem-solving ability.

 

For myself, I am content to inhabit a conscious world that allows me to visualize phenomenal clouds in the guise of idealized dogs, engaging my environment through a metaphor more fundamental and much older than speech. I spend much of my time in nature attending to speechless creatures of one sort or another (see Pix at the head of this blog). As I have written, there is no language per se in nature, yet there is consciousness of every sort—including my own. I keep my ears, eyes, nostrils open, mouth shut. Yet still I form concepts based on what I find, and my mind grows in every dimension. I have wordless feelings, expectancies, insights, and memories. Much of what I know today I have learned through personal, first hand interactions with nature more basic than language.

 

As an encore, I give you The Great Seal of the United States of America. It may look like the representation of an Eagle to you, but check out the carrot and stick in those talons—this is the representation of an eagle in the process of representing a nation’s ideals. Here is a visual metaphor cloaked in our national identity, no small trick for a bird, or for consciousness either, and all without words.

Great Seal of the U.S.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

One way to study consciousness is to study activities people throw themselves into and are good at. As a species, we are good at making and doing things. Toys, furniture, weapons, art, and poetry are products of human consciousness, of the body and brain working together to reach a goal or produce a desired result. Every artifact is a reflection of human consciousness at work—planning, judging, choosing, doing.

 

I read a blog the other day that claimed Japanese haiku to be the simplest form of poetry, and therefore the easiest to create. I don’t believe that’s true—that haiku are either simple or easy—but they are relatively brief. And are certainly products of disciplined conscious endeavor. So what can haiku as a creative artifact tell us about consciousness?

 

Let’s take a look at four sample haiku. Right away, some will complain that these poems don’t satisfy the required syllable count. As we are taught in school, the 5-7-5 syllable sequence accords with a sacred formula that defines a haiku. Except that emphasis in Japanese haiku is indicated by words, not punctuation marks, and those words are written and read as part of the poem, whereas in English question and exclamation marks don’t add to the syllable count. Haiku in Japanese are written in one vertical line, not three horizontal lines. And most Japanese words end in vowel sounds, so Japanese haikus are flush with internal rhymes, but when translated, many of those words end in consonants, so there is no way to translate Japanese rhymes into English. Some teachers may like to teach rules for convenience, but when they distort the object of study, it is best to see through them to the true nature of the original form.

 

In this post I offer rough English translations of four haiku by the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) as examples of consciousness reflected in a small number of words.

 

Example A.          on a bare branch

a crow is perched—

autumn evening

 

In this first example we are given the sensory image of a crow on a bare branch, and the idea (concept) that it is late in the year and late in the day. Images and ideas are integral parts of consciousness, but they arise in two different parts of the mind—the senses and conceptual memory. What Basho is doing in this poem is putting two aspects of consciousness together so they play off against each other, the experiential whole adding to more than the sum of its parts. This gets closer to the essence of haiku than counting syllables on our fingers or listening for rhymes.

 

What is the dynamic between image and concept in this poem? Do they support each other or are they in conflict? We sense the bare branch silhouetted against the dusk, the black crow not flying but clutching the branch. All the while knowing that days are getting colder and darker. The fall setting provides a conceptual frame for the specific image Basho gives us, frame and figure combining to fill us with a kind of bleak chill and emptiness. The time has come to get scarves and mittens out; it will get colder and darker before spring revives us again—if spring ever comes.

 

As I have written (see Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain), metaphor is also composed of two parts, the subject or tenor and the predicate or vehicle. The vehicle qualifies the tenor so we see it in a way that expresses our feeling toward a particular event. Haiku set up similar mutual interactions between their major parts, but not through equivalency or comparison. In this case, the image of branch and crow gives substance to the conceptual frame provided by knowing it is not only autumn but also late in the day. Yes, the two parts complement each other, reinforcing our understanding through reference to what we can see with our own eyes. The result is a feeling that is not actually conveyed by the language of the poem. Nowhere do words like sadness or gloom and doom appear to suggest foreboding at the approach of death—but we feel their chill nonetheless. Basho has taken us straight inside his conscious mind, without telling us in so many words what he wants us to feel.

 

Example B.          June rain

hollyhocks stare

where the sun should be

 

Phototropic hollyhocks turn with the sun. Even in the rain, they still follow the brightest part of the sky. Hollyhocks in the rain serve as the vehicle of this poem, the concrete image pointing to the subject or tenor, which can’t be shown at all because the sky is overcast. “Where the sun should be” is an idea, not a sensory image. Putting the image together with that idea, consciousness creates a sense of yearning for, or being faithful to, a desired presence that, in this case, is denied. This haiku is not about beautiful flowers but behavior dedicated to one who is absent, as the mind of the beloved is filled with thoughts of her lover so that she carries on in fond and familiar ways while he is away.

 

Example C.          old pond—

a frog leaps in

water sound

 

This is probably the most famous poem in the world, and also the most underappreciated to the extent of seeming trivial. An old pond is a venerable aspect of nature. A frog is best known by its croak in the night. Here “water sound” is ambiguous, but certainly results from the frog leaping into the pond, which swallows it in one gulp. The tenor of this haiku is not the pond itself but the frog leaping into it. The concrete vehicle is the sound emanating from that unremarkable event—not a rude croak as expected but the subtle slip of a lithe body merging with its element. The surprise of that sound unifies the poem in a wholly suitable manner that the reader does not anticipate. Like the punch line of a joke, it shocks while at the same time fulfilling the expectations aroused by the situation—a frog by a pond.

 

Example D.          coolness

the clean lines

of the wild pine

 

Here again, image and idea combine in arousing a feeling within us. In this case an appreciation for the spare but elegant simplicity of the wild pine (as opposed to the domesticated form of a stunted pine in a pot) as viewed at a particular time of year when it stands apart from more complex deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. The tenor-subject is the concept of coolness in the fall; the vehicle-predicate the sensory image of a free-growing pine sharpened by consciousness to emphasize the uncluttered outlines of branches and stem. The surprise comes from applying a visual image as the avatar or physical incarnation of a season noted for declining temperatures. It’s not winter—yet, but rapid changes are taking place in the landscape of conscious expectations. The pine comes into its own as temperatures fall. Which comes as an abrupt revelation to the poet passing along the road through the forest.

 

Haiku use figurative language to convey aspects of consciousness that cannot be told in conventional terms. Their meaning is more to be sensed or felt than declared in so many words. Like metaphors, haiku thrive on the relationship between sensory images and conceptual memory, combining the two to convey the power of the ineffable. Where metaphors achieve coherence through implied similarities, haiku rely on simple juxtaposition to bring images and ideas into unity.

 

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Reflection 12: Doubt

October 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Doubt is a state of mind that brackets or holds in suspension an item of belief. [Is that so?] [Do you expect me to believe that?] [Really?] By decoupling the flow of sensory images from the flow of concepts or ideas that accompany them, doubt disrupts the normal cohesiveness of consciousness. This either baulks consciousness, or perhaps draws attention to the coupling itself, which is usually accomplished out of awareness. Understanding is interrupted, creating a state of either not knowing or curiosity. If the latter, consciousness can then shift into overdrive.

 

The drive to understand what sensory phenomena mean is one of the most basic motivators of consciousness, learning, memory, and behavior. When I wrote a book* about hiking the trails of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island (where I live), I always wanted to find out what lay beyond the next bend or over the rise after that. Not merely what was there, but what it meant in relation to what I already knew. I kept transcending the known world—the landscape I was familiar with—in order to incorporate the unknown into the big picture I was sketching out in my mind. For three years in the 1990s, that was my fundamental mode of existence. Pushing ahead. Exploring. Expanding my awareness. Going beyond my current understanding.

 

Essentially, I lived in a state of eternal curiosity, doubt, and questioning. For me it was a great adventure. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always lived like that. I was born with a question on my lips: What next? I will die the same way: What next? In between, I have always questioned my own experience, doubting that I could take it at face value but had to delve behind the obvious, sensory presentation to discover what it might mean. I studied science, the humanities, the arts, education, trying to stand under and support my sensory experience with what it all meant. Here is a paragraph—one long sentence, really—from my essay on hiking the trails of Beech Mountain in Acadia:

 

Picture the hulking naturalist on an Acadian mountain ridge, hunkered down, peering back and forth through bifocals between wildflower guide and puzzling bloom on its midget stem, unable to describe what he thinks he sees in terms the guide will accept, guide holding back the sought-after name until the description is more precise, blackflies looking on at first, then mobbing, then going in for the kill, the naturalist hitting back between swings of attention between book and bloom, bloom and book, blackflies persisting, book resisting, bloom bobbing in the wind, naturalist sticking it out for twenty minutes, then, no wiser than before, fleeing for his life.

 

My effort at making the blossom meaningful was frustrated by my failure to find the proper category to place it in. Now I conceive of that bloom as an example of pale corydalis (C. sempervirens, a member of the poppy family). That is its meaning, its place in the taxonomy of world flowers. But then I knew only its visual aspects of size, shape, color, so could not fit it into my conceptual understanding. Without the name of that concept, it was anonymous as far as I was concerned, and didn’t have a place in my edition of the known world.

 

We generate concepts in our minds through repeated presentations in our experience such that the unique details of any one presentation fall away, leaving only the common features to persist in memory as an abstract remnant. That summary is then given a label or name and filed away for future reference. When I come across the bloom again as a concrete phenomenon in my sensory experience, the concept is there waiting for it, so I am apt to see the concept and not the richly detailed flower itself. This is a kind of shorthand the brain uses to get the most from memory at minimal cost of effort and storage space. The result is we tend to see conceptually or categorically while glossing over the infinitely varied details of what is in front of us.

 

Matching current sensory images to categories stored in memory is one of the fundamental features of consciousness. Doubt, curiosity, and questioning indicate we are having trouble fitting a sensory event to the proper bin in memory and need help with our sorting, as I did in the example above of trying to identify a flower.

 

When scientists think they have fit a class of sensory phenomena to an appropriate category in their understanding, they invite other scientists to duplicate the journey that led them to that conclusion, so to see if both projects produce the same results. If they do, that suggests that they are dealing with a stable representation of a state of affairs in the world and not merely a figment in personal consciousness. Scientists pursue understanding of repeatable phenomena, not one-time events. This leads to concise explanations for, or descriptions of, phenomena in their collective experience, which then are taken as meaningful when viewed from a scientific perspective.

 

The scientific method is one way of dealing with uncertainty. My footloose explorations in Acadia are another. Finding out what others think, asking questions, inquiring of a reference librarian—these are other ways. Or, we can opt to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, and a host of unanswered questions. Once, as a Cub Scout, I was getting ready to enter my chickens in a pet show when my big brother banged my head against the floor and knocked me out. When I came to, I asked, “What am I doing in this uniform?” I have since wondered if members of the military have ever had occasion to clear that up for themselves.

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* Acadia: The Soul of a National Park, formerly distributed by North Atlantic Books, now out of print.

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