If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only tool is a gun, every stranger looks like an enemy. If your only tool is faith, every cause looks like God.

These are the wages of consciousness. What we’re seeing is not the real world but the world puzzle as we solve it day-by-day with the primary tool available inside our black boxes, our fallible human mind.

We do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed under the conditions that prevail at the time.

The problem being that once we’ve solved the world problem, we consider it solved for all time. That is, we elevate our personal convictions to the realm of knowledge describing the world as it truly is.

But an idea in the mind is a glimmer that shines in our eyes like a beacon of truth. Actually, it’s a guess or hypothesis that seemed like a good idea at the time. If it’s truth we’re after, not just operative truth, then follow-through and reconsideration are all important. Our primary tool of mind is more like trial and error or successive approximation than sudden revelation.

And from the vantage point inside our black boxes, that is a hard lesson to learn. We make a benefit of any doubt that we have so that, as it turns out, no White jury will ever convict a White police officer of needlessly killing a Black man.

Scientists speak of the brain as an information processor that operates by computations based on data, as if the brain were actually the precision machine they want it to turn out to be. But that is just their way of casting their beliefs ahead of them, so guiding their search for understanding from behind the shelter of their living convictions instead of what may lie before them in the shadow of their uncertainty.

All of what I have written so far in this post says far more about how the mind works than how we want it to work. Whenever a new metaphor for a wondrous machine become available, it becomes the rage of the hour for explaining how consciousness works as a function of an orderly brain. People earnestly propose the mind in terms of clockworks, quantum theory, holograms, or the staid conventions of the scientific method—in every case mistaking the tool at hand for the solution they seek.

My approach is different. I start with my mind as it presents itself to me, and take its folly seriously enough to wonder why it should work in that way. My only method is to pay attention to everything my mind does. Incidents of mistaken belief pile up; questions accrue, my answer file stays empty. My own mind remains a mystery. Which I keep poking and probing with everyday incidents of lived experience.

I don’t play the games of peer review or publish-or-perish. Truth is, I am going to perish anyway, no matter what I come up with. Rather, I take my time, waiting on my mind to reveal itself to me in new ways. Which, when my files are stuffed, it does, offering a response to the whole of my uncertainty all at once, not one bit at a time.

So here I sit at my computer while trying to clear the walk of ice and snow, cook breakfast, and work on my blog simultaneously—because my mind is working on three problems at once. I am only its recording secretary, so I do the best I can to keep up with it. Oops, the egg is getting overdone. . . .

Back and forth I run between walkway, kitchen, bedroom (where my computer happens to be), on a roll because my mind won’t let me alone after I awoke well-rested and ready to do what I’m told.

I’ve been living with my mind for eighty-two years, and respectfully scrutinizing it for the last thirty-seven, so I’m starting to get clear on a number of issues all at once. I wouldn’t say it’s an additive process so much as an all-hands-on-deck process that shares what’s going on with all concerned.

My first method was to keep notes on a yellow pad with pen or pencil. But as soon as I wrote something, I’d want to change it with an insertion or correction, so very quickly I became unable to read my snarled notes. What to do? I turned to a typewriter, which I thought would be neater. But the urge to make changes persisted, so I wrote one draft of a paragraph after another, and page-by-page, my neat record of my thought became gibberish.

The word-processor on my computer helped me produce cleaner copy because I could cut and paste-over what I had written. Then I thought of having a small, selected audience of true believers to keep me on my writing toes, so started a blog—this very one on WordPress in 2008, Consciousness: The Inside Story. That effort led to two self-published books meant to summarize what I’d written so far, and a couple of Acadia Senior College classes based on those books.

But my thinking on trying to understand my own mind was always a work in progress, so as soon as I reached another stage, I’d want to change and expand it. Last year I wrote down my thoughts on consciousness in an article one-hundred-and-forty pages long, which I set up a new Website to host. But seeing my summary on the Web, I saw it was still gibberish, so went black to blogging the material contained in that piece in small chunks.

And that is where I am today. The challenge will never end. I will die a work-in-progress. Thinking about consciousness, or my consciousness thinking about me, either way, I’ll never reach a tidy conclusion. Too many problems; too many suggested answers.

Consciousness is what it is, different in each instance, and I’ll never get it down on paper or in digital form.

Consciousness is a way of life for each one of us. I’ll never get to the bottom of it because its bottom is leaky and runs into everything else. But I will never wallow in that psychic slough of despond. At least I’ve made it this far, and have learned a good deal, if not all there is to know.

I’ve been thinking of retiring from this long search and enjoying what time I have left on the coast of Maine, which for me is the center of my little universe. I’m almost to the end of the discussion and conclusion sections of this blog. When those last posts are done, I don’t think I’ll turn around and go over the same material in yet a new way. Enough, already.

But the issues I raised at the start of this post on the wages of consciousness still weigh on my mind. To kill in the name of racial or religious belief is a heinous crime. Conscious conviction plays a central role in every such death. To kill for an idea in the mind is absurd, no matter how lofty, beautifully crafted, or convincing.

So there’s still a mountain of work for humans to do in not only understanding, but civilizing their own minds. I’d like to think I could become part of the solution, and I suspect that such thoughts will occupy me as I take my ease in the land of my dreams here on Earth—even as the North Atlantic rises ever higher against this section of coast.

(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.