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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Embracing all the ways of the human world, “culture” labels a concept so large and abstract that it has room for almost any idea, construct, behavior, object, or institution we can imagine being projected outward from the collective human mind onto the natural world. Pizza is an aspect of culture, as is a school bus, AK-47, hula hoop, an abacus, the Eifel Tower, and religious strife in the Middle East.

Reduced to a metaphor, culture has many faces. It can be seen as:

  • A people’s collective human agenda writ large on the Earth.
  • The façade we erect to make nature acceptable to us.
  • The mask we force nature to wear in our presence to reshape its looks to our liking.
  • The great mirror we put up to reflect our personal likes and dislikes as if they were features of the world.
  • The wall we build around ourselves to keep the wild world at bay.
  • The stage set we prefer to our natural setting.
  • The human context we are born to, including its language, vocabulary, reference libraries, statistics, artifacts, histories, wars, arts, sciences, ideas, monuments, communication media, ways of getting about, trade routes, and all the rest.

Think Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam, Suez Canal, Stonehenge, The Koran, Bible, Sayings of Confucius. Songs of Woody Guthrie. Beethoven string quartets. Our courts and penal system. Cosmology through the ages. Be sure to include Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and the legislative stalemate in Washington.

Culture is nothing less than the public forum where we engage throughout our lives, the stage where we each give our personal performance. We ought to know, we built it ourselves. Not the original, but the one we keep running in good order with daily contributions of our collected dreams, needs, and desires. In that sense, culture is a reification (thingification) of our thoughts, imaginings, hopes, fears, and all the rest of the contents of our personal black boxes.

When we were infants, the then culture of our birth family calibrated our inner workings in the terms we would grow into and live by for the rest of our lives. It gave us a repertory of numbers, letters, words, gestures, symbols, songs, poems, stories, behaviors, lies, and beliefs useful in describing our inner thoughts and situations.

Now that we are older and know the ropes, we give back in kind to keep the show going for the next generation, modified to slight degree by the gleanings of our cumulative personal experience. As adults, the whole thing is now our intellectual property because we’ve given it nothing less than our perceptions, meanings, judgments, actions, and engagements, all adding up to nothing less than our inner lives turned inside-out.

I remember being told that I was born in Faxton Memorial Hospital in Utica, New York, in the dark days of The Depression in 1932. That puts the culture I was born to in Upstate New York during days of high unemployment. One of the primary goals people had in that place and time was, if not getting “ahead,” at least holding their own. I was given tests in school to see how I would measure-up at getting a good job. Which was seen as something called my “intelligence.”

Nobody could tell me what that word meant, but it seemed to imply how smart I was in terms of doing well on the test, and perhaps beyond that, doing well in life. Cultures do a lot of that—gauging how well young people can expect to fit into the beliefs of their particular segment of humanity. Which often turns out to be a kind of superstition that such tests actually measure a meaningful mental quality that individuals are said to possess in varying amounts.

So here I am today, a grown-up child of that upstate culture, writing about “situated intelligence” as if I knew what it meant. It is only fair that I share that understanding with anyone who happens to read these words.

I use situated intelligence in referring to the key link between perception and action in individual human minds. In my last post (Reflection 427), I wrote, “Consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.” I see situated intelligence as the agent responsible in each of us for making such judgments and decisions regarding how to respond to any particular situation as based on the configuration of a great many dimensions contributing to the nature of just that situation.

As I now see it, personal intelligence responds to three Questions. Perception, I have said, gives our best answer to the question, “What’s going on?” from our point of view at that moment. Judgment answers the question, “What does that mean in my case?” With action following on to give the answer to, “What should I do?”

As I see it, our intelligence plays the central role in coming up with answers to those questions in order, so linking perception of ongoing events to actions meant as an appropriate response to those same events. What I call situated intelligence serves as the mediating agent that routes incoming signals toward outgoing actions in a meaningful way.

That link, in other words, is the central focus of what I call our loops of engagement with selected aspects of our external environments, enabling us to fit our behaviors to the situations we find ourselves in as best we can figure out what they are.

The several dimensions of consciousness constituting the situation that we feel we are in include sensory impressions, remembrance of similar situations in the past, emotions, values, imagination, understanding, humor, life force (available energy), ideas, thoughts, attitudes, excitement, interest, curiosity, among other constituents of inner awareness. That particular situation is our judgment of what all those dimensions mean or add up to, allowing us to choose the behavioral option that best serves our amalgamated interests at the moment.

That is what I mean by situated intelligence in developing these posts to my blog.

My thought is that my ongoing engagement with my surroundings is run by my intelligence as the agent designated to provide just that service. That agent is who I am. It is not a little man in my head, it is no one else but myself, agent-in-charge of matching my perceptions to actions intended to promote my personal well-being.

That is my conclusion after considering my many engagements on the cultural level of my lifelong experience. My experience is embedded in the particular culture that has calibrated my mind from the first minutes after my birth eighty-two years ago.

I am not making this up out of my head. I am actively engaged with the culture that has enveloped me every moment of my life. This is a long-lasting, team project for which I happen to be the primary spokesperson from an introspective point of view. Other than serving in that capacity, I have nothing else to offer. I have no choice. I am committed to being myself, my very own situated intelligence, until my last minute of conscious life as shaped by the culture I was born to.

These days, technologists seem to believe that intelligence is one mental property applicable across the spectrum of all imaginable problems as if our know-how were somehow universal, but that can’t be the case. Beethoven being Beethoven, he did not propose a theory of general relativity, and Einstein being Einstein didn’t compose nine world-famous symphonies.

Machines will never possess universal experience, which is why I believe they will never fulfill the expectations of earnest engineers who maintain otherwise.

In humans, intelligence is called for by the situation an individual faces under the conditions that prevail in her experience at that moment. There is a rhinoceros in the road ahead; My best friend died of cancer; My ice cream fell out of the cone and is now a splat in the road. Such a situation has many (what I call) dimensions such as affect, values, understanding, precedents, judgment, meaning, motivation, relevant memories, confidence, humor, temperament, integrity, coherence, priorities, beliefs, imagination, and so on.

No two experiential moments contain the same mix or proportion of such conditions. Each is subjectively unique, so must be dealt with as it is constituted this time around.

Watch a baseball game and you will know what I mean. No two instants have the same constitution. Each must be dealt with under the pressures that develop on the spot. Given that eighteen individual players grouped into two teams are playing off against each other for nine innings of alternately playing offense and defense, the possibilities are infinitely variable. Which is why fans face each game with hope that this time their team will win.

The same is true for each game of cribbage, chess, golf—and for everything else people concentrate on over time. Intelligence exists on a variable scale. It is composed of myriad dimensions arrayed differently in each situation as it develops.

Can any manmade machine even mimic the diverse forms of intelligence it takes for one person just to get through one hour of one day? Machines may be able to master routine tasks, but when in life is a routine performance good enough?

Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

While mounting my photovoltaic panel, I notice wasps hovering around the end of a bough on a nearby spruce, apparently attracted by gleaming drops exuded from its tip. In the grass eight feet below, a smooth green snake eyes the wasps, taking in the scene. I go about my business, but look up ten minutes later to see the snake sliding along that same branch. Stealthily, inch-by-inch, toward the tip and the hovering wasps. Slowly, almost not moving, it extends its body beyond the end into the air, drooping slightly as if part of the bough, as if its nose—its mouth—were the tip. There it waits. And waits. But the wasps have gone elsewhere. I run and get my camera to document what I have seen with my own eyes.

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

Can I ascribe consciousness, planning, even intelligence to a snake on the basis of such an anecdote? Watching from below, seeing the wasps, climbing the trunk, venturing onto a limb, sliding its length to the end, hanging beyond the tip—this is not random activity. It is clearly deliberate. Each move made in proper sequence. At some point the snake must have put it all together as a plan of action. It had motivation and a clear goal: the wasps were there and it wanted to eat them. It had the smarts to figure out the route to take and what it had to do in order to bring that about. I am sorely tempted to say this is conscious behavior. The only flaw was that the wasps were too wary for the snake.

 

Snake consciousness? Wasp consciousness? Or can such behaviors be fully accounted for by hard-wired, unconscious reflexes? In the case of the wasp, perhaps, but the snake fully grasped the situation before it acted. It had the imagination to draft a plan extending the now into the future, and the follow-through to execute it. Which took time. Memory must have been involved. Situational memory encompassing goal, motive, participants, route, complex course of action, all unified by seeing the world from its point of view.

 

I have seen similar performances in raspberry bushes where insects were drawn by ripe fruit, the snake waiting in the shadows of leaves farther back. Is that necessarily conscious behavior? Does the predator have a sense of what it must do to capture its prey? Or does it simply rely on the equipment it is given to do its thing? Is the frog aware of turning its head toward the fly, of lashing out with its tongue? Frogs and snakes survive only in the presence of suitable prey. The habitat may be the message, all else following as a matter of course.

 

That may be true in the case of the frog, but the case of the wasp-seeking snake is more complicated. If the wasps wouldn’t come to the snake, the snake figured out it would have to go to the wasps. Was the process of “figuring out” similar to what we would call consciousness? It was certainly situational from the snake’s point of view, which took into account its size, capabilities, motives, habitat, and goal. Consciously or not, all that figured in the snake’s behavior, which appears to have been visualized and planned beforehand while it watched from its vantage point in the grass. And then retained as it executed its moves in proper sequence.

 

The first move was to turn away from the wasps toward the base of the tree. Then to climb up the stem of the tree. Only when it turned onto the particular branch leading to where the wasps were when seen from the ground did it face toward its prey. Reflexes are instantaneous; they cannot account for these complex, time-consuming maneuvers. The snake apparently operated within a three-dimensional model in its head, and monitored its position within that space, which became ever more charged with meaning as it neared the end of the bough.

 

Many people accept that (like apes, monkeys, and humans) birds, deer, dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other animals have a mental sense of the territory which provides for and sustains them. But snakes? I am here to extend such a sense to them. I see the workings of the vertebrate hippocampus in their case as well. I see no compelling reason to believe that the wasp-seeking snake I witnessed was not conscious of its surroundings or its own actions. Until proven wrong, I will count snakes among the ranks of conscious beings, entitled to all the privileges such membership implies.

 

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