490. It May Seem Hokey

April 22, 2015

Life is not a given or a right; it is a process of building ourselves to our own specifications. And supporting others in building themselves to their specifications, not ours.

I am thinking of the life process as an opportunity for engaging the world around us, and inviting that world to engage us as we go. That way, both self and its world meet their respective requirements by making adjustments for the situations that come up along the way.

So do we grow into ourselves, by adjusting our steps to current conditions, here leaping hummock-to-hummock, there by stepping carefully stone-to-stone, crossing rivers when we come to them by whatever means we can devise while staying in touch with our minds and surroundings, engaging them, inviting them to engage us.

All that wrapped in one mental process that guides us on our way—that’s what I mean by mindfaring. Each finding and going her own way, as driven by a life force as a personal prime mover. Creating a sort of engagement based on an attitude encompassing both equality and fairness for all who go with us in our time and place. An attitude that promotes sharing, taking turns, and striving out of respect, along with a sense of personal responsibility for everything we contribute to a particular engagement.

That’s the state of mind I’ve come to by writing this blog up to this point. I did not have plans to say what I have just written. The words have flowed from the situations I’ve worked myself into day-after-day, from the day I started out until this minute, today.

I am a creature of this very moment. A creature with a past, yes, but building toward a future that will be an extension of the journey I have made so far. That is the upshot of what I now refer to as mindfaring, the process of living life with an attitude of trust, intelligence, interest, curiosity, adventure, openness to what happens, and striving to go beyond that.

Since all learning is essentially self-learning, mindfaring comes down to learning about self while being mindful of others. Other people, other creatures, other ways, other things, other ideas, other universes unto themselves.

What I’ve just put before your eyes is an example of the thought process I’ve been going through in real time in synchrony with my fingers typing on the keyboard of my computer. It may seem hokey that the word I was searching for was based on a word (wayfaring) I’ve been using all along, but the point is that my usage was based on a nonverbal kernel of thought, not the actual word, which I was using intuitively without a definition in mind beyond the cluster of felt meanings that I have suggested.

What I’ve been doing is putting legs under that kernel to give it a particular kind of flexibility and mobility in the situation I found myself in during the process of trying to depict the state of mind that has been driving this blog all along. The process of inner discovery I’ve put before you is what I’ve been getting at in trying to describe the workings of my mind.

So there you have it, Exhibit A of my mind engaging with itself in as concise a summary of self-reflection as I can put into words.

Mindfaring, I discover, requires engaging yourself and your surroundings at the same time. It is simultaneous an opening-to and a taking-in. In that sense, it means truly connecting with the world beyond your bodily perimeter while also connecting with your inner self.

The trick to engaging is being both attentive and purposeful at the same time. Attentive to what you are perceiving and purposeful in what you are doing. That way you set up a continuous loop of engagement so that input affects output, and output affects input, your situated intelligence and judgment in the middle position maintaining an exciting and effective relationship between the incoming and outgoing parts of your mind.

By my black box metaphor, engagement is told by both input and output terminals being active together in real time, not by matching set responses to signals coming in.

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Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.